Preaching Notes for Christmas Eve (December 24, 2014)
When I was serving in the local church, every year at Christmas I would become the recipient of all different kinds of angels. Handmade angels, pewter angels, angels made out of corncobs and fabric and cotton. White angels, gold angels, angels with curly hair and straight hair. Angel pins, guardian angels, glass angels, angel Christmas ornaments. And so, each year my Christmas tree is adorned with angels of all types. I’ve got angels hanging in my windows, angels on my fireplace mantle, and angels on top of my piano.
At first, I thought everyone was giving me angels because I must have reminded them of an angel! But then I realized that angels were just very popular not just at Christmastime, but year-round. People just love angels.
Now I have to say, all of the angels that I have received over the years are, across the board, entirely female. I don’t have any male angels at all. Furthermore, it seems to me that the angels I have in my home are not at all the same type that we read about in the Scriptures. What I mean by that is that nowhere in the Scriptures do angels come off as things of delicate beauty that inspire comfort in the hearts of those who encounter them. In fact, quite the opposite is true.
The Bible says that sometimes angels come disguised as mortals, like the two men the Lord sent to check out the situation in Sodom after Lot had begged the Lord not to destroy that wicked city. In reflecting upon that story, the writer of Hebrews later observed that perhaps we have all, in meeting a stranger, entertained some angel unaware. If so, let us hope that we did not mistreat him or her.
But most of the time in the Bible, whenever an angel appears, the angel comes unmistakably as a messenger of God. And always, no matter what the message is, the sight of the angel alone is something that strikes terror into the heart of the beholder. Other than comments about angels causing fear, there is absolutely no description in the Bible of what any angel looks like beyond John’s brief observation that the angels at the tomb were dressed in white.
Perhaps the reason angels are always pictured as having wings comes from the book of Revelation, which speaks of an angel flying in mid-heaven. When the first artist gave his or her rendition of that vision in a painting, that person must have supposed that any creature that could fly must have a set of wings on its back. Other painters later, no doubt, copied the work of those who painted earlier, and so the tradition came to be established that angels have wings. As for the halo tradition, it could be based on various places where the angels are described as shining with the glory of God. But nowhere in the Bible is any detailed description of any angel ever given.
So it seems all we can really do is guess when it comes to talking about angels. That's the trouble with them. Of all of the characters in the Christmas story, angels are probably the most difficult to understand. We can understand Joseph to some extent. We can understand Mary, even though she is more complicated, if we stretch our imaginations a little. But how can we understand these creatures, these angels, who exist beyond the realm of time and space, and which can be seen only when they choose to appear, and whose very appearance frightens human beings out of their wits?
The first angel to appear in the story of the birth of Jesus is the angel who visited Zechariah. Zechariah was a priest and an old man, and he was married to Elizabeth, who was too old to have any children. For many years, Zechariah and Elizabeth had been praying to God that Elizabeth would have a baby, even after both of them knew full well that it was a hopeless request. But then, one day when Zechariah was on duty in the Temple in Jerusalem (because as a Temple priest, it was his turn to burn incense at the altar of the Lord in the daily service of ritual sacrifice), an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar. And of course, Zechariah was scared out of his mind, because even though there was a crowd outside, he was inside the holy part of the temple all by himself with this frightening creature. But before he could think of what to do, the angel spoke to him and told him not to be afraid because the angel was there to bring the message that God had heard Zechariah's prayer and that his wife Elizabeth was going to have a son. They were to name the boy John, and John would be a great man of God, filled with the Holy Spirit. He would and cause many people to turn back to religion and righteousness. After the angel left him, Zechariah stumbled out of the holy part of the temple, back out to where the worshipers were gathered. They could see by his face that he had experienced something spectacular because whatever it was had left the old priest completely speechless.
