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2016 Christmas Eve Homily – Luke 2:1-20

December 28, 2016

December 24, 2016 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 

The focus of worship on the evening of Christmas is the announcement of the Christ Child’s birth. That’s what most of you are here to celebrate and commemorate again this year. There had better be some of those Christmas Carols with the angels in them: Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Angels We Have Heard on High, Angels from the Realms of Glory. Doesn’t really matter which, but at least one of them has to be sung, preferably more. There’s no Christmas without that.

Some of us clergy or anyone with worship planning experience might laugh at that. But it’s not an overly nostalgic or sappy sentiment. There’s more than a good bit of truth to that idea. The appearance of the angels with their message to the shepherds of Bethlehem is an essential part to the Birth Narrative of Jesus. That’s why the Church has marked Christmastide with mentions of the angels in its hymns, prayers, and artwork. It’s why we have the angel atop the Christmas Tree and above the creche here in our sanctuary.

And once again on Christmas evening, you have heard the message brought by the heavenly heralds: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” That is what the angels told the shepherds on Bethlehem’s plain. The herdsmen are informed about an act that would begin to drive out fright and replace it with gladness. That act is the presence of the Promised Messiah within the world that He created.

The Deliverer whom the LORD had pledged to send had come. He was right there for the shepherds, just down the road from them in the village of Bethlehem. They had the opportunity to behold Him with their own eyes. So they wouldn’t miss it, the angel gives them a way to identify exactly whom the Messiah is. The shepherds can find a baby where they didn’t expect to see one: wrapped in strips of linen and lying in a feeding trough.  And the Gospel Writer tells us: “They went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.” The shepherds see their Savior, finding Him just as the angel had spoken.

But the sign given to the shepherds is not exactly the sign that shows the reason why this night was one of such great joy. Yes, the presence of the Messiah in the world was a momentous occasion, an event full of divine grace. And the shepherds were privileged to witness it. We can sing about their gladness. We can even mention the invitation that they were given and extended to others: “Come to Bethlehem and see Him / whose birth the angels sing; / Come adore on bended knee / Christ the Lord, the newborn King.” We can even go along with them in spirit to witness what they saw.

Yet, the sign of why this event is “good news of a great joy that will be for all the people” is not “a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” No, it is something different. The allusions to it were heard in the Scriptures about Jesus that were read after the Birth Narrative: “…our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession who are zealous for good works….” and “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” 

The sign to show us the great joy that Jesus’ birth has for us is found in what happened after the baby was wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. As the apostles’ comments noted, it is found in the sacrifice that Jesus made for us. What is the sign of that? A man stripped and beaten and fixed to a cross. A man wrapped in a burial shroud and laid in a tomb. A man who leaves strips of linen and a funeral veil in a tomb and stands in front of His disciples. All these are the signs of Jesus being “the propitiation for our sins.” They are how Jesus “gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession who are zealous for good works.” This is why the sign that reveals Jesus’ identity and work isn’t an infant in Bethlehem’s manger seen by the shepherds. No, these other signs are why the apostles can say: “We have seen and testify that the Father has sent His Son to be the Savior of the world.”

Those signs are what we also commemorate on this night. They may not be the immediate focus of our prayers, songs, and artwork for December 24 & 25. But they are still present here on this Christmas Evening. They show up in the carols. They can be seen in the chrismons hanging on the Christmas Tree. Alongside all the poinsettias and the creche adorning the sanctuary, there is the hidden cruciform shape in the swag hanging above the organ bench. And up front and center is the crucifix that still prominently stands. For the “good news of great joy that will be for all the people” goes beyond the manger scene. It continues through Epiphany and Lent and Holy Week and Easter. All their signs point to Jesus, revealing Him as “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” And as we hear all that has been told to us about this Jesus, we can glorify and praise God for the good news of great joy in all that He has done.

+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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