December 24, 2018
Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:1-14(15-20)(attached)
The Reverend Mark Pruitt
Through His Own Redeeming Love
Come to us, O Lord, we pray, as the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace that you are; come to us in your manifold splendor and everlasting mercies; be born anew in us this night, that we might live, renewed by you, for your praise and glory. Amen.
Greetings! Merry Christmas! What a joy to be together, joyfully, tonight. I saw this week a Christmas card that said on the front “Happy Everything!” and I’ve been bouncing around saying that here, as some of you know, joyfully relishing in the abundance of good things that come at Christmastide--family, and gifts, and outreach, and good will, food (!), hymns and carols, with brass and timpani…. …and hoping that you’re relishing the abundance, too. Happy Everything! Then it occurred to me that it was probably intended a one-size fits all card…. good for all religions or none … Well, okay, Still, Happy Abundance! Happy Everything!
Every Christmas season, we sing a carol with these words about Christian hope: “And at last our eyes shall see him through his own redeeming love.” Through his own redeeming love. These powerful words came from the pen of a woman named Cecil Frances Alexander. “Franny” as she was known, was born in 1818 in Dublin, Ireland. She became an accomplished poet – admired by Alfred Lord Tennyson and Mark Twain – and a prolific hymn writer. She wrote over 400 hymns, many of which we still sing: All Things Bright and Beautiful (my wife’s favorite); There is a Green Hill Far Away; I Bind Unto Myself Today (she translated it); Jesus calls us over the Tumult; and the Christmas carol I mentioned to start, Once in Royal David’s City.
For some time now—decades, not years--that phrase has been for me a poignant and arresting moment in the Christmas season. And it’s something I think about and pray outside of the Christmas season, too: may Christ be seen as he truly is. . .. through his own redeeming love. Maybe because Franny Alexander was a child of the church, and a bishop’s wife, she prayed that, sang that, because familiar with church life, she knew how easy it was for preachers and teachers to reduce, or distort, or get wrong, who Jesus was. I sure do. So her words warn us not to distort Jesus. More positively, her words beckon us to see Christ – to see Jesus –coming to us as Rowan Williams once put it: on the “tide of God’s redeeming love,” and staying with us as the very form of that love that vows to never let us go.
Well, I won’t spend time on the many ways we can distort Jesus. We know how easily we can make Jesus in our image, make him a member our political party, our personality type, our kind of people. We know that. What it is my glad privilege to say to you tonight is that with God’s grace, we can, even before the Last Day of our lives, we can see him through his own redeeming love. Now. Tonight. And tomorrow. Tonight together, and tomorrow when we wake up. And for our ten thousand tomorrows. Jesus is God’s own redeeming love. And, through the eyes of faith, we can see His redeeming love, know it and trust it.
Good news. Great joy. All people. A Savior.
The words spoken by the angel to those shepherds will take us right to the heart of this love. And they help us see it as straight from God. “Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Good news. Great joy. All people. A Savior. The news is good because God is good all the way through, and it’s news we need to hear. The joy is great because it’s God taking responsibility for us, and doing something only God could do. It’s for all people, every person in every age. And its about saving grace.
These words come to us in winter, too. Whether Jesus was born in the winter, some doubt. But it’s fitting to use this word metaphorically. We all have lived through Great Lake winters. But most of us have lived through other winters, too. We know that there doesn’t have to be snow on the ground and a bitter chill in the winds for it to be winter. There are emotional winters, and relational and social winters, when we are out in the cold, alone, or marginalized. There are winters of poverty, disappointment and depression. Didn’t John Steinbeck borrow for his last novel Shakespeare’s phrase “the winter of our discontent” for his examination of the human condition in 20th century America? The gospel speaks to all of our winters.
Good News and A Great Joy
To see show this is son, come to the manger, and look with me first, in imagination, at Mary holding her baby, Jesus. In imagining this scene from long ago, we see love—deep and tender and real—flowing from Mary to her newborn. It’s natural. It’s wonderful. In our own times, of course, we’ve seen this love from mother to child again and again. . . .and we know in our hearts and in our heads that we really are made for love. I don’t need to convince you of this. Love is a mystery at the heart of our lives. When we love and are loved we flourish. When we don’t love and are not loved, our personalities and our hearts shrivel up. Love, loving well and consistently, is the Big Project—isn’t it?-- in the midst of all of our other projects. This is self-evident, which means we don’t have to convince ourselves about this with lots of arguments and reasons, so I won’t!
