December 24, 2013 –– Christmas Eve Vigil
God Is With Us
Christmas takes us into the heart of what it means to be human. Humanity has not changed so much over thousands of years. When the Lord gave the first promise of a “young woman” bearing a son, King Ahaz was worried about enemies that hated him. The threat was destruction and death. We find ourselves threatened the same way today. Whether it is the destruction and death that comes from terrorism and war, the destruction of a natural disaster or bodies that wear out, or death by accident, local violence or disease, human existence lives under a constant threat. Eventually we die. We cannot grasp the incredible power of Christmas unless we face the truth of the things that threaten us and our too-real fears.
We have a new baby in our house. Our daughter, who for now lives in a small studio apartment in our basement, gave us our fourth grandchild a month ago. He’s a boy, and we’ve not had a child this young in our house for about thirty-seven years––more than long enough for me to have forgotten how fragile and dependent an infant is. When I prepare his bottle I often think of the many infants in this world who do not have enough to eat. I think about the evil that even now threatens my tiny grandson.
This new baby boy in our home, whose needs (and cries) seem to take priority over everything else, has been a fresh and ongoing reminder to me of the incredible thing God did. In the birth of Jesus Christ, the Father almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible condensed himself into a human baby. That kind of vulnerability, freely taken by God in order to come close to us and show us his love, is beyond comprehension. God is with us! What does this really mean?
We have come here tonight in the name of Jesus Christ. Christians do not have a “holiday” celebration for its own sake. We are not gathered here merely to add one more thing to a list of seasonal festivities. This is something God promised over 2700 years ago through the prophet Isaiah, and the promise was fulfilled.
Yet we in the Church have heard this all our lives, so much so that we can become immune. The world hears it, and modern presuppositions say it can’t be true―a nice story, maybe, but not true. It’s further complicated because no one can fully comprehend it.... Son of God and Son of Mary.... divine and human. The eternal becomes encapsulated in time. The Creator becomes one of the created. The Mighty One comes as a helpless babe. The Holy One is rubbing elbows with the sinful.
If we are honest, there is something about God getting so close that is frightening. While we want some way to escape a world that threatens and hurts, we would like for it to come so that we are still in control. For all the hope that Christmas offers―and I mean the real Christmas, in contrast to so much of the silliness and materialism that tries to dilute the literal story in the Bible―it seems obvious that an unbelieving world wants to keep this Son of God and Son of Mary at a distance. It’s okay to sing in public about Frosty the Snowman, but not about Jesus the Savior.
When King Ahaz was offered a special baby as a sign of God’s deliverance, he did not want it. When Joseph first heard about Mary’s baby he did not want it; he was ready to break the engagement. What do we do when God starts getting close in our lives? Especially in a way that appears uncomfortable?
Ahaz and Joseph went in two different directions. If you read the OT story, Ahaz went ahead with his own plan for deliverance in spite of God’s word. Joseph, on the other hand, listened and obeyed when the angel spoke to him in the dream: what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins (Mtt 1:20b–21).
The sign that had been promised so long ago was coming true. A son was about to be born, a baby that was both Son of God and Son of Mary. The result of this is a Savior, the very thing all of us need so badly. God has come, and he has come to save us.
One of the Christmas carols that probably all of us know well has a verse that is a great prayer:
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend on us we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today....
O come to us.... abide with us....
our Lord Emmanuel
May that be the prayer of your heart. There is nothing more important. It is what this night is all about. God is with us.