Christmas Day

Ethiopian Orthodox Church icon of the Nativity

Merry Christmas! Christ is born! Joy to the world!

On this glorious day for Christians everywhere, the following are the lectionary readings for today. I suggest reading them aloud – with flavor – alongside your family and friends. May you find in the Christ child newfound hope and enduring encouragement.

Old Testament lesson: Isaiah 62:6-12

Upon your walls, Jerusalem,
    I have appointed sentinels.
Continually, all day and all night,
    they won’t keep silent.
You who call on the Lord, don’t rest,
    and don’t allow God to rest
    until he establishes Jerusalem,
    and makes it the praise of the earth.
The Lord has promised
    with raised hand and strong arm:
    I will never again give your grain
    as food for your enemies.
    Foreigners won’t drink your wine
    for which you labored.
Those who harvest will eat it
    and will praise the Lord;
    those who gather will drink it
    in my holy courtyards.

Pass through, pass through the gates;
    prepare the way for the people!
Build, build the road;
    clear away the stones!
    Raise up a signal for the peoples.
This is what the Lord announced
    to the earth’s distant regions:
Say to Daughter Zion, “Look! Your deliverer arrives,
    bringing reward and payment!”
They will be called The Holy People,
    Redeemed By the Lord.
And you will be called Sought After—
    A City That Is Not Abandoned. (Common English Bible)

Psalm lesson: Psalm 97

The Lord rules! Let the earth rejoice!
    Let all the islands celebrate!
Clouds and thick darkness surround God.
    His throne is built on righteousness and justice.
Fire proceeds before him,
    burning up his enemies on every side.
His lightning lights up the world;
    the earth sees it and trembles!
The mountains melt like wax before the Lord,
    before the Lord of the whole world!

Heaven has proclaimed God’s righteousness,
    and all nations have seen his glory.
All those who worship images,
    those who are proud of idols,
    are put to shame.
    All gods bow down to the Lord!
Zion has heard and celebrates,
    the towns of Judah rejoice,
    because of your acts of justice, Lord,
    because you, Lord, are the Most High
        over all the earth,
    because you are so superior to all other gods.

Those of you who love the Lord, hate evil!
    God guards the lives of his faithful ones,
    delivering them from the power of the wicked.
Light is planted like seed for the righteous person;
    joy too for those whose heart is right.
Rejoice in the Lord, righteous ones!
    Give thanks to his holy name! (Common English Bible)

Nativity by Chinese artist He Qi, 1998

New Testament lesson: Titus 3:4-7

God our Savior showed us
    how good and kind he is.
He saved us because
    of his mercy,
and not because
of any good things
    that we have done.

God washed us by the power
    of the Holy Spirit.
He gave us new birth
    and a fresh beginning.
God sent Jesus Christ
our Savior
    to give us his Spirit.

Jesus treated us much better
    than we deserve.
He made us acceptable to God
and gave us the hope
    of eternal life. (Contemporary English Version)

Gospel lesson: Luke 2:8-20

Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, 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,
And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”

So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them. (New King James Version)

May the joy of the angels, the eagerness of the shepherds, the perseverance of the wise, the obedience of Joseph and Mary, and the peace of the Christ child be yours this Christmas. And may the blessing of God almighty – Father, Son, and Spirit – be among you and remain with you always. Amen.

Luke 2:1-20 – The Sound of Salvation

Host of Angels by Mike Moyers

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.

So, Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

So, they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. (New International Version)

Out of all the sounds of the season, the best of all is the sound of salvation.

The Sound of Activity

The Roman census brought a crowd of people to small village of Bethlehem. Because most were related to one another, it was like one big family reunion. There was lots of noise, with people talking, laughing, and sleeping.

We are a busy society and a busy people. The Christmas season only seems to exacerbate our busy-ness. Jesus can get lost in all the noise. We can miss the point of it all because of our preoccupations with all those seemingly necessary things in our lives. And it can be hard to hear and to listen to God. The sound of activity eventually needs to give way to another sound….

The Sound of Silence

Bethlehem was so busy that no one paid attention to the most cataclysmic event ever to take place. But out in the fields, all was quiet. The shepherds were there, quietly watching over their sheep. In the silence, they were able to experience the sound of good news.

