The Birth of Jesus Christ
1In those day a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem,because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
The Shepherds and the Angels
8And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 10And the angel said to them, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14 "Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!"
15When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us." 16And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20And the shepherds returned glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. 21And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
(Christmas Eve services at Saint Mary were cancelled due to ice. But there's no use in wasting a perfectly good sermon!)
Getting the Message Right
The Vigil of Christmas
December 24, 2009
There was a poem we learned in seminary during Summer Greek. It started like this:
Greek is a dead language,
Dead as it can be.
It killed off all the ancient Greeks,
And now it’s killing me.
Greek isn’t really a dead language, of course. They speak it in Greece even today, although in a simpler and slightly less lethal form. Latin is a dead language. Hebrew was a dead language- at least until the State of Israel was founded back in 1948. But living or dead, Greek is a language that can drive you crazy, especially if you grew up speaking English. The grammar and the structure and the whole mind-set of the Greek language is very different, and it’s no surprise that sometimes even professional linguists make mistakes in translating it.
Modern translations sometimes say that Mary was Joseph’s fiancée. Well, that’s a mistake. Engagement is a modern American invention. Betrothal is a very different animal. A betrothed couple hadn’t promised to marry each other some time in the future. Betrothed couples were already considered married. Mary wasn’t an unwed mother. But until the angel visited Joseph to let him in on what was going on, it would have appeared to him that she was an adulteress. Being willing to be the mother of the Messiah meant being willing to risk a great deal.
But we’re all used to hearing the Christmas story in the words of the King James Version, and those words include a much bigger mistake. It’s in the words the angels sang to the shepherds. All of us grew up hearing those words as, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
That’s a pleasant warm fuzzy for a cold winter’s night. But it’s not what the best manuscripts say. What we have here is not a wish for people to be nice to one another. True enough, there has been all too little peace in the sad and sorry story of the human race, and human beings have shown each other not nearly enough good will. But what we have here is not merely a wish that it were otherwise. Nor is it merely a statement that the angels are well disposed toward our species. And still less is it a statement of vague good wishes on God’s part toward our species. It was not merely a Christmas card that God sent the human race on that first Christmas. It was not merely a cheap and easy wish that we should be well and be happy.
In order to come to terms with the meaning of the angel’s song, it’s necessary to confront a reality we’d just as soon avoid. The fact of the matter is that we human beings don’t live at peace with one another, and never really have. Good will has always been a commodity that’s been in short supply on this planet. Whether it’s been nations, between strangers, or between members of the same family, that lack of peace and good will has implications also for our relationship with God. In failing to live in peace and good will toward one another, we’ve lived in alienation from God as well. And we’ve taken that alienation still farther. We’ve insisted on our right to live as we see fit, and to define right and wrong as we ourselves prefer. We have become our own little tin gods.
Not only have we lived in alienation from God and from each other, but also we’ve lived in alienation from our very selves. We know better, whether we admit it to ourselves or not. One of the reasons why we’re so defensive where our relationships with God with and our fellow human beings are concerned is because we know that the content of our hearts and our consciences is often indefensible. All of us have things of which we are ashamed, and about which our consciences are uneasy. We live at odds with ourselves, as well as with God and with our fellow human beings.
We push God away- and other human beings, too. We separate ourselves from the source of love, and peace- and of life itself. And then, we die.
That is the dilemma that made the first Christmas necessary. That was the reason why God took human form. This night is not about cute babies lying in the straw, and still less is it about vague good wishes from God toward the human race.
This night is about life and death. It is about humanity at war with itself, and with its God. It’s about all those things we’re so defensive about, and all those things we have to answer for, whether we’re willing to admit it or not.
It’s about a human race under divine judgment, and no less conscious that it lives under the condemnation of God’s justice for all that it lives in deep denial.
And the Baby in the manger is the peace between God on one hand, and between you and me, on the other. He’s the peace between us human beings, as well. And that’s where the mistake in the King James translation of our text comes in. The Greek doesn’t say “good will toward men.” It says “peace among those with whom God is pleased.”
But that’s not good news, is it? After all, we’re the ones who can’t get along with God, with each other, or even with ourselves. As vehemently as the Pharisee in us may deny it, we are the ones who know deep down that we don’t deserve God’s approval, or His friendship, or His love.
But those things are precisely what God gives us in the Person of that Baby in the manger. He is the Righteousness of those who have no righteousness. He is the source of healing for the broken, and freedom for those in bondage. He is the forgiveness for the guilty, and the Pardon for the condemned. He is the Gift of life to those who deserve only death. He is the Peace for those at war with others, with God, and with themselves.
In Him God is pleased with precisely those who least deserve His pleasure, and in Him God declares Himself at peace with all those who are at war with Him.
Tragically, most will continue to wage war against Him regardless of that peace, and will insist on living outside of his healing and His freedom and His forgiveness. Most will insist that they have no need of such things, and if they take note of this night at all will see in it a charming story full of angels and shepherds and cute little babies and other warm fuzzies- and nothing more.
Most will insist on going their own way, and continue to live at odds with God and with others and with their very selves. Most will insist on living- and dying- in denial. That is their privilege. God will not force His gift of peace upon them.
But the angels sing to the shepherds, and to us this night- and to all the human race- that whether or not we insist on living and dying at war with God, in the Person of that Baby God has declared peace with us. Most will spend eternity separated from Him. But that will be their choice, not His. If they insist on an eternity at war with God, that will not change the fact that in the Person of the Baby in that manger God, for His part, has declared hostilities ended, judgment set aside, and all of those who least deserve His pleasure to be precisely those with whom, for that Child’s sake, He is pleased.
It is no cheap, empty sentiment of which the angels sing. It is no easy pleasantry from God which they pass on the shepherds. It is the gift of His peace, and His pardon, and His good will to those who have no claim upon them.
It is not merely that God wishes us well, or even that He would like it if we got along each other. It is that He Himself has come among us in the Person of that Child to pay the price and bear the burden for our ill will, and to buy peace between us at the price of His own life.
It is that for His sake, and no matter how little we deserve it or what we have done or what may weigh upon our consciences, for His sake we are those with whom He is well pleased.
May the peace of God, which He gives us in the person of that Child, be your life and your hope through all eternity. Amen.