Here’s my 2017 Christmas Eve sermon for St. Peter Lutheran Church, focusing on the nativity story in Luke 2.
How many of you had certain memories come to mind as you heard those familiar words from Luke? As soon as I hear those opening words, “In those days, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus,” it takes me back to being a narrator in a Sunday School Christmas program, and one of my friends walking up the aisle swinging a basket and yelling, “Tax! Tax!”
Maybe for you it’s the voice of Linus from the Charlie Brown Christmas special, or opening presents with your family, or driving around to see all the Christmas lights after Christmas Eve service.
You probably know tonight is the biggest service for our church, and I think much of the appeal of Christmas Eve is the memories we have connected to it. There’s a lot of nostalgia tied up in Christmas, and it can be challenging, because whether it’s singing Silent Night with candles in church or having the right food on the table at Grandma’s, those memories are a lot to live up to.
Now, some of it is just good marketing. When I see ads on TV with Santa Claus drinking Coca-Cola and happy families around their perfect table with their red-labeled bottles, I feel something, even though I’ve never actually had Coca-Cola on Christmas Eve.
Someone at men’s prayer breakfast on Wednesday said, “Christmas just hasn’t been the same since the Sears Christmas catalog stopped coming!”
As silly as some of them are, those memories are an important part of Christmas. I remember stepping outside one year after late Christmas Eve worship. It was nearly midnight, the parking lot lights had turned off for the night, and there was just a little flurry of snow starting to gently fall. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment. I know it has no spiritual significance and Jesus was most likely not born in December, but to me, having a white Christmas is important.
Of course, you and I are here tonight not just to relive old memories, but to make new ones. Often, the Christmas season seems to be about children. There are Christmas lists, and pictures with Santa, and Christmas train rides, and Sunday School programs, and traditions of opening Advent calendars to find candy. Maybe you’re here tonight to give your children a taste of something special on this sacred holiday night.
The main reason we’re here, though, is simply to hear a story, a very old story about the first Christmas night when Jesus was born, the night when God came to us in this surprising, unexpected way.
And if we hear the story, if we give thanks to God for Jesus being born among us, if we celebrate Jesus present with us at the table, then this night is a success. Not everything needs to be perfect.
As I’ve been thinking about Christmas memories, I wonder what the characters in the story remembered from that first Christmas night.
For the shepherds, I’m sure it was a big deal. As we’ll hear in a minute, they got a message directly from an angel and after they saw the child, they returned glorifying and praising God. They may not have understood everything they were seeing, but it was certainly a memorable night!
The magi, those wise men from the east, I’m sure remembered seeing the child. After all, they’d traveled for a long time, maybe even as long as two years following the star to find him. You have to wonder a little bit if Jesus lived up to their expectations. He certainly didn’t look like a normal king!
For most people, though, it probably wasn’t that memorable of a night. Think about the innkeeper, who’s in every children’s program ever, but not actually mentioned in the Bible. I’m sure it was a busy night with all the travelers for the census, but there was nothing really exceptional about this very pregnant couple staying with the animals.
Even for Mary and Joseph’s relatives, what would be so special about this baby? I know the song says, “No crying he made” but that’s certainly not in the Bible. This appeared to be an ordinary child, and that’s part of the point. The reason we’re here tonight is because God came to live among us, to experience everything we experience as a real human being. Not to lead some charmed, magical life able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but to grow up as a real person, a baby who cried and made dirty diapers, a man who would weep for his friends and experience suffering and death, the worst our world has to offer.
Jesus’ coming had been prophesied for centuries, and we’ve heard just a couple of those prophecies already tonight, but when it finally happened, the birth of the Messiah hardly appeared to be an earth-shaking event for the world.
Of course, this night was very special for a few people. For Mary and Joseph, not only was this their first child, but they knew something about what was actually going on. Joseph had been visited by an angel in a dream, so he knew about the whole virgin birth thing. He knew this child was like no other, the Son of God.
And obviously Mary, of all people, knew what was going on. Do you know that beautiful Christmas song, “Mary Did You Know?” It asks, Mary, did you know your baby boy is heaven’s perfect lamb? Did you know that when you kiss your little baby, you kiss the face of God?
I love that song, but the answer is yes. She did know. The angel told her, and if you read what she says before Jesus is even born, there’s no doubt. She knows. Maybe she didn’t grasp everything, like the crucifixion and resurrection, and I doubt she thought through quite all of the theology, but she knew. And so I wonder if the night lived up to her expectations. I wonder if after the angel’s visit, she expected something more dramatic.
What are you expecting from this night?
I hope Christmas Eve stirs up warm, fuzzy feelings of holiday joy for you, but I know that won’t always happen. Sometimes, the holidays are the hardest time of the year, as you remember those who aren’t here. There’s sadness and longing, even regret. Those are part of the holiday memories too.
As you celebrate tonight, as you remember old memories and make new ones, as you eat and open presents and gather with family, remember the story that is the real reason we are here.
Remember the good news that God has come to us.
Rejoice, for Jesus Christ is born, the Son of God. Amen