Like a good pot of tea, we must allow the Word of God to seep in us, allowing the heat to do its work so that we might listen well to the divine voice. If we come at the Word with a cold heart, it will likely not do us a lot of good – we need to be hot and receive the Word with humility and respond to the Word with wisdom. As we allow God to seep in us, we become acutely aware of a beautiful sound….

The Sound of Joy

The shepherds heard good news of great joy from the angels. And then they shared their joy and went to worship the newborn Christ. It was a great celebration. After all, how often do a multitude of angels show up with an unsolicited concert of joy!?

We can imagine the sound of the shepherds’ unbounded joy at hearing the good news that the promised Savior has come! They just had to go and see Jesus, and then told everyone about it. And all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.

There’s nothing quite like hearing good news, then sharing good news. Sadly, however, the story does not end there because not everyone was happy about Jesus being born as the King….

The Sound of Crying

King Herod saw Jesus as a potential rival, and he callously had every baby boy in Bethlehem killed when he found out the news. (Matthew 2:1-18)

We must keep in mind that not everyone is joyous at Christmas. Past grief associated with the holiday season can make it difficult to participate in the celebration. So, we need to be aware of the lamenting folks around us and hear their sad crying so that we can be agents of comfort and grace.

And let us also not forget, another sound of crying is the baby Jesus. Yes, he really cried. Jesus is truly human with all the sounds and experiences that go with being human. (Hebrews 2:10-17)

Conclusion

The sounds of activity, silence, joy, and crying are all part of Christmas and the birth of Jesus. To truly experience a full-orbed Christian spirituality, we will pay attention to the range of sounds occurring around us at this time of year.

Eternal God, who breathed this world into being, and placed stars into the heavens: You are the God who entrusted Jesus to the care of ordinary people, becoming vulnerable so that we might know the power of Love – a mystery so deep it is impossible to grasp, and so beautiful it is impossible to ignore.

Circle us, Lord, with the light of your presence, bright within this dark world. Enable us to be overcomers of fear and temptation, and victors over sin and despair. Circle this world with the joy of your salvation. Where there is sickness and disease, bring healing. Where there is hunger and despair, bring hope. Where there is bondage, bring freedom. Lord of our salvation, circle this world with the light of your presence. Amen.

Romans 8:18-30 – Anticipating Hope

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hopethat the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope, we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. (New Revised Standard Version)

Christians everywhere are presently anticipating the Nativity of the Lord, the birth of the Christ child. Not only Christians, but all people anticipate better days, hoping that during this season of goodwill that basic human kindness will be prolific and extend into the new year.

The brokenness of the world is dominated by disease and dissent. As of this writing, well over five million people have died worldwide due to COVID-19. I myself have attended dozens of those deaths. The grief, not only of losing a loved one, but many of them dying alone, is palpable.

If that weren’t bad enough, disease has become a political game. While there are currently two-hundred fifty million people infected with some strain of the coronavirus, far too many without the disease are using it to posture and position for their shortsighted rights.

And I haven’t even mentioned the hundreds of other world and national problems, beset with such a cacophony of dissenting voices bickering at one another, that innocent lives get ruined or lost. Who will rescue us from this body of death?

“The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Thanks be to God. There is an intervention. Hope is imminent. A star rises in the east. A leader is to be born – one who is deeply concerned for the common good of all people – one who will rule with equity and justice.

The believer’s salvation, in a gestation period of anticipation, is nearly full term. Expectation, patience, joy, and pain are part of the experience while we wait. Meanwhile, we must remain encouraged and healthy, keeping our future hope always in front of us so that we will not lose heart.

When injustice runs amok, and we are limited in what we can do about it, we pray. And then, there are times when we are flat on our backs, overwhelmed with our circumstances, not even able to utter any words in prayer.

Christians are awaiting their redemption. So, perseverance is needed. While waiting, it does no good to be like Eeyore and feel sorry for ourselves. Yet, on the other hand, it also does no good to always be smiling, positive, and upbeat as if nothing is worth grieving over. 

Grief and lament, hope and joy, must all be held together at the same time. Without the simultaneous embrace, we will live in abject denial – tightly gripping one hand while ignoring the other, as if we don’t have two of them.

Indeed, we live in an awkward time. Nothing is as it was, and nothing is as it should be… yet. This time of spiritual pregnancy, in which we possess salvation but do not yet possess it in all its fullness, is a weird liminal space in which we often don’t quite know what to do.

