Christmas Day Isaiah 9:1-7 Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14(15-20)
I don’t know about you, but without looking at a map or asking Google, I have serious doubts about my ability to locate the land of Zebulun or Naphtali. I do not know where Midian is either.
Yet we heard this morning of these places within the oracle of Isaiah, who is preaching about the fears of his own day, namely the fear of the kings of Israel and Syria who had gone to war against Judah. The king of Judah in this era was Ahaz who responded to this threat by meeting with the king of Assyria and beseeching from him deliverance from this great threat.
It is fear that leads him to do this, fear that leads the people of God to doubt God’s goodness, power, and might. It is that faithlessness and fear which caused Ahaz to reject the teaching of the Law of God, to take on the faith of the Assyians with whom he was seeking an alliance, and even led to him sacrificing his own son, burning him on his unholy altar.
This truly is a people walking in darkness.
It is interesting history, and especially enlightening to realize how history has repeated itself. Ahaz made a treaty with Assyria, who then later conquered Judah, and generations later the Maccabees made an alliance with Rome, who then later conquer Judah.
It is the fear that drove the people of God to walk apart from his ways. And yet that faithlessness was the very thing which bought about that of which they were terrified.
Yet in defiant protest against Ahaz, and all those who would walk away from the ways of God, stands Isaiah. He announces a different kind of deliverance from fear and death. One which will not ask permission or seek alliance. One which does not beg or plead. Like the sun, rising in the morning banishes darkness without anyone’s help, so will a light shine upon this people who have lived under a dread darkness.
When God acts, he will break the oppressors rod, and all the bloodied clothes of the invading warriors, will be discarded and burn in the fire. And God will not court Assyria or any other power. No, Judah shall be given a royal heir of their own, who will inherit the throne of their ancestor David.
But this heir, this child who will be given, will not be like the wicked king Ahaz. This king will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
God has heard the cries of his people, who have for so long suffered under frail and faithless human rulers. Somehow, this child who will be born will be the Lord their God, and it will be God who sits upon the throne to establish a kingdom which will not end. The line of the kings of Judah ended 586 BC when the Babylonians took Jerusalem. But God has promised a better king, who will lead the people forever.
On this, the day where the church throughout the world celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, we are reminded that the babe in the manger is not a sentimental fantasy to warm our hearts in the dead-cold of winter. No. This child, our Lord Jesus, is God’s answer to the despair and fear of his people.
Too easily does Jesus become an idol to us, a mute statue in whose mouth we may put whatever words we might like him to say. No, the birth of our savior is God’s answer to the real suffering of real people, the suffering of poverty and famine. The suffering of oppression and injustice. The suffering of sin and temptation.
His coming is not to fulfill our vain desires, but to deliver upon the hope that is born of such suffering. For it is when the people of God have known clearly that their situation is far from the way God would have things be, that the vision of a future free from such despair becomes as clear as day. To see the need for a savior speaks to that deep part of the human spirit in which the voice of God somewhere still echoes, however faintly.
And it is that whispering voice which is easiest to hear when we are most afraid.
This might be why it is the Shepherds who are the first to greet this Savior when he comes. These men are night-watchmen over flocks of sheep. These are likely not the owners of the sheep, but rather they have been paid to do this unpleasant job.
And who are those who take unpleasant jobs which do not pay well? Those who have no other hope. Those who are trodden down by poverty. In fact their very job speaks to why there needs to be a savior, for the world is not as it ought to be, there are those who would steal the sheep, and animals who would devour them if not for the watch of the shepherds.
The angel visits these men in the field at night, and in a word tells them that their watch is over, their work is done.
What a gift! This is Christmas. This is the incarnation. This is the savior. Our watch has ended, our fears have been heard on high, and God has chosen for us to come to earth and dwell among us, to know us intimately, to be with us forever.
These are the promises whose fulfillment is celebrated today.
But there are many who are not today celebrating this good news. There are many for whom this holy day is a trial and a chore, the very culmination of all their fears, their fears about their children or their marriage. Their fears about their family, fears about their finances, their fears of getting older and weaker. Around the world there are those who today face the fear of a violent death.
They do not know that they have been heard! They do not know that in their suffering, they might dare even to hope!
And maybe even there are those of us here who know the Lord, and still labor under a terror born of our own suffering, and we wonder how God might be present with us.
Perhaps even now, within that suffering, we might hear a voice that defiantly insists that our misery will end. Though the Shepherds went back to their watch after visiting the babe in the manger, and we too after this day is over will go back to those places we have been called, they left rejoicing because they knew that this child would become the one who would deliver them from those things which caused their hearts to ache.
Christmas is the day when our salvation begins. I cannot say how our Lord will save us from our own particular darknesses – I wish I could – But maybe today we can have the courage to count on the one in the Manger. For God has intended to bring about a new kingdom for all people everywhere. Let’s not miss out