Rev. Dr. Scott Herr
Please Read: Luke 2:8-20
After the glory of the heavenly host shining around the shepherds and an angel speaking to them, who needs a sign? But the angel said, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” And then the strangest part of the story: “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
Signs are important to us all, and the first thing you have to do when you come to a new country is learn how to read the signs. Understanding what a sign means, of course is the issue, and more difficult than it might seem. But what’s the meaning of this “sign” about which the angels speak, a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger?
N.T. Wright explains: “The gospels offer us not so much a different kind of human, but a different kind of God: A God who, having made humans in his own image, will most naturally express himself in and as that image-bearing creature; a God who, having made Israel to share and bear the pain and horror of the world, will most naturally express himself in and as that pain-bearing, horror-facing creature.”
What is so striking to us, of course, is the absolutely mundane quality of the sign. This is not shock and awe. This is not fighter jet fly-by glory of the Lord in a midnight sky. This is not some fantastic moon-walking on water or rising of the dead. That will come later in the story… But the sign given to these shepherds, the first to receive the good news of Christ’s birth…is none other than a simple baby. A poor child, even, wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a hay feeder because there was no room for his family at the inn…
The Gospel writers all proclaim that our reality has been invaded by God, and the Kingdom of God is our destiny. But the sign of the beginning is the birth of an innocent vulnerable little child... It’s so strange. In the birth of Jesus we celebrate tonight, God began the fulfillment of all the promises to the people of Israel, and through Israel, the beginning of the reconciliation, the reclamation and restoration of the whole world!
We must beware, though… The sign is not the destination. A sign points to the destination. You don’t stop at a sign to Paris 20 kilometers away and start marveling at what a great city Paris is… You follow the signs all the way into the city!
But here’s the problem. In our story the baby is the sign. Do we worship a baby? Or is it perhaps the King this baby becomes who deserves our allegiance and praise? And what of this King? Things haven’t changed that much since the first century when Jesus was born. Notice Luke’s details… the political hype and drama was all there. Crazy violence was in the news around maniacs like King Herod, who slaughtered the innocents in search of the child who threatened his throne. But the angel’s message was crystal clear: “Do not be afraid… Unto you is born this day a Savior who is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign…”
Perhaps the medium is the message? Perhaps there is good news in how small and how fragile the gift is that is given? There is power in innocence, in purity and vulnerability… Perhaps that’s why the most mentally ill and deranged would kill the youngest children… Perhaps that’s why we love Tolkien’s The Hobbit so much? We all love the underdog. Mr. Bilbo Baggins is the most unlikely hero. The little Hobbit who prefers to stay at home in the Shire is really the one called forth to change the world by going on an adventure…
In the midst of fear and loss - this is so central to the story we often take it for granted - our God intervenes ever so gently, and with complete vulnerability... How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift of the Kingdom is given.
There will be conflicts between this King and the kings of this world. Indeed, the powers and principalities of this world that specialize in fear, oppression, power and violence as the modus operandi are confronted directly with the humility, the self-emptying love, the suffering sacrifice of God’s heart of compassion. This helpless babe of Mary will grow into the full stature of God, but then offer himself as an atoning sacrifice for all.
This babe is a sign of the Kingdom of God. And not just a sign, but where sign and reality begin to merge. Of course the merger, the transformation, the extension of the Kingdom is not yet complete… There are signs of this coming Kingdom, but it is not fully here…
Tonight as is our custom, we will light candles together and hear again the famous words of John about how the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. Candle vigils have been happening this past week in the United States to remember the victims of the senseless massacre at Newtown, Connecticut.
I’ve never thought of the candlelight Christmas Eve service as a vigil before, but in a way, that’s exactly what it is. We light a candle as a sign that we know the kingdom of God is not here yet, but it will come. We lament, we long, we hope for that day to come. Where there is forgiveness, where there is a show of mercy, wherever there is an act of compassion and generosity, wherever there is a show of grace and love, there is the Kingdom of God. That is how God’s Kingdom comes into the world. We become signs of the kingdom of God ourselves when we follow this Jesus into his grace and truth. Like Mother Teresa once said, “Not all people can do great things, but all people can do small things with great love.”
We light a candle as a sign that though there is darkness in this world, the light of God’s love, however small, will always shine in the darkness. The darkness in this world will never overcome the glory of God’s love.
I want to share a story of a recent event here that has given me hope. Our church welcomed around 250 American University in Paris students to enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner here in the Sanctuary on November 22nd. We cleared out all of the pews and set up tables. The faculty and administration of the AUP prepared and served the students a lovely traditional American Thanksgiving dinner. Celeste Schenk, the president of the AUP, wrote a thoughtful thank you, “‘This church is a place of goodness and outreach and generosity.’ … You have been even more than neighbors, indeed, friends of the highest order.” I loved President Schenk’s note, and was impressed by the staff and students who worked so hard to make this a place of true sanctuary....
But here’s the kicker: A few days ago, just before they traveled home for Christmas, two AUP students, Daniel and Mimi, came into my office to hand-deliver a cash offering taken up by the students to support the Friday Mission Lunch. Mimi said she has a group of students who want to volunteer their time in the new year to feed the hungry. She was excited to know that they are welcome to help out with the Friday Mission Lunch.
A sign of the kingdom for you may be the smile of a stranger; a welcoming community, a hot meal for the hungry, a drink for the thirsty, a strong arm to hold onto in the face of loss and grief, a young student choosing to make a difference… In a moment we’ll hear “O Holy Night” sung for us. It was written by a French wine seller, Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure. A priest asked him to write a poem for Christmas in 1847. We all want to get to the part where “the weary world rejoices…” but it’s a song that really gets at the subversive nature of the gospel. “His law is love and his gospel is peace. Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother. And in his name all oppression shall cease.”
The question is, in the midst of the beauty and comfort of our celebrations, do we really hear the message of the angels? Can we hear in the Christmas story the call to radical hope and the adventure of new life as God’s people? Will we become signs of the Kingdom of God for a weary world? Will we be light that shines in the darkness? That is the Christmas question that is inextricably linked to the Christmas good news.
As we hear again and receive the Christmas news of great joy for all the people, I pray that we will engage in the Christmas Kingdom work that is for all the people:
When the song of the angel is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins;
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers (and sisters),
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.