[This is the text of a short homily I gave at a family Zoom Christmas Eve service on December 24, 2021.]
Picture it: Jerusalem, sometime in the 730s BCE. The world as you know it is being shaken by the rise of an empire in the far northeast, the likes of which no one has ever seen. Whether to throw yourself at its mercy or fight it before it’s too late is the question of the day. Of more immediate concern, however, your rivals closer to home, from Samaria and Damascus, are advancing on your city, laying waste to the countryside, in the hopes of forcing you to join them in their fight against this rising Assyrian threat. The situation looks bleak, almost hopeless.
But then, into this darkness comes a Word of hope:
It shall not stand,
and it shall not come to pass.
The Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. (Isaiah 7)
And sure enough, the rival kings are scattered, and not only that, but Jerusalem is spared the Assyrian threat as well.
This divine act was symbolized by the birth of a royal baby, Hezekiah — proof, in the immediate term, that God wasn’t done yet with Jerusalem and its royal family, proof that God was, indeed, still with them. Immanuel. And, of course, in the longer term, the prophecy provided a needed inspiration for the faithful as they longed for a still better day, another baby.
Picture it: Fields outside Bethlehem, sometime around the turn of the common era. You are watching over your flocks on a pitch black night. You are the lowest of the low, outcast even among your own people, who are considered backward and suspect by your Roman overlords. You’re not sure who is worse: the Romans or Herod, the petty king-in-name-only who governs with their support. For their part, the religious leaders — the ones who call you unclean and unfit to be a part of community life — are divided by petty squabbles of no interest to anyone but themselves. The countryside is rife with rumours of insurrections that will only make things worse. It’s a hopeless situation. But then again, you’re used to that. And so you mind your sheep, which is the same thing as minding your own business.
But then, the sky lights up above you. You lift your eyes and see an angel of the Lord and are amazed to find that the angel is addressing you:
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.
Suddenly, the angel is joined by a whole army of angels and they begin to sing:
Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors! (Luke 2.10-14)
You hurry into Bethlehem and find it just as the angel had said. A baby — far from the lavish life of the palace, and yet, somehow, you know, a king nonetheless — in all the ways that matter. Proof that God has still not abandoned God’s people. Proof that God is still with them, with you. Immanuel.
That baby, named Jesus, grew up to be a powerful healer, prophet, and teacher. He took up Isaiah’s mantle: to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. He preached words, always strong and sometimes even harsh, of revolutionary love and of true peace. He was proof that God was still with God’s people, by revealing to them God’s presence and life among them.
Picture it: Powell River, Calgary, Toronto. December 24, 2021. Well, we don’t need to picture it, do we? Here we are in the midst of another pandemic Christmas. Good and necessary but very inconvenient public health measures are back in place just in time to mess up our celebrations. Case counts are skyrocketing and officials expect our hospitals to be overwhelmed in a matter of days. As for the general public, we’re exhausted and dispirited after two years of this. And in some ways, it feels worse because this year was supposed to be different. For six months, we’d been playing by the same rules and we’d, for the most part, learned how to play by them well. Then, a new strain emerged that changed the game completely. So here we are. Just when we thought there was light at the end of the tunnel, the tunnel twists and we’re plunged back into apparent darkness.
And so, what is the Word of hope being offered to us on this Christmas night?
The messages uttered by Isaiah and the angels boil down to the same thing: That God was with them in the midst of their dire circumstances. That God had not and would not abandon them. And, that is the message of hope for us too this Christmas: God is with us. That baby in Bethlehem so long ago remains our sign that God is not through with us yet. We are not abandoned in and to the world and its ups and downs. God is with us and at work in the world. This is Good News.
But this is not all.
It is an equally central Christian conviction that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, given to those of us who trust in him, God is at work in the world in and through us. We are God’s hands and God’s feet. It’s not that we don’t pray for divine intervention, but that we recognize that we are called to join with God in that intervention of grace, love, and mercy in the world. We are God’s fellow-workers. And so we join Jesus in his mission of healing the sick and brokenhearted, encouraging the desolate, reaching out to the lonely and outcast, holding the powerful accountable, releasing captives, working for justice, and being agents of reconciliation in the world. As much as we remember with joy tonight the birth of Jesus, Christmas is only fulfilled when Jesus is birthed in us, each of us.
And so, as we celebrate yet another quiet, stripped-down Christmas this year, in a sad and hurting world, may we also remember that this is precisely the kind of circumstance in which Christmas has the most meaning for us. Hope is only valuable when things look hopeless. We only need to remember that God is with us when we’re tempted to feel abandoned and alone. Our gifts and calling as followers of the child of Bethlehem, as Christians — as ‘little christs‘ in the world — come into the sharpest focus when we see just how badly the world needs healing, reconciliation, and justice. When we see just how badly the world needs love.
And so, tonight we pray with the words of the wonderful old hymn:
O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray,
cast out our sin and enter in,
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Immanuel!
God is with us!