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.

Isaiah 11:1-9 – A Vision of Hope and Peace

The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks, 1826

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
    or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
    with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
    and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
    and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
    on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea. (New International Version)

In some quarters of Christianity, the church exists as a mere stump of its former existence. In many Christians’ daily experience the Spirit has been supplanted by individual ingenuity, hard work, and getting ahead through accumulation of more and more. Basic Christian spirituality is a mere shadow of its former influence. If Christians desire the Spirit of the Lord to rest upon them, they will seek Christ as of foremost importance.  

Indeed, it is when we are worn down to a stump and have no ability to grow or sustain life anymore that God enters, specializing in giving hope to the hopeless, justice for the poor, wisdom to the confused, and peace to all who desire a harmonious world.

In the awful feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, a faint sign of life can be seen. A fresh shoot becomes discernible. Could there be possibility amidst impossible circumstances? Can there be life again? Do I dare hope again? Will things really change, and do so for the better?

The answer is “yes.” For where the Spirit of the Lord blows there is the force of resurrection power, spiritual energy, and fresh courage. Where others see only the impossible, the believer has a capacity of faith to see the possible. The Spirit’s force generates possibility where none existed before. When the breath of God whispers to the sprout in the stump, pessimistic despair turns to optimistic hope, even joy.

Christ is the Christian’s hope. In Christ, there is security, well-being, and life. With Jesus, there is a vision of justice in which all persons receive what they need to live, thrive, and flourish in God’s world. Christ works for our benefit without the personal greed and indifference of so many earthly rulers. The weak and vulnerable have a champion in Jesus Christ. Renewal and restoration are possibilities.

I have taken a liking to a show called “The Repair Shop,” a British television series in which family heirlooms with sentimental value are restored by experts for their owners. What captivates me about the show is how a few people can take old broken-down items (and by all appearances now a piece of junk) and restore them to their once glorious newness.

Yet, there is more to my captivation. I am struck by the sheer pleasure the restorers take in handling the old object, enjoying the process. Just by the looks on their faces, I can tell they consider it a privilege to be restoring a precious object of the past.

I am sure this is precisely how God feels with us. Rather than envisioning the Lord as some reluctant deity who feels put out with having to rescue a bunch of dumb and wayward people, God is One who takes delight in taking this old stump of fallen damaged humanity and restoring people to their original luster and beauty.

Transformation is God’s specialty, and the Lord goes about the process of restoration with great care and delight.

The Peaceable Kingdom by Malcah Zeldis

The impossible possibility of God’s new creation is poetically described in Isaiah as the peaceful co-existence of animals who are inconceivably together without fear or violence. There is a time coming when death will be no more, and so, the necessity in this life of hunter and prey will be forever negated. No more snakes terrorizing women and children. No more big fishes eating little ones. No more human fat cats preying upon and striking poison on the small and vulnerable.

The presence of the godly Ruler means the world will be governed rightly, detoxified of its sinful impurities – a place where the poor, the weak, and the little lambs will indeed be safe and secure forever. There will be peace because of the Prince of Peace. All creation will be full of God, and so, free of all malice.

Isaiah envisions a deep, radical, limitless transformation in which there will be no more desire to injure another; no need to dominate another; and no motive for selfish power over others.

The Lord will bring about a metamorphosis of human hearts and institutions, a renovation of the animal kingdom, and a radical change down to every blade of grass in creation. The Apostle Paul had this grand prophetic vision of God in mind when he wrote to the Church at Rome:

I believe that the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us. The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters. Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice—it was the choice of the one who subjected it—but in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children. We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now. And it’s not only the creation. We ourselves who have the Spirit as the first crop of the harvest also groan inside as we wait to be adopted and for our bodies to be set free. We were saved in hope. If we see what we hope for, that isn’t hope. Who hopes for what they already see? But if we hope for what we don’t see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:18-25, CEB)

The implication for us as humanity was voiced by Paul to the Colossian Church:

Each of you is now a new person. You are becoming more and more like your Creator, and you will understand him better. It doesn’t matter if you are a Greek or a Jew, or if you are circumcised or not. You may even be a barbarian or a Scythian, and you may be a slave or a free person. Yet Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us.

God loves you and has chosen you as his own special people. So be gentle, kind, humble, meek, and patient. Put up with each other, and forgive anyone who does you wrong, just as Christ has forgiven you. Love is more important than anything else. It is what ties everything completely together.

Each one of you is part of the body of Christ, and you were chosen to live together in peace. So let the peace that comes from Christ control your thoughts. And be grateful. (Colossians 3:10-15, CEV)

The transformation is all-pervasive, thoroughly public, and intimately personal. It is a gift from God; it is the impossible made possible. And it is this precise thing which we acknowledge, celebrate, and long for in the season of Advent. When the angel came to Mary and communicated that Isaiah’s vision was coming to reality through her womb, Mary astonishingly retorted:

 “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

The angel, with supreme confidence, answered Mary as a matter of fact:

“The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God…. For no word from God will ever fail.”