There is so much groaning going on because we realize there is such a large gap between where we are and where we want to be. If women could have babies without nine months of struggle, limitation, and pain I think they would opt for that instead of the way it is now. There is a time coming when every tear will be wiped away and unending joy will rule. No more disease. No more dissent. No more death.

All of creation groans because where it is now and where it will be seems like such a long time in coming.  Every creature and every living thing will experience decay and death. The world is not yet redeemed from its cursed bondage. So, the earth vomits disasters and diseases because we live in this fallen world that is not yet redeemed.

Humanity groans because we fall victim to circumstances beyond our control. We also groan because of our own poor choices that give us grief. Although we have been delivered from sin, death, and hell and experience spiritual power… we still must wait eagerly for the redemption of our bodies.

Yes, we are keenly aware of the terrible disconnect between where we are as people and where we want to be. It is something of feeling like Pinocchio, not yet a real boy who has to deal with strings and other puppeteers who do not care about him; and, who feels the need to lie because of his situation and pays the consequence of his nose growing.

Yet, a deeper thing is happening under the surface: Our frustrations, longings, lusts, jealousies, and escapist daydreams, things we might be ashamed of to take to prayer, are in fact already lifting our hearts and minds to God in more honest ways than we ever do consciously.

Take courage. The time is at hand.

“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.” (Luke 2:10-11, NRSV)

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward humanity.

Hebrews 8:1-13 – Deliverance through a Manger

God Is With Us, by Malaysian artist Hanna Varghese, 2006

Now the main point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by a mere human being.

Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one also to have something to offer. If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already priests who offer the gifts prescribed by the law. They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. Therefore, Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” But in fact, the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises.

For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said:

“The days are coming, declares the Lord,
    when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
    and with the people of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
    I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
    to lead them out of Egypt,
because they did not remain faithful to my covenant,
    and I turned away from them,
declares the Lord.
This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel
    after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds
    and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbor,
    or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will forgive their wickedness
    and will remember their sins no more.”

By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear. (NIV)

Our wait is nearly over. Christmas Day is almost here. The Messiah is coming. I genuinely believe that Jesus is the mid-point of history; everything for all time hinges upon Christ’s incarnation. The most cataclysmic event in the history of the world is a birth. The hopes of humanity are focused, of all things, in a stinky old feeding trough for animals – a manger.

Yes, Christians put a lot of focus on the cross and resurrection. Yet, the incarnation was the signature event of God’s breaking into this world. The inconceivable was conceived. God became human. Nothing would ever be the same again….

Nativity by African artist Joseph Mulamba-Mandangi, 2001

Jesus is our great high priest, the nexus between heaven and earth. All else are only mere shadows of the real Savior. Christ is the hinge upon which our own personal lives turn. The old system of law fades and gives way to the person for whom it all pointed. For the law, as important as it was, has never been able to save. In Christ there is a new covenant established by grace, taking care of the sin issue once for all.

Through the Christ child, all other means of deliverance have become obsolete. No matter how much he washed his hands, Pilate could not wash away his guilt. Despite all our efforts to hide or undo our shame, it will not go away. It is through Jesus that all guilt and shame have been banished. Human iniquity is taken away. All that we have done and left undone is forgiven – our sin is purged forever.

A new age has dawned. A new era has been inaugurated. The miracle of the Nativity explodes with continuing effect throughout history. Its continuing effects can still be felt, two-thousand years later. Nothing will ever undo the power of love and grace which was unleashed in the little town of Bethlehem.

Here is a clear and confident declaration to any and all in despondency or despair, no matter the reasons why: We may feel crushed, dejected, confused, or broken because of this past year’s events; but our salvation depends not on our mood or the constant changing of circumstances. Christ has offered himself once for all. The work is finished. Our faithful high priest is even now interceding for you and me in heaven.

Our faith is grounded not in our pedigree, our position, or our ability to produce but forever in what Christ has done in becoming human on our behalf. See the manger where he lies. Know that salvation is before us. Believe the promise of God.

May this eternal truth be always on our hearts:
That the God who breathed this world into being
Placed stars into the heavens
And designed a butterfly’s wing
Is the God who entrusted his life
to the care of ordinary people
became vulnerable that we might know
how strong is the power of Love
A mystery so deep it is impossible to grasp
A mystery so beautiful it is impossible to ignore.