SERMON: Good News that Changes Everything (Christmas 2017)
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. (Isaiah 9:2)
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. (Titus 2:14)
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 Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. (Luke 2:10)
• • •
The Lord be with you.
We heard three scriptures this morning that indicate what a momentous event it was when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Each tells us that Jesus came to change things dramatically.
From the darkness of exile to the light of God’s kingdom
Our reading from Isaiah is one of his classic texts about the end of Israel’s exile. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Hundreds of years before Christ’s birth, the Babylonians had taken Israel captive. And even though they eventually let them return to the land and resettle, other foreign nations invaded and occupied them in the centuries to follow. In Jesus’ time, Israel was under the rule of Rome.
Our text vividly describes what it was like to live under foreign rule. It speaks of deep darkness. They were like animals, under the yoke. They carried heavy beams of suffering and disgrace upon their shoulders. The oppressor’s rod struck them again and again, leaving scars upon their bodies and spirits. The invaders’ boots trampled all over them. Their garments became soaked with blood because of their oppressors’ cruelty.
Jesus came to that captive people who lived in the darkness and oppression of exile. He came to bring light, to multiply their joy, to set them free, to rule over them with wisdom, peace, and justice. When the baby Jesus grew up and preached his first sermon, Luke tells us that this was precisely his message. Quoting another text in Isaiah, Jesus proclaimed, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
As we talked about last week, people all around us and we ourselves suffer darkness of many kinds in our lives. It can feel like exile — we feel alone, lost, cut off from God and from others, alienated from the goodness and blessings of life. Jesus came to set us free from the darkness of exile and bring us into the light of God’s kingdom. He came to set the captives free. If you are walking in darkness today, I have good news for you on this Christmas Eve: “A child has been born for us, a son has been given.” He came to bring us light, to release us from captivity, to multiply our joy, to make things right, to bring a final end to our exile.
From the iniquity of the present age to lives of redemption and good deeds
Our second text, from Paul’s epistle to Titus, tells of another great change Jesus brought. He came to bring grace, salvation, and transformation to people trapped in a world system of impiety, uncontrolled passions, and iniquity. He came to put us on a different path, a path of self-control, right living, and godliness. He came to give us hope that all things will be made right when Jesus returns. He came to release us from the bonds of sin and make us into people that will have a passionate desire to do good deeds for the sake of the world.
I myself can testify to this change in direction. When I was in my teens, I was heading in a bad direction. I had been baptized and confirmed but between that time and when I became a young adult, I got caught up in the chaos and craziness of the early 1970s. I made a lot of bad choices. However, God brought a number of Christians into my life at just the right time and I had a spiritual reawakening. Soon I was in Bible college studying for the ministry, and soon after that I was serving my first congregation. A whole new path. And, thanks to God, the Spirit has kept me on this path for over 40 years now, living among God’s people as we do our best to live in Christ and do good deeds to help our neighbors.
Each of you has a story too, a story of grace, redemption, and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. It may not be a dramatic story, but it’s a true story, and what God did in sending Jesus is at the center of that story. God has brought us from the iniquity of this present age into lives of redemption and good deeds.
From trusting in human rulers to trusting in God’s unlikely King
We are so familiar with hearing this Christmas story in the context of the way we celebrate Christmas in our culture that most of us don’t recognize that Luke is using the language of the Roman empire in this passage to describe Jesus’ birth. Notice how this story begins. It speaks about the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar. It mentions a census, and governors, and how people obeyed the law that was sent out from Rome.
About 100 years before Luke wrote these words, Augustus Caesar had brought a century of civil war to an end and inaugurated an age of peace. Augustus was hailed as the “Savior of the world.” His birth was hailed on public inscriptions as “Good News” (or Gospel) for the whole world. Augustus was worshiped as Lord.
Now in Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth during the reign of Augustus, we find these same words:
- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people.
- To you is born this day a Savior.
- This Savior is the Messiah (the King), and the Lord
- The angels announced peace on earth, goodwill toward all people
Luke’s story is a direct Christian claim against the claims of the Roman empire. The Romans proclaimed the good news of Caesar. He was the world’s savior, king, and lord. He brought peace and goodwill to all the earth. However, Luke says that on that first Christmas Eve, the real good news, God’s good news was pronounced to the world from heaven. On Christmas Eve the true Savior, the true King, the true Lord was born. And this baby would bring true and lasting peace to the world. People built an altar to Caesar Augustus. But a heavenly chorus of angels proclaimed the good news of the birth of Christ the Lord.
And so it has gone throughout history and so it continues today. Presidents and Prime Ministers, rulers and governments of all kinds arise and rule. In most cases, they do their best to insure peace and justice for their people. Nevertheless, injustice and poverty persist. Inequality persists. People still use power, coercion and violence to impose their will on others. Many seem to care more about their rights than their responsibilities. We fight to get ahead and forget about those who can’t keep up. Despite centuries of progress, we still struggle with our human tendencies toward selfishness, distrust of others, covering up our failures and deceptions, blaming others, playing the victim, and chasing a thousand futile solutions.
Why did God send his Son? The answer is in the Lord’s Prayer: “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” There is no earthly ruler that will ever be able to guarantee that. Though we are called to support our leaders and institutions and do our best to make them better, we must realize that it is only through the good news of heaven’s King that ultimate justice and peace will fill this world.
But I want you also to note that the King God sent appears as a most unlikely candidate for the job. Jesus came in weakness, as a baby born in lowly circumstance. He was born to ordinary parents, Mary and Joseph. He was announced first to people on the margins of society like shepherds in this story. Everything about this story challenges our notions of greatness and power. But it also reminds us that God’s kingdom comes in very ordinary and often unexpected ways — even through people like you and me! Every day simple people like us have can plant seeds of righteousness and peace that God will use to repair this broken world until the day he comes again to make all things new.
May God bless us this Christmas Eve and make us his servants in this world to announce good news of great joy for all people: to us is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. Glory to God in the highest! Peace on earth and goodwill toward all people. Amen.