IT ALL DEPENDS ON OUR FAITH: CHRISTMAS EVE SERVICE at CLC, El Cerrito, CA, December 24th 2016
IT ALL DEPENDS ON OUR FAITH:
CHRISTMAS EVE SERVICE at CLC, El Cerrito, CA, December 24th 2016
For the Christmas story, which is so familiar to us that we do not properly fathom it, everything depends on our faith. Now don’t get crushed by taking that as an obligation to believe. According to Luther, your faith is ultimately a gift of God. You can consider it a Christmas gift from God to you. So the reason I place myself right into this story, acting it out with gestures and facial expressions is in order to convince you to trust God completely and believe that God came to be with us in this story about the Christ-child, Mary, Joseph, the Angels, the shepherds, and everybody in Bethlehem.
Many years ago, I was in Bethlehem and I walked down from the city to look for the shepherd hills, to find the fields where the shepherds watched over their flocks by night. After I had walked a good while through the fields I became lost, and believe it or not there were shepherds there in the area and I walked up to them and asked them for directions on how to get back to the city. Among several paths, they pointed out the direction and the path I needed to take. As I climbed up that path, because it was uphill, suddenly the night fell down hard around me and it was so dark I could not see my hand before my face. But after I walked only a short distance farther, the whole city suddenly appeared completely lit up. The saying of Jesus occurred to me: “A city built on a hill cannot be hid.” (Mat 5:14) And clouds framed the city so that it looked like an impressionist painting. It was as beautiful as Christmas tree.
It seemed as if the city of Bethlehem itself was witnessing to me that in it was born the Light of the World. And when we light up with faith in the Christ-child, then shining brightly, we will also hear Jesus say, “You are the light of the world!” Then we can understand Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light and those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.” (9:2)
When in Bethlehem the Christ-child, Mary’s Son was born, the angels first proclaimed the Good News to the shepherds. An angel of the Lord appeared before them and the glory of the Lord shone round-about them and they became really afraid. But the angel proclaimed the Good News to them, which filled them with joy.
How dark the world becomes when we hear and read about all the bad news of today. I remember as a child getting cereal boxes, which on the back had only good news and even the weather report was all sunshine and blue skies. But those are not the kind of news that we read in the newspapers these mornings. The light of Christ, however, still shines in our world and the darkness will not overcome it!
That’s because the crown of the whole creation,
the One the whole universe and all
could not contain, became a baby, small
in that manger in Bethlehem.
And that is why we sing about the city of David, Belen, Bethlehem, Bethlehem. When I pastored in Philadelphia, a church downtown had a plaque that read, Phillip Brooks (1835-1893), who wrote “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was a pastor here.
The angel also brings those glad tidings of great joy to you and me because the angel says that the Good News is for all people. “For unto you and me is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord! That is the Good News, the Gospel for us.
That’s why Phillip brooks composed his song and why we sing so much about Bethlehem, because Christ the Lord, God’s Son himself came to us human beings in that little suburb of Jerusalem in order to save us.
Isaiah points out that this Savior will break the burdensome yoke and the iron bar across our shoulders and the rod of our oppressors. Christ frees us and then envelopes us in the freedom of Christians, to use Luther’s words. With the freedom of God’s Son we experience real joy. The Prophet Isaiah already long ago foretold how much joy we would have singing Christmas carols and how much joy would fill them, because
unto us a son is given; unto us a child is born! And the authority rests upon his shoulders and he is named: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Isaiah gives the Messiah four throne names. Many of the Pharaohs of Egypt had four throne names, along with their birth names. For example, Ramesses VII was named UsermaatRa, Meryamun, (which meant beloved of Amun), SetepenRa, and Ramesses, that is, Ra-Moses. Moses of the Exodus was brought up an Egyptian prince, and thus his name “Moses.” Ahmoses had liberated the Egyptians from the Hyksos, the way Moses later liberated the children of Israel from the Egyptians. The Messiah breaks every yoke and rod of oppressors. Thus Isaiah, too, gives David’s royal Son four throne names.
