Text: various scripture and music
The telling of the Christmas story tonight is divided into four sections: the beginning, God’s promises, anticipation and birth, and witnesses. The service is largely scripture reading and music meant to complement the readings. But I will offer a brief devotion on each section of the story after the scripture is read. I have stitched them together here (this manuscript) to offer a Christmas ‘sermon’.
“O Come All Ye Faithful” – congregation
In the Beginning
8 They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. … 12 The man said, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate.” 13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” And the woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” 14 The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, Cursed are you more than all cattle, And more than every beast of the field; On your belly you will go, And dust you will eat All the days of your life; 15 And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel.” (Genesis 3:8,12-15)
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. 4 In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. 5 The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. (John 1:1-5)
Lighting of the Advent Wreath and Christ Candle
We started in the beginning because the birth of Jesus – and the existence of Jesus – were not an afterthought or a reaction to a problem or God’s back-up plan. But Jesus – the Word, the Life, the Light – was there in the beginning and before the creation of the world. Though the serpent and the sin of our first parents brought darkness into what God had declared good, that darkness could not even comprehend God’s bigness or power, God’s Light or Life, God’s forethought and readiness to draw near as we drew away. You can read that first story in Genesis as human failure, but that’s missing the big story. Rather it is the beginning of God’s love story for the world and people He created. Even in those earliest words of the ‘curse’ we glimpse a picture of the victory over sin and evil that God would unfold in history and in time. John pictures it as light that pierces the darkness and brings life to humanity once again. This is the prologue to the story of stories, but more than that, to the theme of hope that God has sung over our lives. “Get ready!” the story declares from the first pages, for the King is coming to make all things right and to make all things new. Where do you need to experience hope in your life?
“Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” (Talbot/Caedmon’s Call) – Worship Team
15 Then the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, 16 and said, “By Myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies. 18 “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.” (Genesis 22:15-18)
2 The people who walk in darkness Will see a great light; Those who live in a dark land, The light will shine on them. 3 You shall multiply the nation, You shall increase their gladness; They will be glad in Your presence As with the gladness of harvest, As men rejoice when they divide the spoil. 4 For You shall break the yoke of their burden and the staff on their shoulders, The rod of their oppressor, as at the battle of Midian. 5 For every boot of the booted warrior in the battle tumult, And cloak rolled in blood, will be for burning, fuel for the fire. 6 For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. 7 There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, On the throne of David and over his kingdom, To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness From then on and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:2-7)
1 Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, And a branch from his roots will bear fruit. 2 The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him, The spirit of wisdom and understanding, The spirit of counsel and strength, The spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3 And He will delight in the fear of the Lord, And He will not judge by what His eyes see, Nor make a decision by what His ears hear; 4 But with righteousness He will judge the poor, And decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth… 10 Then in that day The nations will resort to the root of Jesse, Who will stand as a signal for the peoples; And His resting place will be glorious. (Isaiah 11:1-4a,10)
And so God spoke and sent messengers – angels and prophets – to declare that hopeful theme. God promises Abraham a future as broad as the night sky. And continuing the first words to Eve, God tells Abraham that He won’t just zap the world right from without, but will raise up salvation from among us. Later, prophets like Isaiah would start to paint a picture of this promised deliverer. He would bring light to a dark land. He will bring the kind of gladness and joy we get a taste of at harvest time or in victory. But the victory God’s deliverer will bring won’t merely be an earthly king, but will be known as Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. Even the greatness of King David and his kingdom was just a taste of God’s coming Kingdom. Isaiah all describes God’s Savior as wise, understanding, and strong. He will judge with righteousness and decide with fairness, even for the poor and afflicted of the earth. Through angels and prophets – messengers and preachers – and through God’s own Word, God promised and prepared His people and the world for His coming rescue, restoration, and reign. And all this was an act of love by the Creator God, the loving Father, who would not abandon the world to darkness, but came after it. Jesus would one day describe God’s character in the story of a loving Father rejoicing and celebrating the return of his lost son, welcoming him home with joy. What does it mean to you to know that God has not abandoned you, but loves you?