Mary’s response gives voice to our own desires and longings for the new order of things:

“I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:34-38, NIV)

This is our confession, too. We are the Lord’s servants.

May God’s word to us about the coming of Christ be fulfilled, just as Isaiah said. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Jesus on a starry night so many years ago.

Soli Deo Gloria

Isaiah 12:2-6 – Grace Changes Us

The Prophet Isaiah by Marc Chagall, 1968

“Surely God is my salvation;
    I will trust and not be afraid.
The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my defense;
    he has become my salvation.”
With joy you will draw water
    from the wells of salvation.

In that day you will say:

“Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name;
    make known among the nations what he has done,
    and proclaim that his name is exalted.

Sing to the Lord, for he has done glorious things;
    let this be known to all the world.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion,
    for great is the Holy One of Israel among you.”
(New International Version)

The large Old Testament book of Isaiah is thick with a message of judgment for both Israel and the surrounding nations. The sins of ancient Israel, seven-hundred years before the birth of Christ, were many. The primary offenses were injustice toward the needy; the have’s taking advantage of the have-not’s; and empty worship rituals toward God.

Social and spiritual corruption was rampant. God pleaded with the people through the prophets to stop doing wrong and start doing right by encouraging the oppressed and defending the powerless. (Isaiah 1:10-17)

Although God’s judgment was imminent, via the powerful Assyrian Empire, God would not annihilate the people. God promised a Righteous Branch would grow from the seemingly dead stump of Israel. A child will be born, a Messiah given. There will be hope in Israel. Heartfelt praise, and proclamation of God’s great name, will again fill the air.

For me, what is so remarkable about all this is the grace of God. The Lord made promises to Israel not based upon what they would or would not do; God made promises to the people by God’s own radically free love. This wasn’t a matter of playing Let’s Make a Deal with God saying, “If you get your act together, then I will be good to you.” No, before Israel even had a chance to return to the Lord, God was already choosing to be merciful.

I am absolutely convinced with the firmest conviction possible that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are all about God and God’s own unbounded, unfettered, free, crazy, illogical, and wildly wonderful grace. Because God is love, the Lord constantly goes out of the way to be gracious so that we will be together and enjoy our divine/human relationship.

If we miss the message of God’s grace in the Holy Scriptures, we have missed salvation – because only grace can save us. Without grace, we are lost. Today’s Old Testament lesson is full of praise because it’s a response to the undeserved grace which God freely gives. 

Any Christian preacher worth their salt is a preacher of grace. Grace is the very thing that is distinctive about Christianity. Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is recklessly generous. Grace does not use carrot sticks, scorecards, or power politics. Grace never demands – it only gives. 

Grace is unconditional acceptance given to an undeserving person by an unobligated giver. 

That is what God did for Israel… and for us. And when we get a hold of this truth, even a little bit, our hearts become bubblers of praise.

The prophecy of Isaiah is an adventure of God’s reckless love toward unlovable people, which is why it is one of the most quoted books of the Old Testament by Jesus. Jesus came because of grace. 

Jesus came to release us from our obsessive need to be right, our compulsion to be rewarded, and our demands to be respected. 

Because Jesus came to set sinful captives free, life does not have to be a joyless effort to justify and validate ourselves before others. The grace of God in Christ is a game-changer. And with but a glimpse of it, we are forever undone by its mercy.

Grace causes us to praise God.

There was once a pastor who had a three-year old daughter who was going around the house singing the chorus “We Exalt Thee” except that she kept mispronouncing one of the words: “I exhaust thee, I exhaust thee, I exhaust thee, O Lord!” Perhaps she was right. Maybe too many folks are exhausting God with folded arms instead of hands raised in praise and worship.

Grace causes us to trust God.

Grace alleviates our fears. For, if God is for us, who can be against us? God takes care of us despite our weaknesses and failures. 

Grace causes us to have joy in God.

With joy we draw water from the wells of salvation. Jesus is the Living Water we can continually draw from and drink. Grace keeps giving without an end in sight. We get to keep coming to God with an inexhaustible supply of fresh grace.

Grace causes us to give thanks to God in prayer.

Gratitude to God ought to characterize our corporate gatherings. Expressing thanks is more than for the individual in their prayer closet – it is to be offered in the gathered assembly of believers. Grace eliminates self-consciousness altogether because there is nothing to be self-conscious about with God. The Lord has seen you at your worst, and still loves you.

What’s more, we need not be self-conscious about appearing ignorant, looking silly, or not having all the answers in making known among the nations what God has done. If we are influenced by grace, then we can freely speak of God to all kinds of people we encounter. 

“God forbid that I should travel with anybody a quarter of an hour without speaking of Christ to them.”

George Whitefield (1714-1770)

Grace causes us to sing together to God. 

When grace takes hold of a congregation, there is no mumbling of songs – there are loud shouts and singing for joy because God is good! God wants some noisy worship! 

Grace brings such gladness that we don’t care how we appear to other people; we are going to shout, sing, and express our joy! Yes, there is an important place for contemplative, reverent, and reflective worship. And there is also a place for letting go, becoming unhinged, and dancing before Jesus!