Six months later, the angel appeared to Mary, who was engaged to Joseph. The angel told her that she was about to become pregnant -- before she was married. We can imagine that this news tormented Mary so much that she almost forgot to be afraid of the angel for a moment. But Mary, like Zechariah, was apparently also greatly affected by the appearance of the angel. Luke tells us that her soul was opened up to being filled with the spirit of servanthood, and she sang her song of praise to the Lord for choosing her for that magnificent role.
Both of these accounts of angels appearing are taken from the first chapter of Luke. In the second chapter, the reading for Christmas Eve, Luke says there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem to register for the census; and while they were there, Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them at the inn. Then Luke reports that in the countryside around Bethlehem ,the angel of the Lord appeared to some shepherds who were standing guard over their sheep in the night. When the angel of the Lord appeared, the glory of the Lord shone all around, and the shepherds were terribly afraid.
If we consider, then, these three descriptions of encounters with the angel of the Lord, we have to agree that any painting, or sculpture, or figure, or ornament, or pin that we have ever seen of an angel, no matter how bright the colors are painted, or how much gold and glitter was used, or even if it was lit from the inside with a tiny light bulb -- these depictions cannot possibly resemble in any significant way what Zechariah and Mary and the shepherds at Bethlehem encountered.
But what has any of this got to do with those who will gather in your sanctuary to welcome the birth of Christ in the world on Christmas Eve this year? What do these stories about angels have to do with the real world in which we now live? I would suggest what it has to do with our situation today is that the world we live in is troubling at best and as frightening as an encounter with an angel at worst.
- It is a world in which, although the economy is improving in some places, the vast majority of people on earth live in poverty.
- It is a world that has been ravaged by disease and famine and natural disasters of every kind in this past year.
- It is a world in which we know that as even as we sit in the comfort of our warm, beautifully decorated and softly lit sanctuaries on this holy night, many of our young servicemen and women are far away serving in active duty in the military because it takes power and might to protect our interests.
- It is a world in which homeless families are sleeping in shelters or on the streets on this holiest of nights, while others are hanging on to what little they possess by a thread.
- It is a world where racial unrest, turmoil, grief, anger, sickness and pain sweep across the headlines, if not across the nation and around the globe, each and every day.
As you prepare to preach on this Christmas Eve, consider the state of our world as we approach the end of 2014. You might begin your reflection by asking yourself who among us is receiving any visitation from the angel of the Lord. Where is God in all of this? Is God present with us in any way? Or is God simply watching over us from a distance? Is the angel of the Lord even a part of our real world, or are angels simply figures that we unpack with all the other Christmas paraphernalia and decorations that we put up and then take down and pack away in a box before the new year comes?
I wish I didn't have to ask such disturbing questions at Christmastime. I wish I could keep it warm and cozy and as sweet as an innocent baby lying in a manger. But that's the hard part of trying to deal with angels. It is a scary business, and the reality of both angels and our world situation demand that our hearts be troubled before our souls can be properly prepared to receive the tidings of joy that come from God alone.
As you prepare to gather with your congregation on this holy night, pray fervently that the presence of the only one who can grant peace, joy, hope, and light to this world may be known among you. Pray that our gracious God, who holds the security of all of our futures, may grant that your community will receive good tidings of great joy, and that the glory of the Lord may shine around you.
It has been difficult for me to read this passage in light of recent events: demonstrations and protests in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, Hong Kong, Washington D.C., and other cities around the globe; reports of mudslides and flooding in California; record-breaking snowfall in the northeast; and what seems like a never-ending stream of troubling news flowing twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, from the media. I know that the cable news channels must continually pound out the drumbeat of bad news in order to keep their ratings up, but I don’t buy the argument that the media generates the news. Perhaps the coverage may be overzealous, but media moguls didn’t create the conditions about which people find it necessary to protest. We live in a troubled time in history. Oppression and despair and sin continue to abound, in every city and every town. Protests only serve to draw our attention for a short time to the pain and injustice that surrounds us all the time.