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (I studied the names in Hebrew as well, but I’ll spare you the Hebrew.)
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 righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.
Isaiah is referring to God’s promise that a successor on the throne of David would never fail. (1Kings 9:5-6) God was keeping his promise for David in his royal city.
That’s why the heavenly hosts of angels flew up from the earth into the open heavens and back down to the earth and back up into heaven, ascending and descending, while rejoicing:
“Glory to God in the highest, Peace on Earth, God’s favor to all!” Jesus is God’s gift to humankind.
But it all depends upon our faith. The angel of the Lord first proclaimed the Good News to the shepherds, then the shepherds proclaimed it to Mary and Joseph and all the astonished people around the Jesus’ manger, and then the shepherds changed into pastors and spread the heavenly word to everybody they came across. And all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them and what pastors today are telling you. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.
If we also keep these words and ponder them in our hearts, like Mary, then our hearts will be moved and we too will be amazed by the words of the shepherds. In one of the German carols we sang in the German service, Mary asks Joseph to help her rock Jesus’ cradle.
Joseph, dear Joseph of mine,
Help me rock this child so fine
And Joseph answers
Gladly, dear Mary mine
I’ll help you rock your child so fine.
Because after the Virgin Mary’s Son is born in your hearts and mine, we rock him in the cradle of our hearts because he needs sleep and needs good rest so that the Christ-child can grow up and mature in us and become strong and powerful and we can move other people’s hearts with the Good News, too. Yes, let’s gently rock the cradle of the Christ-child in our hearts so that he can sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.
Then we can also hear and rejoice in the Good News of Isaiah:
“for unto us a son is given; unto us a child is born!”
This birth of the Christ-child is your and my new birth, for which the whole creation has been waiting with eager longing, yes for the birth of the children of God. And keeping God’s words in our hearts and pondering them, brings about the birth of the Christ-child in us.
And we are the children of God gathered together in this congregation and the way we will light up each other’s candles, so the fire of faith will ignite in and fill each one of us until we shine together as the Light of the world. And our church, lit up by the Light of the World, will itself turn into the shining city of Bethlehem, built on Mt. Zion, God’s Holy Mountain, so that it cannot remain hidden. Because one does not light a candle and place it under a bushel, but on the lampstand of the public church, Christ Lutheran Curch, so that all the people in the whole house, in all of El Cerrito in the state of California, and the whole country see our joyful light.
It has been such a privilege and such a blessing for me to be able to preach and minister among you. I am so very grateful to you all. You gave me another much needed chapter in my ministry, because it was particularly difficult retiring from unemployment. Now another church has given me a call, a preliminary telephone call, that is. I will still have to talk with the bishop about it and try to discern if I should take it. I was the interim pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in 1992 before Pastor Sharon / and I have had many interim ministries and even calls since then, but after them I have always returned to Christ Lutheran. The fact that there will be an interim even before the new pastor makes this separation somewhat longer. But no matter. We are one in the spirit and Christ, the namesake of this congregation, will remain the real pastor, because we believe Christ is really present and will continue to be with you and me during this short intermission. Did you know I worked on the Luther Musical for many years and if it hadn’t been for Christ Lutheran, Mark and I couldn’t have finished it. It even gave Bertha and Lars a chance to renew their wedding vows when Soren played the young Luther; Lars, Professor Luther, and Bertha, Katie von Bora. So I’ll ask Mark if we can dedicate the Musical to you, CLC. We have one production in the works and we’re hoping for another one. And you can be sure that you will all be invited. Amen.
 In Hebrew: Wonderful Counselor: Pele Yo-w-es; Mighty God, El gibbowr; Abi’yad, everlasting Father; Sar Schalom, Prince of Peace. You may remember that Sarah means princess, so Sar is prince in Hebrew. Thus Sar Schalom, Prince of Peace.
 Romans 8:19.