“O Loving Father” – Worship Choir
Anticipation and Birth
26 Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And coming in, he said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. 31 “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. 32 “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; 33 and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” … 37 “For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:26-33,37)
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. 19 And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. 20 But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21 “She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” 22 Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” 24 And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, 25 but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25)
These are the familiar stories of the days leading up to the birth of Jesus. We heard the story from Mary’s perspective and then from Joseph’s. After I speak we will hear Mary’s story concluded with the birth of Jesus as the choir then sings of the “Christmas Child.” But what of the story? On one hand, it’s completely unique. Even Mary’s cousin who had a miraculous birth did not experience giving birth to the Savior of the world. But perhaps you have known what it is to wait for God to do something. And you probably didn’t have the kind of clarity that comes with an angel-messenger, whether in reality like Mary or in a dream like Joseph. But if God is showing up and bringing hope and light to this world and to people’s lives – and this Bible says God DOES that – then sometimes we have to trust and listen and wait. In some ways it’s not unlike pregnancy. There can be excitement and joy, there can be confusion and pain, and there’s a lot of waiting for what is yet to be. That’s one reason I wanted to speak in the middle of this story. It’s easy to read the Bible story and rush to the end – the Christmas child being born. But much of our lives is spent in that anticipation phase. Are you waiting on God for something? Are you looking to God for something? Have you given up on God?
All of that is what it’s like to be human and finite! We get a personal glimpse into Mary’s wait. Scripture records a prayer Mary prayed during this waiting time. Karen is going to lead us together through praying part of that prayer. Then we’ll hear the conclusion of the birth story and the choir’s song about the “Christmas Child.”
My soul exalts the Lord and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave; for behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. For the Mighty One has done great things for me; and holy is His name.
1 Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. 2 This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. 4 Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, 5 in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. 6 While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7)
“Christmas Child” (McGlohon, Bean) – Worship Choir
8 In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; 11 for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” 15 When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. 17 When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them. (Luke 2:8-20)
21 And when eight days had passed… they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord… 24 and to offer a sacrifice… 25 And there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 And he came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to carry out for Him the custom of the Law, 28 then he took Him into his arms, and blessed God, and said, 29 “Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace, According to Your word; 30 For my eyes have seen Your salvation, 31 Which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 A Light of revelation to the Gentiles, And the glory of Your people Israel.” 33 And His father and mother were amazed at the things which were being said about Him. 34 Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed— 35 a sword will pierce even your own soul—to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” 36 And there was a prophetess… advanced in years. [She] had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then as a widow to the age of 84. She never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers. 38 At that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:21-38)
1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 2 “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet: 6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, Are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; For out of you shall come forth a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.’ ” 7 Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.” 9 After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way. (Matthew 2:1-12)
Those readings were long and I usually save the wise men and Anna and Simeon for a later Sunday. (Indeed, we will look at the wise men more next Sunday.) But I wanted you to hear it all together – three stories of witnesses to the birth of Jesus. So much of the rest of the Gospel accounts bear witnesses to his adult life, but here are three detailed stories of people who encountered Jesus as a newborn and a young baby. They are the early witnesses to what God started in the beginning, promised through the ages, and was now bringing to the world. The SHEPHERDS heard the message: God’s saving and chosen one is born into the world… good news of great joy for ALL the people (not just Abraham’s descendents)! They went to see and carried the news out. SIMEON and ANNA saw the eight-day old Jesus in the Temple and recognized him as God’s promise kept. Simeon named him as God’s salvation and redemption, for Israel and for the world. The MAGI or Wise Men came to find and give gifts to the young child and ended up falling to the ground to worship him. God was indeed among us! Each of these witnesses not only witnessed Jesus himself, but bear witnesses to what started at the beginning: God has not abandoned us to darkness, but comes after us with hope and light and life through the person of Jesus Christ. He is worthy of trusting; he is worthy of following; and he is worthy of worshiping and serving. How will you respond to Jesus?
We are about to sing a hymn that invites us to “come and worship” in response to Jesus. Worship contains it all: trust, following, love, service. I invite you to sing, but also to consider your response to Jesus, to God’s loving and saving action toward the world and toward you. Amen.
“Angels, from the Realms of Glory” – congregation
Candlelighting Service: Silent Night, Commission and Response, Joy to the World