A Sermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2018
St. Dunstan’s Anglican Church, Largo, FL
The Very Reverend J. Michael Strachan
Who is this infant in the manger? Who is this child of whom the angels sing? Who is this baby whom the shepherds greet? To answer these questions on Christmas Eve is something like trying to explain who Aragorn is only from the opening chapters of the Return of the King. There is so much story that has come before. There is so much story still to tell. And yet tonight we must give some answer.
You can’t explain who this child is without speaking about what’s to come. His story includes a ministry to the people of God, rejection, a cross, an empty tomb, and a throne at the right hand of God, but those are stories for another day.
You also can’t explain who this child in the manger is without speaking about what’s already occurred in the drama of our redemption. His story includes a Garden, a flood, and a promise made to Abraham that through him God would bless every family on earth. His story includes slavery in Egypt, delivery through the parted sea, and wandering in the wilderness. His story includes a Promised Land overflowing with milk and honey. It includes conquest and judges, prophets and a King named David who descendant was to be the ruler of the world.
His story includes corporate sin, a divided nation, a Temple abandoned by its God, conquest by foreign nations, and the people of God living in a foreign land. His story includes the prophets’ hope for the end of the exile, the decree of Cyrus, a return to the land that doesn’t feel quite right, a longing for the return of the God of justice, and the prophet’s warning that when the Lord returned he would come to his people like a refiner’s fire.
The simplistic and overused line is that history is his story, but when it comes to this child in the manger, we cannot begin to understand who he is without understanding that all of human history is about him. It’s his story. He is its creator, redeemer, and judge. He is its alpha and its omega, its beginning its the end. He is the one from whom all things come and the one in whom all things hold together.
He is our God and our savior, and not some distant, remote god far above the heavens, beyond space and time that we cannot see or know, but a God who stoops down from heaven to earth and has united himself with his creation forever by becoming one of us and being born in a lowly manger. In doing so, he gives new meaning to what it is to be human, and he validates what the Father said at the foundation of the world when he looked out over everything that he had made and said that it was very good.
The incarnation begins at the Annunciation and is celebrated at Christmas as what was brought to life in Mary’s womb by the power of the Holy Spirit is now wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. God incarnate, the King of Israel, the Lord of Heaven and Earth, rests in a manager as one of us. He who made us from the dust now joins us in our dust-filled existence, and by this gift he says to us that we are more than the dust from which we are made and more than the dust to which we shall return.
Human history isn’t his story just because of how significant he is in its drama. Surely that would be enough to say that history is his story. But we can say so much more than that. Human history is his story because he has wrapped himself in the tragedy of our narrative, like the swaddling clothes that wrapped his fragile body two millennia ago. He has clothed himself with our frailty, united himself with our weakness, joined us in our pain and suffering, and become one with us in this existential crisis we call human life. His story is our story. Our story is his story.
By becoming one of us, not only has he validated our existence and given new meaning to what it is to be human, but he has made our fate his fate, and his fate our fate. In the Old Testament, there is the story of God and the story of his people. Those stories intersect and relate to each other surely, but there is God on the one side and humanity on the other. But now, as the angels sing and as the mother of our Lord kisses the infant’s cheek, the story of God and the story of his people have become inseparably intertwined. This is the miracle of Christmas. It’s not just that our Lord comes to us as savior, although certainly that is true. That God would save his people from their sins was always the plan. There’s nothing particularly surprising there. What is surprising, what caught the world off-guard that night and still does to this day, is that God chose to save his people by becoming one of them, sharing in our fate, our weaknesses, and our dust-defined existence. The child in the manager, God in human flesh, is just like us. His life, his story, his fate is now inseparably intertwined with the life, story, and fate of the descendants of Adam and Eve.
This is no small thing. To be a child of Adam and Eve is to live in a world subjected to futility. It’s to know an existence ruled by the second law of thermodynamics, which says that all things are wearing out. It’s to know that one day we will die, and we will need the power of God to raise us from the dead. When God became one of us, he subjected himself to this futility from which all human beings, all creation, must be saved.
To say that Jesus needed to be saved might seem counterintuitive, but to say anything less is to deny at its core what it is we celebrate this evening. His story is our story. Our story is his story. Jesus doesn’t come to us as Superman. He doesn’t come to us as the child of Jor-El and Lara but as the child of Adam and Eve, as the child of those placed under a curse, as the child of those who know that to live is to die, as the child of those who live by faith in a God who has promised to give life back to our mortal bodies.
The incarnation is the opposite of escapism. The incarnation is God’s great shout of affirmation about the goodness of creation. It’s not about abandoning this world and our material existence for something better up in the heavens. It is the opposite of the superhuman man come to rescue us mere mortals. Christmas, the incarnation, is about the God of heaven and earth becoming one with us forever and thereby affirming our human existence and the goodness of this life. The incarnation isn’t a thing that happened and then was undone at a later date. Jesus doesn’t take on our humanity for a time and then cast it aside as he ascends to heaven. He sits there at the right hand of God wrapped in our humanity, clothed in our weakness, and united in our suffering and sorrow.
He sits there before God in the heavenly places united forever with my story and with your story because his fate is our fate, and our fate is his fate. That’s the miracle. That’s the mystery. God and humanity, your story and his story, inseparably intertwined forever and ever. The child in the manger, the one of whom the angels sing, the one whom the shepherds greet, he is Emmanuel, God with us, in a way that the prophet could never have imagined. So, don’t you ever feel abandoned. Don’t ever feel like God doesn’t care. Don’t ever feel like God doesn’t understand what it means to be weak, broken and frail. All of who you are, all your self-doubt, all your weakness, all your frailty, all your fears, all your failures, all your faults, everything that you are is there in the manger with the infant child. He will live. He will grow. He will take all that you are with him to the cross, and there he will die, and on the third day God will raise him up, and on the last day he will raise you up too. For his story is our story, and our story is his story. We are forever inseparably intertwined.