by Jason Micheli
Isaiah 9.2-7, Titus 2.11-14, 3.4-7 (click to see Scripture text)
When it comes to human nature, I’ve got what’s called a “low anthropology.”
Basically, that means 1) People are bad. 2) Christians are people. 3) Christians are bad. Low anthropology.
So, I’ve got my suspicions about how this whole online worship gig goes.
Am I supposed to believe you don’t scroll through the sermon?
My mom admits she does “sometimes.”
I remember what it was like on Christmas Eve.
I remember you stirring restlessly in the pews while you shushed your kids, who were miserable in their holiday outfits. I remember you shushing your husband, who was there against his will and also miserable in his holiday outfit. I remember you stealing glances at your Apple Watch (an early Christmas gift) and stifling yawns until the time came to pass the light of Christ.
Am I now supposed to buy the notion that you’re going to track along with a sermon under these conditions, with your teenager downstairs on the PlayStation and the dog barking at the UPS deliveryman, and your spouse huffing and puffing on the Peloton? By the time you view this worship service on Christmas Eve, those will almost certainly be the circumstances in my house.
Look— the Razorcrest might’ve been destroyed, but Disney+ not only still has Grogu (and he’s adorable) but also The Muppet Christmas Carol. I may be better than Joel Osteen, but I can’t compete with The Great Gonzo. So, in case you’re going to scroll past my sermon in order to get to “Silent Night,” I’m going to hand over the goods here at the top of the sermon.
I’ll give you the gift up front.
As a preacher, I’m not here to talk about God.
Why would you waste your time listening to someone speculate about God? Especially on Christmas? You’ve still got presents to wrap, in-laws to FaceTime (and isn’t that one upside of 2020?), and, if you’ve got little ones at home, Santa’s John Hancock to practice a few more times.
You don’t have time to waste listening to someone speculate about God.
So it’s good that I am not here tonight to speak about God.
As a preacher of the Gospel, called by the Risen Christ and commissioned by his— adulterous— Bride, the Church, I am here tonight to speak for God.
As Martin Luther said, not one of us can self-apply the promises of scripture.
They’re simply too good to believe.
We need a preacher.
So, as a preacher— before you fast forward to the passing of the candlelight— permit me to speak for God. What could ameliorate all the doom-scrolling and misery of this year more than having your very own Word from the Living God? Here it is, the present-tense, here-and-now Word of the Living God for you, no matter who you are or who you pretend to be, no matter what you’ve done or what you’ve left undone, no matter if you believe this promise or if you disbelieve it, no matter what you do with this promise or if you cast it aside like so many other holiday gifts.
Here is God’s Word tonight for you:
In the name of Jesus Christ and by his authority alone, I declare unto you the entire forgiveness of all your sins.
No one gets coal in their stocking tonight.
What takes Luke five scenes and an Aaron Sorkin’s cast of characters to convey, where Matthew requires magi, a 23andMe report, and the slaughter of the innocents, St. Paul distills down to just a couple of verses that even your brain on 2020 can remember, “When the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy.” Heck, the prophet Isaiah and the heavenly host are like the Marie Kondo of scripture. Tonight, they minimize the Christmas message to a single, put-it-in-your-pocket verse, “For unto us, a child is given.”
For us— that is, for you— he is a gift.
Jesus Christ and everything that belongs to him (all of his mercy and love, all of his faithfulness and righteousness) is gifted to you. And everything that belongs to you (all of your sin and shame, all of your regrets and failures) are his now.
By grace, you are enough.
You are forgiven and free to be.
You are free to love your neighbor not because you fear God, but because you love your neighbor. For that matter, it’s a rotten way to use the gift, but you are free not to love your neighbor. And you are free to scroll past the rest of this sermon if you so choose.
Go ahead— the gift, you really are free to scroll ahead.
I’m not joking. I’ll even give you a moment.
If so, Merry Christmas.
If you are a teacher and coronatide’s wake has left you feeling like a failure, welcome— I’ve got some good news for you.
If you are a Zoomed-out parent, frustrated by virtual learning and exhausted from teleworking, welcome— I’ve got some good news for you.
If you are married and ten months of covid-induced quality time has exposed cracks in your relationship, welcome— I’ve got some good news for you.
If you are single and sick of hunkering down, if you’re lonely and depressed, welcome— I’ve got some good news for you.
If you fell off the wagon during the quarantine, welcome, I’ve got some good news for you.
If you texted or posted or tweeted or forwarded anything during this election that you regret, if you’re embarrassed about how much emotional energy you invested— or are still investing— in the election’s outcome, welcome— I’ve got some good news for you.
If it feels like EVERYONE ELSE IS HANDLING THIS PANDEMIC BETTER THAN YOU, right down to their covid beards and sourdough starter, welcome— I’ve got some good news for you.