The world mostly ignores God. Even some Christians take God’s grace for granted.  Israel’s greatest sin was assuming everything was fine. But it wasn’t. There was no grace. And with no grace there is no God. Eventually, Israel found joy in the most unlikely of places – in exile. God’s grace would transform a terrible time of trouble into raising of voices in song.

Isaiah’s prophecy is about returning to the Lord. The season of Advent is all about God’s relentless pursuit of wayward people – the anticipation of grace coming in the form of an infant – and the bringing of grace to a people living in darkness.

Let us, then, return to the Lord. Let us be captivated by grace. Let us renew our love for Jesus. Let us lose ourselves in praise and adoration of the One who gave everything for us. Let us worship Christ the King. Let us proclaim the name of Jesus as exalted over everything.

Great God of grace, be merciful to us as we limp to you with all of our wounds and brokenness. We have made such a mess of our lives with our bad attitudes, ugly words, selfish actions, and our ignoring of you through it all. So, we come to you with nothing but ourselves in all of our sin. Forgive us, cleanse us, renew us, revive us, refresh us, and reform us according to the ways of Jesus Christ. Thank you for your undeserved grace. We give you praise for the lengths you went to secure our forgiveness. With a joy too deep for words, we humbly offer to you our lives so that the name of Jesus will be exalted in us individually and corporately. Amen.

Isaiah 40:1-11 – The Lord’s Glory Will Appear

Comfort, comfort my people!
    says your God.
Speak compassionately to Jerusalem,
        and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended,
    that her penalty has been paid,
    that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins!

A voice is crying out:
“Clear the Lord’s way in the desert!
    Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!
Every valley will be raised up,
    and every mountain and hill will be flattened.
    Uneven ground will become level,
    and rough terrain a valley plain.
The Lord’s glory will appear,
    and all humanity will see it together;
    the Lord’s mouth has commanded it.”

A voice was saying:
    “Call out!”
And another said,
    “What should I call out?”
All flesh is grass;
    all its loyalty is like the flowers of the field.
The grass dries up
    and the flower withers
    when the Lord’s breath blows on it.
    Surely the people are grass.
The grass dries up;
    the flower withers,
    but our God’s word will exist forever.

Go up on a high mountain,
    messenger Zion!
Raise your voice and shout,
    messenger Jerusalem!
Raise it; don’t be afraid;
    say to the cities of Judah,
    “Here is your God!”
Here is the Lord God,
    coming with strength,
    with a triumphant arm,
    bringing his reward with him
    and his payment before him.
Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock;
    he will gather lambs in his arms
    and lift them onto his lap.
    He will gently guide the nursing ewes. (Common English Bible)

Advent is a time of longing, hoping, and anticipating fulfilled promises. Meanwhile, in this awkward liminal space, it’s a hard slog.

Most of the Christian’s life is lived in the mundane, yet necessary work of mission. The daily pilgrimage of faith is barely noticed by most people. Our small and seemingly obscure acts of kindness; the discreet gestures of love; and the graciously chosen words of encouragement can be undetected by so many – except for God.

I am sure the ancient Jewish people felt that, for an awfully long time, they were plodding along as faithfully as they could with often little to show for it. However, they knew it would not always be this way. God’s people anticipated that a time was coming when their pedantic service would see the light of day.

I am sure we, too, have times when it feels as if our prayers are only bouncing off the ceiling. In such times, words of comfort and assurance come as a breath of fresh air. When we least expect it, God speaks to us tenderly and with compassion. The Lord steps into our weariness and exhausting work and says, “Enough!”

Whereas our walk with God may often feel like trudging up and down hills, sloshing through muddy valleys, and traversing hard terrain, the proclamation of comfort assures us that it will not always be this way. The way to God will be made level so that we can connect with the Lord post haste.

No matter how much our worldly circumstances break us down, even shattering our expectations and dreams, we carry with us an unflagging vision of wholeness, integrity, and hope. God is our true home, our polestar, our ultimate destiny. Feeling displaced, out of sorts, or like we just do not belong are signs that we long for our place with God.

And when we find our home with God, all might be going to hell around us, yet we are buttressed and sustained by living divine words. For those with eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts attuned to grace, there is John the Baptist, smoothing the highway to our Lord – preparing the way to Jesus. (Mark 1:1-4)

God, as the warrior who powerfully fights our battles – and the shepherd who lovingly tends to our needs – firmly takes the initiative to bring us home, going out of the way to gently pick us up and carry us back to the place we belong.

The good news is that the world is changed by God. The world around us is no longer the way we thought it was or was supposed to be. Despair gives way to confident expectation, and discouragement is slowly replaced by consolation. The long exile is coming to an end. Jesus is coming soon. All will be made right. Justice and peace will have the day.

Let your hearts be true and humble, as befits God’s holy reign. For the glory of the Lord is on the earth and will be from everlasting to everlasting.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to people of goodwill. We praise you; we bless you; we adore you; we give thanks to you for your great glory. Amen.