This passage from Isaiah reads as a promise of real and tangible hope for a people just like us. It is not, however, a sentimental, cozy, baby-sleeping-peacefully-in-the-cradle kind of hope. The book of Isaiah is, first and foremost, a political text. While we may read into this hymn the hope that has come to us through Jesus Christ, most scholars believe this was part of a coronation ritual written for a Judean king. Some believe that it was written for the coronation of Hezekiah after he succeeded his father Ahaz as King of Judah, while others think the hymn was written to celebrate the birth of an unnamed crown prince sometime after 732. Either way, if it is part of a ritual ceremony, it was written about a king who would become a source of real and tangible hope for a people reeling from the ravages of strife and war.
If we read this text on Christmas Eve and suggest that it is simply a prophetic announcement about Jesus, and further imply that it isn’t a political passage but rather a poetic and metaphorical source of inspiration and spiritual refreshment for us on a night when the politics of this broken world in which we live ought to be the furthest thing from our minds, then we miss the opportunity to talk about the very real political dimensions of Jesus’ life and witness. We miss the opportunity to preach about the meaning of his incarnation. Jesus came, after all, not just to offer us forgiveness for our individual sins, but to transform the world into a place of peace and justice for all. Transforming the world is not easy, and Jesus paid a high price for his actions. But it is precisely those actions on behalf of the least of these among us that gives hope to us for a real transformation in this broken and sinful world.
While it might be a risk to bring up the state of the world on Christmas Eve, I hope it is a risk we will all take, especially this year, when there is so much visible pain and suffering and brokenness going on that it has become impossible for us to put it aside or ignore it, even for one evening. Indeed, in my opinion it would be an active participation in sin to put the reality of the world aside when we step into the pulpit on this night, even on an evening when perhaps we would rather just focus on a sweet and innocent baby in a manger. But if we are going to be prophetic and relevant “for such a time as this,” we must invite our holy texts to confront the truth of our present world circumstances.
Emmanuel means God is with us. In Jesus Christ, God has stepped into this broken and messy world and set into motion the possibility for real healing. In Jesus Christ, the healing has begun. That is the very essence of the incarnation. Let us not ignore it.
I find Mark Douglas to be very helpful when he writes, “Any attempt to separate politics from the holy risks missing the chance to see God working in and through the political world. For the first political act in Isaiah's theology—and perhaps in a Christmas Eve theology as well—is to see the world and its politics differently: not as a field of heroic struggle against overwhelming force (though it may feel that way) or a prison in which humans are stoically trapped (though it sometimes seems so), but as a site of divine activity. There is hope because God is already working here, and there is renewal because the God who is already working is establishing a reign of justice and righteousness—even, and perhaps especially, on Christmas Eve” (Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary,Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration).
The grace that has been born into the world through the birth of Jesus Christ is meant to bring salvation to all, writes the author of Titus. All means all. It is precisely this grace that frees us to be able to live as people with hope, even in the midst of a world filled with sin and sorrow.
What might it look like if every person who has received the grace of Jesus Christ were to be truly transformed by it? How might we behave differently? What impieties and worldly passions would we need to give up in order to live as people who have truly been transformed? What about our lives is not yet under control, upright, and godly?
Try to imagine a world where every person thought of every other human being on the planet as equally valuable and important to him or her.
- How would that change not just the way we treat, but the way we look at the homeless, mentally ill person we pass every day on the street and silently judge?
- How would it change the way we look at the group of young black men walking together through an alley or along a city sidewalk?
- How would it change the way we see the disabled, the disenfranchised, and those of a different color or ethnicity?
- How would it change the way we view the illegal workers who provide underpaid service in the kitchens of the restaurants where we eat, the homes in which we live, the children for whom we are responsible, the elderly who need in-home care, and the pristine, manicured lawns we so desire to have?
- How would it change the way we vote, the way we live, the choices we make about how we spend our money and our time every single day?
This passage is not just a promise. It is a call to open our eyes and see ALL the children of the world, ALL of the ones for whom Christ gave himself, “that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.”