If you skipped worship tonight and you’re listening to this sermon in Spotify on Epiphany, a full nine days after Christmas, because, when it comes to discipleship, that’s just the best you can do right now, welcome.
What comes into the world through Mary’s womb tonight is not one more responsibility for you to manage. It’s not another burden for you to shoulder. It’s not another task to juggle or another To Do for you to fail to do. The incarnation is the opposite of expectation.
God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.
God gives you Christ.
To hold onto.
God comes to you in this way; so that, you will search him out nowhere else than in this gift— so that, you will search him out in no other way than as a gift.
In my twenty years of ministry, other than tonight, the only Christmas Eve I have spent out of the pulpit was five years year ago.
My family and I were forced to hunker down for most of 2015 after I was diagnosed with a rare and ultimately incurable cancer that January. Christmas that year came after exhausting, frightening, and often demoralizing months of surgeries and blood treatments and rounds of intensive chemo I’m still convinced violated the Geneva Conventions. With my white blood count ground down to zero, I spent many weeks of that year wearing a mask when I went outside. Most of the time, however, I spent quarantined at home or in the hospital, cut off from friends and family, and feeling isolated from the rest of the world. The deeper I journeyed into that year, the more I judged myself for not handling the disease as well as other victims of it. By the time Christmas came that year, I felt like all the hope had been poured out of me, and I was worn out from the constant anxiety that the smallest of neighborly gestures would mean the death of me.
I was restless and weary.
My mind felt cob-webbed by the chemo.
I couldn’t pray or otherwise practice my faith.
It was at the end of that terrible year, the night before Christmas Eve, that it hit me.
I was at our home in the Blue Ride Mountains. I was in the kitchen, struggling to make dinner, and, while I did so, I was listening to the London Philharmonic’s performance of Handel’s Messiah.
I’d listened to the album scores of other times, but suddenly, I heard this gospel promise from the prophet Isaiah, “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given,” and it struck me.
With the force of an epiphany, it hit me that as a preacher I had defined what it means to be a Christian in terms that now disqualified someone like me. Hearing God’s promise on the lips of the preacher Isaiah, it stuck me that I had defined what it means to be a Christian according to the Law; that is, I had defined Christianity in terms of doing.
I couldn’t stand up for social justice. I was a shut-in. I was too sick to roll up my sleeves and serve the poor. I didn’t have the strength to be anyone’s Good Samaritan.
I was too tired to do much of anything much less do the things that Jesus did. I was too anxious to emulate Jesus in my own life. Change the world?! I didn’t have the energy to change my Netflix password. I was too overwhelmed by the little piece of the world called “me” and my life.
In other words, it took a cancer quarantine to remind me of the Word the Lord gives through the Apostle Paul to Titus tonight; namely, that before Jesus Christ is your example, he is your gift.
Look for it—
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all…through Jesus Christ who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession [Gift] who are zealous for good works [Example].”
Listen for it—
“But when the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in our righteousness [Gift]…so that, being justified by his grace, we might live as heirs according to the hope of eternal life [Example].”
About tonight’s “beautiful text,” the Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, says, “If the fire of this promise doesn’t stir you, then you are colder than cold,” because the promise is that we have everything through him. Everything that ultimately matters we already have through him who has been gifted to us— that’s the promise delivered tonight to the shepherds.
We have righteousness— his own, his permanent perfect record according to God’s Law.
We have justification. That is, in the Lamb’s Book of Life, next to your name it does not read “Not Guilty.” It reads “Totally Innocent.” And there’s nothing you do can undo it.
We have everything through him.
We have salvation. He saved us, Paul writes. It’s accomplished. Salvation is received not achieved. Everything has already been done. He has set you free from Death and given you eternal life not as your wage— something you earn— but as your inheritance— something gifted to you by another.
We have everything through him who has been gifted to us.
It’s laying ahold of this gift that changes us according to Christ’s example. This is what St. Paul means in verse twelve that the gift of God’s grace trains us to live holy lives in the present age. The reason you must take Christ as your gift before you take him as your example is that the gift— the Gospel— is how God changes you— from the inside out— to live into Christ’s example.
When it comes to understanding the Gospel, these two words— gift and example— are the most important words and precisely in that order, because when you reverse the order— example, gift— you are left with no Gospel at all. The example of Christ would be in vain if Christ were not first a gift, because no one can truly follow the example of the one born tonight unless they are born again by the gift of God’s grace. As Paul explains the importance of this ordering in his Letter to the Romans, the Law— the example— is powerless to produce what it prescribes and, thus, it only accuses us. Only the Gospel, the gift of God’s grace for you, can create in you what the Law commands. Only the promise that everything has been done for you has the power to get you to go and do.
This is why we do not call him Saint Jesus.
No, the message the angels declare is, “For you, this day, in the City of David, a Savior is born.”
