Christmas Sermon 2014

For thus says the Lord of hosts: once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly hosts praising God and saying. Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth, goodwill toward men.

In the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit: Amen.

For thus says the Lord of hosts: once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land

This verse from the prophet Haggai came to me as I prepared my sermon for this Christmas Eve, it is not a text we normally hear on this day but those familiar with Handel’s Messiah will know it from the Bass recitative in the Nativity portion of the work. It is a text that sticks with me even though my choral years are long past.

Shaking seems like an appropriate image for Christmas this year. It is a year in which I, at least, have been shaken. I suspect many of you have been as well. Just this morning I awakened to the news that another young black man was shot by a police officer in Missouri. We are shaken by an increase of senseless violence, not only here in this nation, but around the world as police officers are assassinated in New York, journalists and aid workers are executed in Syria, school children are murdered in Pakistan, and young African girls are taken into captivity as pawns of war. We are shaken by a renewed awareness of the reality of and sin of racism, the increasing disparity between rich and poor. We see the shaking of fists in anger and outrage. Some of us have been moved to join them. And seeing all these events, we as people of faith shake our heads and say how can this be? We are shaken and we ask what is this world coming to?

For thus says the Lord of hosts: once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land.

I was reminded of this verse while reflecting on the much loved hymn by Charles Wesley which we will sing at the conclusion of this service, Hark the Herald angels sing.” Those of you who know me and have listened to my Christmas sermons these last 11 years know how much my entry into scripture is facilitated by hymns. This year is no exception.

We know the hymn and its first line as “Hark the Herald Angels sing” But did you know that “Hark the Herald Angels sing” was not the original text? Those words were substituted by the evangelist George Whitfield some years later. The original text was “Hark how all the Welkin Rings, Glory to the King of Kings” Welkin is an old English word for the whole created order. The image which Wesley sought to convey, , the same message that the Evangelist Luke sought to convey in his telling of the birth of the Messiah is that at the Angelic announcement at the birth of Christ the whole created order shook in fulfillment of this prophetic word.

We all know the words of the song, “Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth. And you many of you have heard me say that Luke records these words to make the point that the real source of life and peace was not the emperor Caesar Augustus, the supposed author of the pax Augustana, a ruler who Luke’s first hearers looked backed to with the same sort of nostalgia that many of us look back to the years before 9-11, or the Clinton or Reagan era depending on one’s political persuasion or the 1950’s depending on one’s age. But I am there is more.
As Christians, followers of Jesus, we are called to see this birth as something more than an historical fact. There are some who try to challenge even this, as evidenced by the bill board which appeared in Milwaukee at the beginning of Advent depicting a child writing Santa asking not to have to go to church this year because they were too old for fairy tales. The evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth is well attested outside the Christian Scriptures. And I am too old for fairy tales, too. The incarnation is no fairy tale. We believe, we know that God has done something amazing in this birth and that the whole creation shakes at the news.

What the Gospel writer and the hymnist want us to know is that the birth of the Messiah, the incarnation of Jesus as the Messiah is God’s wake up call to the world. In the birth of Jesus God has shaken and will shake a sleeping world awake to the possibilities before us. What are those possibilities? The wolf will lie down with the lamb and the child shall play over the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, the prophet Isaiah tells us. Swords shall be turned to plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. A day of peace that dimly shines.

The evangelist John reminds us that this light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. The incarnation is the beginning of new creation. The word which was spoken at the beginning is now the word made flesh.

All this is possible because of the self-emptying of God. The God who in the incarnation becomes God with us. Mild he lays his glory by, born that we, humanity, no more may die. It is this theological reality known as kenosis the Greek word for self -emptying which is the way to the possibilities before us.

Hark the Herald Angels sing Glory to the new born King.

What is to be our response? It may surprise you to know that Wesley’s original poem spells that response out for us. It contains 4 more stanzas or two verses. The first used to appear in earlier editions. Maybe we need to restore them in the future. They read

Come, Desire of Nations, come
Fix in us thy humble home
Rise, the woman’s conquering seed
Bruise in us the serpents head

Now display thy saving power
Ruined nature now restore
Now in mystic union jojn
thine to our and ours to thine.

Adam’s likeness, Lord efface
Stamp thy image in its place
Second Adam from above
Reinstate us in thy love

Let us thee, though lost, regain
Thee, the life, the inner man
O, to all thyself impart
Formed in each believing heart.

Dream with me what might our world be like if this were the response of all to the news of this night that a child is born to us, a son is given us and the government will be upon his shoulder.

Think a minute.

I am certain it would be a world which is kinder, a world which demonstrates liberty and justice for all. A world where no child is hungry, none who are sick are in want of care. A world based more on the dignity of being created in God’s image then on one’s place as part of the market share. A world where all lives matter.

God comes tonight to wake us up as individuals and as the Church. He shakes ever so gently and says to us arise, shine your light has come and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you. He does so in the birth of child in a backwater town named literally House of Bread.

As we come to the Lord’s table tonight may this Eucharist, this Christ Mass, awaken in us a new resolve to be formed and shaped by the one we receive that we might awaken others to God’s will and way.