Prepare the Way Worship Series: ARRIVE
December 24, 2018 — Christmas Eve
Rev. Dr. Irving Cotto is an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church. A former district superintendent and director of congregational development in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, he is currently the pastor of St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Warrington, Pa. Dr. Cotto is the author of Fiesta en la Casa de Dios, a book on pastoral reflections regarding worship. He has led training workshops for lay missionaries and has written training modules for the National Hispanic Latino Plan.
Key words: praise, amaze, joy
Finally, Noche Buena. (A Good Night): It is not a signing off remark, like “good night; I’m going to bed.” It is more like, “this is certainly a good night” as in waiting for a treat, a surprise, a gathering where everyone is loved, accompanied, and no knows for sure when the gathering will be over.
For Christians, Christmas Eve is a moment of open arms — as a midwife who extends her arms to receive the newly born child. As the church, we also extend our arms to receive Jesus once again, with all that he has to offer: an incomparable love, a huge smile, the smile of God over humanity and directed individually at every human being.
Unfortunately, even on the night of Christmas Eve, there are thousands of people who cannot smile back. In the first place, they don’t seem to see Jesus. Maybe what they truly capture is Jesus crying, as any other baby does throughout the world. In pain and in sorrow, throughout the world there are precious little babies, precious elderly men and woman, young people who are lacking food, shelter, jobs, loved ones; therefore, they are not smiling on Christmas Eve. Still, in many of those places, because of a deep faith, they also extend their arms to the arriving Jesus.
Both Scriptures for this day have the element of reception. A baby has been born, and it has made an extraordinary difference. A variety of activities take place at church and home: Christmas plays, concerts, family dinners—all celebrating the birth of the Messiah.
The text from Isaiah 9:2-7 is a short poem full of hope, in spite of whatever days of suffering may have preceded. Christians see this promise fulfilled in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth (Lk. 2:1-20). The Israelites themselves went through harsh divisions between the northern kingdom and the southern kingdom. There are many other historical events behind this text that the preacher will most likely not have to time to address. Perhaps the most important aspect that needs to be underlined on Christmas Eve is the inauguration of a new day that is the centerpiece of the occasion. The Israelites heard from Isaiah of a new day after experiences of war, division, and captivity. Christians will hear a message of the birth of baby that makes a difference in the world. Paradoxically, we still hear about wars; a great segment of humanity experiences hunger, strife, squalor, and poverty. But still, the message of Christ’s birth has resulted in schools, hospitals, orphanages, agricultural work, public demonstrations against injustice, corruption, and discrimination. Baby Jesus has been in the hearts of the innocent, the elderly, the terminally ill, and those who have just his followers.
There is much to celebrate on Christmas Eve. I can still hear the “jibaro” music1 on the countryside in Puerto Rico. I can still savor the special foods shared by family and friends. I can picture a night of worship that included the choir and the drama team. Afterward, people went home to meet with more family members. In certain places, gifts will be opened on Christmas Day; but in others, right at midnight or before, while the children are still awake.
What an extraordinary event. And what a formidable opportunity for evangelization, the sharing of the good news. In both Isaiah 9:2-7 and Luke 2:1-20, we are given the foundation for a message of hope through the coming of a very special baby. With the arrival of Jesus, there is the promise of freedom for those in bondage, justice on behalf of those who have been wronged, light in a world of darkness, deliverance from the rod of the oppressor. No one could stop God’s sovereign will, “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child” (v. 6). The preacher can hinge on this last verse to accentuate the fact that amid confusion and different turns of events, God is in charge of history; no one can stop God from bringing redemption to the world. Galatians 4:4-5 has the same tone of an unstoppable moment, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.”
That we are adopted and made part of God’s covenant people, that we have become sisters and brothers of Jesus, that we have the blessing to open our arms to the One who has arrived, is a fascinating message. Amid the powers that be to proclaim that the One who has come is at the same time, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, with an ever increasing authority, with the promise of peace, and an agenda of justice and righteousness is at the same time good news and bad news —good news for those who long for deliverance; bad news for those who have placed the chains of oppression and violence on others.
In the gospel text, the newborn child disrupted — in a good way — the lives of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and even the angels. The whole universe is engaged in offering praises to the One who is God’s best gift to the world. The angels sing, “glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favors” (v.14).
For personal reflection and sermon preparation:
- The titles given to the coming king (Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace) continue to be a good foundation for a message that addresses the character of God and the blessing the newborn child, Jesus, brings to the life of the individual believer and the gathered assembly.
- Discussions on the conflicts between the Jewish kingdoms of north and south, while a potential distraction and a bit boring for some if not properly handled, could set the tone for a message on how the arrival of Jesus can be and has been a source of reconciliation, peace, and harmony.
- The Christian message, while claiming the sovereignty and uniqueness of Christ, can recognize that among people of other faiths and of good will our faith is confirmed. In other words, what Christians proclaim in terms of peace, justice, love, fraternity, reconciliation will find affirmation in other belief systems. We can continue to elevate Jesus as Lord and recognize at the same time how the goodness of God is surprisingly present in many places. The spark of the divine is everywhere.
- A reflection on the first witnesses of the new arrival can be the focus of this occasion’s message. A particular focus on Mary as God’s instrument to bring in the Savior might offer a new insight to faith communities where the mother of Jesus is hardly ever mentioned.
1 Jibaro is a term used in Puerto Rico to describe a peasant or farmworker, but in general terms it refers to that which is typical, at the core of the culture. And jibaro music would mean music from the countryside among humble people.