Sermon, Dec. 24, 2017 (Evening)

Sermon.12.24.17.Christmas.Eve

St. Paul’s –Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Isaiah 9.2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2.11-14; Luke 2.1-20

 

Most of you have heard these scriptures and this story countless times. A challenge confronts us: how do we look at the story with new eyes, how do we hear it with new ears.

After prophesying doom and destruction in concert with the Assyrian captivity, Isaiah says: “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” (9.2; NRSV). Isaiah tells the people to hope, for God will break the rod of the oppressor – their boots and their “garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire” (Vs. 5; NRSV). Then he presents the Messianic promise: “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” (Vs. 6; NRSV). If authority rests upon his shoulders, what will be the characteristics of his reign? Isaiah tells us, “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” (Vs. 7; NRSV).

Luke tells us of Caesar Augustus’ decree that all should be registered, undoubtedly for the purposes of taxation. The people or Israel were now living under the oppression of the Roman Empire. One had to return to one’s place of origin to be registered. As Joseph was descended from the house of David, and was living in Nazareth, he had to return to Bethlehem (the city of David) – a 100-mile journey, a good ten days of walking with a very pregnant Mary riding on a donkey. We tend to project our own cultural practices back on their time, so we think of them as pulling up to the local Holiday Inn Express. In accordance with their customs, they would have stayed with their relatives (perhaps distant relatives) as most everyone there would have been from the house of David.

During this time, houses were built, as they still are in some places, so the family lived above the stable or adjacent to the stable. It was all under one roof. All the spare rooms were taken, so relatives extended the hospitality of the stable. As hospitality was an important aspect of the culture, they more than likely were given fresh straw and hay. And here, under these humble circumstances, among the sheltered livestock, Jesus was born. Mary and Joseph wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, most likely filled with hay.

And who were the first to hear the remarkable news of Jesus’ birth – the shepherds watching their flocks by night, those who were lowest on the social scale. Many towns barred shepherds from entry. They were looked upon as liars, degenerates, and thieves. Shepherds were not allowed to testify in a court of law. Yet an angel came and stood before them; God’s glory shone around them. And 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. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” Then a multitude of the heaven host appeared “praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’ (Luke 2.10-14; NRSV). The shepherds went to Bethlehem, found Mary and Joseph and the infant, and told them all that had happened to them. Isn’t it ironic that God would use a bunch of lying shepherds to confirm the birth of the Messiah! Luke further tells us that Mary treasured their words “and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2.19; NRSV). Meanwhile, the shepherds returned glorifying and praising God for all they and seen and heard.

In the remainder of Luke, chapter 2, we encounter the story of Jesus’ circumcision, of Mary and Joseph’s purification, and of Jesus’ presentation at the temple in Jerusalem. Every firstborn male was to be presented to the Lord as holy, and a sacrifice was offered up to the Lord. A man named Simeon was in Jerusalem; the Holy Spirit had revealed that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. The Spirit of God directed him to the temple, where, upon seeing the infant Jesus, he took him in his arms and prayed: “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2.25-32).

This image of light is profoundly important. We encountered it in Isaiah’s “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” We encountered it in God’s glory which shone about the shepherds. Here we encounter it in Simeon’s “light for revelation to the Gentiles.” We sing of this light in the carol, O little Town of Bethlehem, “Yet in thy dark streets shineth, The everlasting Light.”

This carol was written for a children’s Sunday school at Holy Trinity Church in Boston by the Reverend Phillips Brooks (1835-1893), a rather remarkable Episcopal priest. We remember him annually on January 23rd, the date of his death, as his life is featured in Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints, (pp. 184-185). There we read:

Born in Boston in 1835, Phillips Brooks began his ministry in Philadelphia. His impressive personality and his eloquence immediately attracted attention. After ten years in Philadelphia, he returned to Boston as rector of Trinity Church, which was destroyed in the Boston fire three years later. It is a tribute to Brooks’ preaching, character, and leadership, that in four years of worshiping in temporary and bare surroundings, the congregation grew and flourished. The new Trinity Church was a daring architectural enterprise for its day, with its altar placed in the center of the chancel, “a symbol of unity; God and man and all God’s creation,” and was a symbol of Brook’s vision—a fitting setting for the greatest preacher of the century. This reputation has never been challenged.

 

In 1865, Brooks made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On Christmas Eve, 1865, he travelled on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Brooks wrote: “Before dark we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it, in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds. . . . Somewhere in those fields we rode through, the shepherds must have been. As we passed, the shepherds were still ‘keeping watch over their flocks,’ or leading them home to fold” (https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-o-little-town-of-bethlehem ). The hymn was written in 1868 on an informal leaflet. Bearing his visit to Bethlehem in mind, let’s examine the words of this beloved hymn:

 

1. O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie;
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by:
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light;

The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee to-night.

 

2. For Christ is born of Mary;
And gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars, together
Proclaim the holy birth;
And praises sing to God the King,
And peace to men on earth.

 

3. How silently, how silently,
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

 

4. O holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in,
Be born in us to-day.

We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel.

 

Louis H. Redner was the hymn’s composer. Christmas was rapidly approaching; Brooks asked Redner, the organist of Holy Trinity Church, if he had “ground out the music for it yet.” Redner recounts, the “simple music was written in great haste and under great pressure almost on the Eve of Christmas. It was after midnight that a little angel whispered the strain in my ears and I roused myself and jotted it down as you have it.”

Yes, angels still visit bearing the light of God: “Where meek folks will receive Him still, The dear Christ enters in.”

 

Amen

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