Christmas Eve, 2017
Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I have a confession to make. This year, I have not found it easy to get into the Christmas spirit. I have spent a lot of time wondering what difference it makes that Jesus was born, in this world in which so many terrible things have happened. This year, I have not enjoyed the candle-light that comes with Advent and Christmas. The light in the darkness imagery, which I usually find powerful, has been corrupted by current events. Specifically, Charlottesville, and the Nazis who paraded down its streets one night, carrying torches and calling for the murder of anyone they didn’t like. Those torches brought light, but only so that they could cast deeper shadows. Which then begs the question: what kind of light are we waiting for? What is the light that shines in the darkness, bringing good news? Which brings up another question: what kind of savior are we waiting for? What kind of savior is this baby Jesus, born in a manger two thousand years ago? Which leads to the final question: what difference does it all make? What does it matter, to you or to me or to anyone, that two thousand years ago a poor Jewish baby named Jesus was born in a backwater village, grew up, lived for about thirty years, before being executed for treason and blasphemy?
There’s all kinds of light, and there’s all kinds of saviors. If you had asked most Roman citizens in the year that Jesus was born if they needed a savior, they would have said they already had one. Emperor Augustus was the ‘savior’ of the Roman Empire. That was his official title. They put it on all the money. He saved them from disorder by seizing control and turning the Republic into a dictatorship. He saved them from war by brutally putting down Rome’s enemies so that none of them would dare oppose him again. He was the biggest, the best, the most powerful, and so he won control of everything, and ‘right’ and ‘good’ and ‘truth’ were whatever he said they were. If you were one of his supporters, life was pretty good. If you weren’t, however, or if you just happened to be one of the masses of people he didn’t care about one way or another, life got worse. Emperor Augustus brought light to some people by making the world darker for others. He saved some people by hurting others.
All too often, that’s what the world thinks light and salvation are supposed to look like. And when you are scared, or upset, or hurting, or angry, or proud and someone promises you that they will fix all your problems for you, it’s very easy to go along with it. To say that if a good life for me and my people means that other people have to get clobbered and hurt, well, it’s worth it. To say that the power to hurt and control others is what makes a person or a nation great. To go through life with your fists up, expecting the worst, assuming that anybody who isn’t your family or tribe is out to get you and you’ve got to get them first. To look for the kind of light that you can control and use as a weapon, the kind of safety that’s rooted in hurting others before they can hurt you. And it seems like a lot of people are looking for that kind of light and salvation. We’ve all seen it, in the rhetoric of politicians, in rants on facebook, in the torches and online mobs of white supremacists.
But the light that God gives is not a weapon, and it’s not something we can control, and God did not create us to treat the rest of God’s creation like enemies, and God’s salvation is not based on hurting others before they get a chance to do it to you. God’s salvation is not about temporary safety from people we hate or fear. God’s salvation is about creating a world where hate and fear are gone, permanently, a world where all people—even those we believe are our enemies—have a good and safe and happy place.
God’s light is Jesus Christ, who lived and died without a scrap of earthly power to his name. He was born a poor child in the middle of nowhere, member of a race that’s spent most of its existence getting pushed around by just about everybody. He was born in a stable, and while angels heralded his birth, the only humans who took any note were poor shepherds and weird foreigners called magi. And that baby, that savior grew up, but he didn’t grow up with power to rival the self-professed savior of the world, Emperor Augustus. Jesus the savior grew up with quite a different power, a different salvation. A power that’s about healing and justice for all people, not just those on top of the heap.
Listen to the words of Isaiah: all the boots of the tramping warriors, all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. All the trappings of violence and hate, all the weapons of oppression, will be destroyed. There will simply be no place for them in God’s kingdom. All people will be free, from whatever holds them captive: freed from unjust laws and bullies and abusers, but also freed from fear and greed and hate. That’s the salvation that Jesus brings. A world where nobody walks around with their fists up to fight with, but with their arms open to embrace with. And the light he brings is a light for all people who live in darkness. It’s a light that obliterates the shadows, instead of making them loom larger. It’s a light that brings joy for all people—not just the chosen few, but for all of creation, all humans and animals and rocks and plants and stars.
That’s the kind of light and salvation that Jesus brings. It’s not just for a few people, it’s for everybody. And while the fullness of that light will not be seen until Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead, we as Christians live in response to it. We can’t control the world, but we are called to let Christ shape our response to it. We are called to live in the light of that future reality, to live as people who walk in light and not in darkness, people who have seen the salvation of God. We are called to live as people who know that the baby Jesus, born in a manger, has made and is making a real difference in the world and will continue to do so.
The world has a lot of darkness in it, and there are some people who want to make that darkness deeper, or who think that light and salvation and safety belong only to themselves. But we are called to spread the light to all people who walk in darkness. We are called to open our arms to embrace all of God’s children in love, as Mary and Joseph embraced their baby boy, as Jesus himself embraced all people who came to him. We are called to live lives of joy, knowing that God has given us light and salvation. We are called to remember that Christ is here, with us, now, this night and every moment of our lives, and that Christ is at work in us and through us even when the world seems darkest.
May we always follow the true light of Christ, and may that light shine forth for all the world.