I’m not talking about romantic love, though that has its place. I’m talking about love which cares, which sacrifices, which is patient and kind, which is truthful and always seeks the best for the one loved. This love is not just shown in maternal love, though it is often made crystal-clear in maternal scenes like the one I began with.
Not long ago I heard a parent, an Episcopal minister, talk about how the Christmas story became clearer to him. Though he talked about the gospel for years, taught it preached it, believed it, he had an experience that brought home to him more of what we mean when we say God became incarnate. I can’t do justice to the tenor or depth of his voice, but the story went like this.For many years he got on his knees daily, praying and even weeping that his daughter might be delivered from physical and emotional conditions that had her in anguish. She eventually got better. But in those years, he said, “I would have done anything to help her. I wanted to leave my life behind, leave my body behind, and get into her head and comfort her, help her, guide her. I would have done anything to help her. But I couldn’t.”
Well, one doesn’t actually have to be a parent to feel that impulse. That willingness to do anything to help someone in distress—more than a willingness a readiness!—is not confined to parents. Children feel it for their parents. Siblings know it. And people feel if for strangers, people they don’t even know, in distress, and often make sacrifices for them. That’s the kind of love we’re talking about! God is able, unlike that father who couldn’t enter the situation of his daughter, God is able to enter our situation out of love for us. God can, and God has. This is the good news.
Make The Connection
Human love—self-evidently wonderful and essential-- gives us a hunch that love is the deep mystery of the world. But we wonder about what’s on the other side of the stars. Anything? Nothing? Impersonal Forces? Are we the products of chance? Is love fleeting…so get what you can before you die? The reality of Jesus confirms the hunch, the wish beyond all wishes, the hope we dare to hope on the basis of human love: that Love is eternal because God is love!
The history of Jesus is God helping us connect the dots between human love (real but imperfect) … with God’s love (perfect and not an illusion…and real). We don’t get this from the snapshot in the manger. That's where it begins. It’s the whole sweep of Jesus life—healing, teaching with authority, miracles, creating trust and loyalty, bearing away the sins of the world, suffering death and being raised—all of these things taken together show us that this is the love that come from ETERNITY, from the other side of the stars that came down.His life, death, and resurrection, and the testimonies he generates, will tell us that creation is not some cosmic accident, the random or chance occurrence of impersonal forces, the whole sweep of his life brings us in from the winters of doubt and agnosticism and saves us from the despair of thinking we’re a passing phenomenon.
Come to the manger and pick up in whatever winter you face now, or will face, the blanketing warmth, the sheltering presence of God’s love. This is a gift God has for you, and me, and for us. Don’t leave tonight without letting God wrap you in the good news and fill you with the great joy.
A Savior for All
But also don’t go away without unpacking the truth that Christ is FOR ALL PEOPLE…A SAVIOR. God’s love creates emotional warmth, even emotional health, I would say, like a blanket. But God is always a SAVING PRESENCE. In the history born from this night we will see:When Jesus encounters people, one by one or in groups, he pushes aside all worldly difference and treats them equally in this way: He delivers the word of God, with the authority of God, to all. He guides people into truth. Race, class, gender, religion, tribe. Butcher, baker, candlestick maker. Kings living high or paupers in the gutters. Worldly status doesn’t matter to Jesus. He comes without scorn, without envy, without any evidence of an attitude of “what’s in it for me”? and he speaks and acts to restore each person to right relationship with God. Each person and group is given a taste of God’s redemptive love. Why? Because each creature of God is “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139.14) and each one of us (Ephesians 2.10) “is God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for good works.” Because he says, “I have come to seek and save the lost.” (Luke 19.10)
All of this is getting ahead of the story, but you see, this is how we know that love of Christ and the love God is not a pat on the head, not a Hallmark Card kind of thing, not wishful thinking or whistling in the dark, mere sentiment that might vanish under pressure. No, it’s love that has an indestructible quality to it. Indestructible because it’s of God. When we pay attention to the whole scope of his life, that’s how we see him through his own redeeming love. Good news. Great joy. For all people. A savior.
So, I have no rousing command for you this night, except to ask you to let the reality of Christ be what holds you and what moves you. I won’t even make announcements as we usually do after the Peace. You’ll have to read the materials later to find out what is next on the calendar. This is a time to embrace the one embracing you. This is the time to turn to the God who has powerfully turned to us, whose love came down then, comes down now, always as good news, always of a great joy, always to save, always for all. Amen.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
"Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"