Hello all! Nerdcore Theologian here, wishing all a very happy holiday. I hope you all have had a wonderful year; I know I have! The following is my Christmas sermon, delivered at Wallace UMC. I hope you all enjoy it. Thanks for reading!
2In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph 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. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And 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.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah,* the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,* praising God and saying,
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’*
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.
It’s no secret that I am a lover of music.
I was raised by music lovers; it only makes sense that I myself would become one myself. It started when I was really young, too. When I was growing up, I had a little tape recorder, and I would play with that tape recorder all day long, saying random things into the recorder. More often than not though, I would sing into it. I’d usually sing some songs I’d learned in bible school—and around Christmas time, Christmas carols. I was fascinated by music, and sound in general.
Growing up in a musical family that valued music greatly was pretty fun. I remember going to my grandparent’s house, and my grandmother would play hymns on the piano and we’d sing along. I’d join the kids choir every year—even one year beyond the age range of kids choir, because the teacher needed voices! In Junior High, I joined choir, and then band, only to become a drummer and percussionist. In High School, I continued on as a bass drummer in marching band, and I joined the adult choir at my church. My life was given shape by music, literally. My entire week was planned around music! So it’s no wonder that music became so important to me.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve tried to keep music in my life as much as possible, even though I’m no longer in band. I have an absolutely huge music collection—three large cd binders full of music, really. I still sing in the Seminary choir, which is always a treat for me, and I love singing with you all. Even still, I never seem to get enough music.
Walter Pater once said that “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music,” and I’m inclined to agree with him. Music can say things that words never can, emotions and ideas that words can never adequately express.
That’s one of the reasons that I love Advent, and the season leading up to Christmas. Music seems to be everywhere, even if it’s completely silent. You can hear it in the wind, or even just in the stillness of the world. You can feel all of creation waiting expectantly, as if something amazing was just about to happen. Music fills the souls of everyone, it seems. Everywhere there is a song, a song that heralds the coming of Christ, a song too deep and mysterious for words.
Sometimes, though, there comes a song that captures the moment perfectly, that blends words and music together to make more than the sum of its parts. That song, for me, is Hark! The Herald Angels Sing—a song with words written by Charles Wesley, and music composed by Felix Mendelssohn. We all know at least the first verse, which is pretty standard Christmas fare: “Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king; peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!” Standard fare, but good stuff. But really, the meat of the song begins in the second verse. “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail the incarnate Deity, pleased with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel!” You see, in these few words, Wesley captures the very nature of the thing that takes place on Christmas day, that God the Son would deign to come to earth, to take on flesh, and become a human like us—it’s something that can only be adequately expressed in song.
Really, though, the crux of the whole song is in the third verse. Everything culminates in this short phrase: “Mild he lays his glory by, born that we no more may die, born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth.” That’s Christmas. That’s the whole thing, right there. That’s the point of it all. Christ is born, and so that we can be born again. It’s about the very nature of the infinite, the eternal, breaking into the temporal, the human. It’s about something extraordinary breaking into a world that is ordinary, and in turn making everything just a bit more extraordinary. For a moment in time, all of creation was alive with the music of the eternal, the song of angels singing Gloria, in excelsis deo! Glory to God in the Highest, glory to the newborn King! The king who will give everyone, everything a second birth is here! Music expresses what mere words never could; God expresses it all in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The point of the song is the point of Christmas, is the point of the good news: In Christ, we are given new life. In Christ, we are given a second chance.
Christmas is very much a day of second chances, a day of hope for a world very much in need of hope. In a way, the whole world was given new birth, not just the people on it. Creation was made new in Christ. Existence itself is given a second chance, a chance to make things right, to heal what is broken, to bind together what has fallen apart. When God became a human, nay, a baby, the universe itself was given a new song to sing, a new joy to rejoice in, a new hope to hope for. All month long, we’ve been waiting. Waiting patiently for the day of days to come when we can finally exhale our sorrow, and breathe in joy. Waiting for God to come personally to us, to give salvation to all people. Waiting for heaven to break open, and to give us a gift more precious, more costly, more personal, and more present than any other gift in history. It’s here.
It’s here, and it’s here against all odds. The passage of the Christmas story makes this clear to us all. Everything is set up against the backdrop of the Roman empire. Everything has a shadow because of the suffering that enveloped the world at the time. Like I said yesterday, for most people, there wasn’t much hope.