In a culture of lies and mendacity, fake news and alternative facts, that no longer appears to recognize truth or moral absolutes, it can be tempting to turn the child born to Mary into a New Moses, a dispenser of ought’s and should’s. But the logic of our text tonight is that broken sinners do not need instructions in ethics. Sinners broken by the Law of God (and that’s what you are whether you realize it or not) need a word from God that rescues them from the misery of their sin and restores them to preach with God through faith in his promises.
Five hundred years ago, as he worked on translating the New Testament into German so that the scriptures would be accessible to ordinary people, Martin Luther, wrote a brief preface entitled, A Brief Instruction on What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels.
In it Luther writes, “Be sure, moreover, that you do not make Christ into a Moses, as if Christ did nothing more than teach and provide examples as the other saints do, as if the Gospel were simply a textbook of teachings or laws. Therefore, you should grasp Christ, his words, works, and sufferings, in a twofold manner. First as an example that is presented to you, which you should follow and imitate. Thus, when you see how Christ prays, fasts, helps people, and shows them love, so also you should do, both for yourself and for your neighbor.
However, this is the smallest part of the Gospel, on the basis of which it cannot yet even be called gospel. For on this level Christ is of no more help to you than some other saint. His life remains his own and does not as yet contribute anything to you. In short, this mode of understanding Christ as simply an example does not make Christians. It only makes hypocrites.
You must grasp Christ at a much higher level. Even though this higher level has for a long time been the very best, the understanding of it has been something rare.
The chief article and foundation of the Gospel is that before you take Christ as an example, you accept and recognize him as a gift, as a present that God has given you and that is your own. This means that when you see or hear of Christ doing or suffering something, you do not doubt that Christ himself, with his deeds and suffering, belongs to you. On this you may depend as surely as if you had done it yourself; indeed, as if you were Christ himself.”
This is what it means to have a proper grasp of the Gospel, that is, of the overwhelming goodness of God. When you have Christ as the foundation and chief blessing of your salvation, then the other part follows: that you take him as your example, giving yourself in service to your neighbor just as you see that Christ has given himself for you. Therefore, make note of this, that Christ as a gift nourishes your faith and makes you a Christian. But Christ as an example exercises your works. These do not make you a Christian.”
Before Jesus Christ is your example, he is your gift.
And for all those wearied by this odd and trying year, that’s good news.
It’s good news, because when Jesus is your gift before he’s your example, it takes earning out of the equation. There’s nothing you have to do to deserve the gift because it’s already been given to you.
I don’t know how you’ve spent your quarantine time, but during the pandemic I’ve hunkered down and watched two classic, quality television programs— maybe you’ve heard of them— called the The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, all twenty-four and sixteen seasons respectively.
See, aren’t you glad you stayed through to the end of the sermon?
Who had “a Bachelor reference in the Christmas Eve sermon” on their 2020 Bingo Card?
If you’re aware of this shameless and tacky dating show, then you know that every episode concludes with the rose ceremony wherein the bachelor or bachelorette gift a rose to the girl or guy they believe earned it. The gift protects the recipient from elimination.
What makes The Bachelor and The Bachelorette such a guilty pleasure is how contrived and inauthentic are the dates. The prospective mates are all performing, because they’re trying to earn the rose and not be eliminated. They’re trying to measure up to the bachelor’s ideals and therefore they are not free.
However, once in a while, the rose ceremony comes at the very beginning of the show. For example, in season fifteen of The Bachelorette Hannah gave her rose to Cameron— I mean, Cam— before the season even began. And so Cam entered the relationship knowing there was no chance he would be rejected, no fear he would be eliminated, no threat he would be sent home. And if you watch the dates where the rose has come at the beginning— where the gift has preceded any earning— they’re normal. The two are at ease with one another. They’re free to laugh and cry, and they begin to open up and reveal their true selves.
“For unto us a child is born.”
God gives you the gift up front, right at the beginning of the story.
And God gives you the rose that is Christ himself again and again, including tonight, in his Word, in Water, and in Wine and Bread, which remind us that by our baptism in to his suffering, death, and resurrection, you were irrevocably removed from the naughty list.
You’ve got the rose already. You don’t need to impress the Bridegroom.
You’ll never be sent home.
So no matter what 2020 has dealt you, you’re free to be. You can live your life in the grace of God, you can live your life, at least for moments, at ease, in the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, without fear, and in perfect love.
And remember, I’m a preacher.
This isn’t me talking about God.
This is me speaking for God.
This is God’s promise to you tonight in this baby. For unto us a child is born.
9:2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.
9:3 You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.
9:4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.
9:5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
9:6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
9:7 His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
2:11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all,
2:12 training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly,
2:13 while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.
2:14 He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.
3:4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,
3:5 he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.
3:6 This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,
3:7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
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