As I was writing this sermon, I pondered the difference between our Christmas Eve services and Christmas Day.
Away from the romance of the candlelight and the excitement of presents yet to be opened, we are confronted by the reality of the daylight, and the possible let down of presents opened and Christmas morning done. We may be feeling inadequate to live up to an image we have of ourselves as Christmas Christians—believing in a God who came as a baby to save us from sin and death. The existential question pops up front and center before we even take the lights and ornaments off the tree—Does God really care? And if God does really care about me, what do I need to do?
Addressing these basic questions, let’s start with Mary, Jesus’ earthly mother. When Archangel Gabriel comes to announce the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that will be her pregnancy, he describes her as ‘full of grace.’ He doesn’t qualify his message with a preamble of her being full of virtue, or full or faith and he acknowledges that she, like us, is full of fear by saying, “Do not be afraid.” Gabriel knows that a human reaction to life and announcements of change is fear. Feat that we are not up to the challenge, that we don’t have what it takes to do whatever is being asked of us, fear that if anyone found out how inadequate and unqualified we really were, they would reject us outright. The Christmas Nativity begins with a young girl, one with no experience, no pedigree, no power or money, no special talents except that she is full of grace. The text doesn’t tell us she is full of moral fiber or obedience, as is common in our retelling of this story. Mary’s only qualification to be part of God’s rescue plan is that she is full of grace, given to her as gift by the Holy Spirit. Unearned and undeserved, grace is given to her as the womb of the Savior because Christmas is the birth of grace. As scripture reminds us in John 1:17, “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” The birth of forgiveness, the birth of love and mercy for all, is the gift of Christmas morning.
And the ‘for all,’ becomes very particular in this message from the angel to the shepherds as ‘for you.’ Martin Luther preached most often on Christmas on the significance of the ‘for you.’ He reminds us that the angels preach to the shepherds with their announcement, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people; to you is born this day in the City of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Luther addressed Mary saying, “Mary, you did not bear this child for yourself alone but for me…You have my treasure…You see how a person rejoices when he receives a robe or [money]? But how many shout for joy with the message of this angel?”
The gift of grace born into this world to give us comfort and love, is the gift to those who need it, yearn for it, cry out for it and cannot create it for themselves. The message of the angel ‘for you’ is announced to the shepherds first because, Luther says, they are “those who are faint-hearted and feel the burden of their sins.” It is the very answer to the question, “Does God care and what do we need to deserve that care?” God cares so much that God packaged himself into the wee form of a baby to show that the caring became tangible and real, experiencing the pain, hurt and physicality of earthly life as solidarity with us, the hope of the world. As the Christmas carol tells us, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
Luther also made clear that all were the recipients of this grace and hope because each person on earth will experience the moment when, “money, goods, power and honor fades into darkness and he despises everything on earth compared with this child, so that heaven and earth with all its power and all its treasures become nothing to him, that man would have the true gain and fruit of this message of the angel.” Christ came to be the everlasting light of the world in the darkness that cannot be dispelled by what we have. It is by what we receive freely from God in grace that satisfies our souls and overcomes the darkness.
As we sit here basking in the light of the stained glass windows proclaiming the good news of great joy that is our Savior Christ, we may believe that all of our presents have been opened and are piled under our tree, but the true gift of grace born to you this day, will be the longest lasting treasure of your heart, hidden within the heart of God that is your spirit.
Merry Christmas to you because of the gift grace and peace forever more.