Monday, December 24, 2012

Homily for The Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord (Christmas Eve)

Nativity Icon


Luke 2:1-20; Titus 2:11-14; Isaiah 9:2-7

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

When the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary, the Evangelist tells us that she was greatly troubled and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. Truly, Mary’s response to an angelic greeting was not unique. In fact, St. Luke, alone records no less than three angelic appearances in the first two chapters of his Gospel, beginning with the appearance of Gabriel to Zechariah, the soon to be father of John the Baptist. Zechariah was serving as priest in the temple at the hour of incense when Gabriel came to him in a vision. Luke tells us that he was troubled when he saw him, and that fear fell upon him. Later, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, an angel of the Lord appeared to some shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. Luke tells us, in the old King James translation, that they were sore afraid.

Outside of the infancy narratives, even in the Old Testament, whenever an angel from heaven visited God’s people, they were filled with fear. Perhaps the most well known instance is that of the prophet Isaiah who, when he beheld, in a vision, the angels of God surrounding His throne, famously confessed, “Woe is me! I am undone! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell amongst a people of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.” In this, Isaiah’s confession, we hear the reason that God’s people are so very afraid in the presence of God’s holy angels – it is because of their unclean lips, the guilt of their sin which makes them and all men unholy. Isaiah was right, of course; he should have been undone. He should have died.

But, that’s not what happened. Instead, an angel of heaven flew to him, having in his hands tongs holding a live coal taken from the altar of sacrifice. The angel touched the burning coal to Isaiah’s lips and said to him, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” Our sin separates us from God. His holiness can only consume and destroy sin, guilt, and unholiness. Such things have no place in God’s holy presence. But, besides being perfectly holy and just, the very standard and definition of these, He is also the standard and the measure of goodness, love, mercy, and grace. Therefore, instead of destroying unholy man, He did what was necessary to justify him, to make him to be right and clean and holy in His presence. God forgave and atoned for Isaiah’s sin and guilt and made him clean. And, the fact that the purifying coal came from the altar of sacrifice demonstrates that His forgiveness comes at a cost – holy and innocent sacrificial blood, blood shed for those who are unholy.

The first words from the angels’ lips are always “Do not fear.” The justification? “You have found favor with God.” In other words, there is no need for you to be afraid, not because you are sinless and holy, but because God has chosen to look at you that way, because God has sacrificed Himself to make that possible. You have found favor with God. It almost sounds as though you tripped over it, or that it fell into your lap. Do not think that it was your work, or your will, your choice, or your decision; you weren’t even looking for God, let alone for His favor. But, He has found you, and He has decided and chosen to have favor upon you freely, apart from your will, decision, or choice, because of the goodness, the mercy, and the love that He is.

Fear. That is something that you and I are more in touch with this Christmas than in years past. With the shocking, sudden horror of the Newtown massacre fresh in our minds, and that grief and sorrow heavy on our hearts, we are afraid. We are afraid for our children. We are afraid for others we love. We are afraid for ourselves, for our security, and for our way of life. In fact, you are seemingly surrounded by fear and uncertainty, horror and tragedy, everywhere you turn, every moment of your life. They say we are heading for a fiscal cliff. Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? An ancient calendar has had us wondering for over a year whether we’d be here tonight or not. I almost didn’t write this sermon. If you’re near retirement age, you’re probably wondering if anyone will look after you and care for you when you are no longer able to care for yourself. You’re probably wondering how you will pay for all the things you will need as you get older and have little or no income. If you’re parents of young children, you’re probably wondering if your children will be safe when they go to school, will they learn what they need to be successful adults, what kind of America will your children live in, what kind of world will it be? There are a lot of things to cause you to be fearful. And there are a whole lot of people, organizations, and institutions, not to mention the media and the government, that seemingly want you to be afraid, and that are all too eager to use your fear to control you and make you buy and believe whatever it is that they’re selling, pushing, or advocating.

“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” There is no need to be afraid. God has heard your cries in the darkness of sin and death and He has responded. “When all was still and it was midnight,” in the darkest hour of your night of helplessness and fear, God’s “almighty Word […] descended from the royal throne.” When you least expected it, when you were certain your situation was hopeless and there was nothing that you or anyone could do – you were right, by the way – that was when God acted, that’s when God acts, that’s when you can see that God has been acting all along. All that’s been threatened is your idols, those things, those people, those emotions that you have put your fear, your love, and your trust in instead of God. God will permit them to be knocked down, undone, taken away, or destroyed, or He will simply do it Himself, so that you will see that your fear, love, and trust in them is misplaced.

Fear not. God is in control. And, He is not unsympathetic to your fears, your worries, your concerns, and your anxiety, for He shares your flesh and blood and He has suffered through many of the same fearsome happenings as you. He was born in conditions of want and need, exposed to the elements with no defense. He was the would-be victim of murderous Herod as he slaughtered the innocent babes of Bethlehem in his fear-driven insanity to hold onto his power and throne. He was ridiculed and mocked by the intellectuals of His day, and He was hunted by the government as an insurrectionist, and by the Church as a blasphemer. But, He permitted Himself to be taken captive, and He willingly submitted to mocking, spitting, and blows, and, ultimately, to the cruel and tearing whips, thorns, and nails of hatred and evil, even death on the cross, to sanctify all suffering and to defeat the power of sin and take away the sting of death – that you need not fear any longer.

God is in control, and He works all things – even the bad things, even the evil things – He works all things for the good of those who love Him, through Jesus Christ. Jesus came to absolve you of all your fear: Fear for today; fear for tomorrow; fear of death; fear of God. He says to you “Do not be afraid. I know your fears. I know your worries. I know your anxieties. I have faced them all, and yet I remained faithful, trusting in the Word of my Father. I have faced and suffered even death, your greatest enemy, for you, in your place, and I have destroyed its power and sting; death cannot hold you; already you are its victor through me. Because of this, my Father is your Father. Because of His love for me He loves you as His own dear son or daughter.”

Already at His birth the choirs of heavenly angels broke forth in song, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!” Tonight we join them singing, “Glory to the newborn King; Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!” Jesus Christ is born! No more shall we be afraid!

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

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