The reality of occupation and empire was all around them. The phrase “the world” was Roman arrogance at it’s height; it’s shorthand for all Roman lands. Anything that wasn’t Roman, wasn’t worth thinking about. As far as Rome was concerned, Rome was all that mattered. And why shouldn’t they believe it? Their army was more powerful than any others; it’s conquered everything in every direction! It’s culture, it’s history, was obviously superior because of their military might. So much did they believe in their exceptionalism, they demanded that people pay homage to their emperor as a god, because he was indeed descended from a God, or so the Imperial cult would have everyone believe. The name of the emperor was Caesar Augustus, whose full name was Gaius Julius Caesar Octavius, and later, Gaius Julius Caesar Divi Filius. By the way, that last part, Divi Filius? Means Son of the Divine. Son of God is already here, and he’s a Roman.
That is the reality for Luke. That is the reality for Israel at this time. They were a colony of the Roman empire, and the people were subject to every whim of the empire, and for this moment in time, that means a census, used for accounting and tax purposes. Joseph and Mary were thus forced to travel to Bethlehem, the ancestral home of Joseph’s family, which just so happens to be of the lineage of David (which you would think would entitle the family to some kind of power, but under the Roman empire, it only amounted to a hill of beans.) But even this, even this enforced journey, this imperial, earthly mandate, made it possible for a prophecy to be fulfilled, as we heard in Micah chapter 5: “You, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule the land in Israel, whose origin is from old, from ancient days.”
The birth of Christ really is a funny thing. Everything lined up the way it needed to be. All the preparation, the birth of John, the messages of the angels, everything leading up to Jesus’s birth was what exactly needed to happen, and it happened the way that God wanted it to happen. It needed to happen to Mary and Joseph; it needed to happen in Bethlehem, and it needed to happen at the time it happened—under Roman, imperial rule, the greatest earthly empire ever known. It happened then, because God wanted to make a definitive statement: The Earthly kingdoms will pass away, and God’s kingdom is now among you, and is coming soon. Two thousand and twelve years later, give or take, and we can say the same thing. Earthly kingdoms have come and go; God’s kingdom is now, and is coming soon. The Son of God remains the Son of God, and he’s not a Roman. Nor is he European. Nor is he American. He’s Jewish, born as any Jewish child, but born not just for the Jews but for all people, at all times. The Son of God is born to give us all second birth.
And so we wait. We have waited for a long time, and we still wait. But tonight, we rejoice for the new birth of Christ, the Messiah, the Savior, born to give us second birth. Tonight, we have a second chance. We have a chance to have new life. We have a chance to give life, as well. We give to one another, our families, our children, our friends, our partners. We give to each other out of love. And we can give to the world out of love as well.
We have a chance to make right the things we’ve done wrong, and let’s face it, we all have messed up at some point or another. We’ve all sinned, and done the wrong thing, even when we haven’t meant to, ESPECIALLY when we haven’t meant to. We’ve all been broken in some way, and we’ve all fallen short of the glory of God, but tonight, that shouldn’t matter. In fact, it doesn’t matter. The slate has been swept clean. The old life is over, the new life has begun. The song of salvation, the song of peace, the song of justice, the song of reconciliation is being sung now, both in the heavens and in our hearts. It’s our turn to join in that eternal song. It’s our turn to sing, even though this year has been a hard one. We’ve all seen loss, we’ve all been grieved, and we’ve all got heartaches. December is a hard month of the year to celebrate in, because it seems like everything bad happens around this time of year. But don’t forget, Jesus was born in the midst of oppression. Jesus was born in the midst of suffering, of sadness and grief. Hope is born out of despair, and light is given in the darkness. God has given us the light of the world, and you are called to share that light with others. The Son of God is born this night; born to give us second birth. It’s your turn to sing along.
Remember, above all else, it doesn’t end tonight. The birth of Christ, the incarnation of God, the eternal breaking into the ordinary, should be celebrated not just one day out of the year, not just twelve days of the year, not just four weeks of the year, but every single day of the year. The Incarnation of Christ, fully God and fully human, is something you are called to live out every single day, and rejoice in. He was born to give you second birth, and you are called to live like you are born again. You get to join in the eternal song, and sing with the angels tonight, and every day. Glory to God in the Highest! Glory to the newborn king!