Prayer of the Day
Almighty God, you made this holy night shine with the brightness of the true Light. Grant that here on earth we may walk in the light of Jesus’ presence and in the last day wake to the brightness of his glory; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
2The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
3You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
4For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7His 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 with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
11The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, 12training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, 13while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. 14He 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.
Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]
1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.]
Sermon – Pastor Meggan Manlove
The story from Luke chapter 2 is so well known, so often portrayed in music and the visual arts, that we forget both its strangeness and wonder. I got to spend just a short amount of time this past summer with my great nephew, who was when I saw him, just a newborn. Perhaps for that reason, my sense of awe in God’s decision to arrive as an infant was renewed. A baby born in the best of circumstances today is incredibly vulnerable. Add to that world powers making Jesus’ parents travel far distances, a census filling up Bethlehem, and the chances of things going awry are greatly increased.
And yet all of this is so in God’s character. From the beginning, God has shown up in the hidden and unexpected. A tour through the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament that God loves to be revealed through the hidden. This same God is so often reminding humanity to care for the outcast and the lowly. Like any good teacher, when it comes to the incarnation, God uses it as an opportunity not just to tell but show. All of this foreshadows Jesus’ own life and ministry. Though Jesus will grow up to be one of the most quoted and revered teachers, he will teach not just through telling but through showing. That showing begins with his first bed, a simple manger, and his first visitors, the lowly shepherds.
There is a great deal that art and imagination have added to our understanding of Jesus’ birth that are not actually present in Luke 2. We often project sheep, cattle, a donkey, and innkeeper, and a barn onto the narrative, but they are not in the text. But what is present in our scripture passage tonight is plenty of good news, for you and me and the whole world.
We hear and learn so much about this vulnerable infant laid in a manger. He is the Messiah, we are told, one who saves. And it becomes clear even this early in the story that he will not only save the Jewish people, but all people, as the angel makes clear to the shepherds. He is the savior of the world. That word is loaded and misunderstood, and I think it speaks to people differently depending on their life circumstances. But salvation has to do with healing, forgiveness, abundant life, and hope.
In the scripture tonight, Jesus is also called “the Lord” which means he will have power and authority. We, who know the rest of the story, know that Jesus will exercise his power and authority in strange and counter-cultural ways: eating with the outsiders, spending time with tax collectors and prostitutes, calling fishermen to follow him, ultimately dying on a cross wearing not a crown of gold but a crown of thorns.
If we reach back to the prophecy read tonight from Isaiah, even more is revealed about this infant laying in the lowly manger. There we read titles that are hard not to sing, thanks to George Fredric Handel’s Messiah. This newborn baby is Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. That seems like a lot to put on a baby. But, again, this is no ordinary baby.
As we will sing later, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” The triune God we worship, even manifest in this baby laid in a manger, will take all of the brokenness of the entire world. That includes whatever burdens you are bringing tonight.
Earlier this week I watched one of my favorite movies, Moneyball, the story of Oakland Athletics’ general manager Billy Beane’s successful attempt to assemble a baseball team on a lean budget by employing computer-generated analysis to acquire new players. I realized that one reason I love the movie is because, unlike the Christmas story and so much of the life of faith, there are few unknowns. You put statistics into the computer and figure out what baseball players to recruit. And you getting a winning team. There are days when all of that is incredibly appealing to me.
We can be sure of God’s love, but what that will lead to, how exactly it will be made manifest, when it will be needed, are all unknowns. And though we are invited to the table to feast on the meal of bread of wine tonight, I have never been able to explain exactly how the sacrament works.
But there is also a commonality between Moneyball and the story of Jesus’ birth. Both involve the company of misfits, the players or characters no one else really wants, and in both cases the stories are full of second chances; second chances for guys seemingly too old, players who throw the ball strangely, injured players. Likewise in the kingdom of God: virgin mothers, smelly shepherds, widows, orphans, foreigners, tax collectors, sinners, broken people like you and me are welcomed to the banquet.
And, in his own way, Billy Beane and his data analysis ace Peter Brand turn the baseball world upside down. Commentators and their own manager scoff at the experiment at the beginning of the season. It’s laughable and will never work. At the end of the film, the audience learns that the Boston Red Sox adopt the A’s methods and two years later win the World Series. And for us, Jesus’ mother Mary already sang that the world is about to turn. With Emmanuel, God with us, God is doing a new thing, much larger than changing the game of baseball. God is reversing powers, lifting up the lowly, bringing down the mighty. There is a new reign beginning and it starts with Jesus, laid in a manger, the savior who is Christ the Lord.
So tonight, let the prayers and familiar hymns and flickering candlelight wash over you. You are part of this story too. You are part of the story of the incarnation because you have heard this story and trust that God did in fact come in human form, Emmanuel, God with us. You do not need to do anything, be anything, prove anything to be the recipient of tonight’s good news of God’s tremendous love. You only need to receive it in this space.
Let the meal of bread and wine fill you up and nourish your body and soul. The one born in Bethlehem is the bread of life tonight, extending gifts of wholeness, belonging, and abundant life to a hungry and broken world. Ours is a God of abundance, a God who came for the entire world, whose bread never runs out, whose cup is always running over.
A: Wonderful Counselor, increase our joy as the church gathers on this holy night to sing of our dear Savior’s birth. May the story of salvation live in the hearts of all who sing of its wonders. God of grace, C: Hear our prayer.
A: Mighty God, you have broken the yoke of sin’s burden through the birth of your Son. Comfort those whose burdens distract them from the deeper peace of this holy night and grant them a restful mind. God of peace, C: Hear our prayer.
A: Everlasting Father, uphold all who are in sorrow or need of your divine goodness and mercy (especially). We remember with thanksgiving all who have died and who now rest in your peaceful light. God of love, C: Hear our prayer.
A: Gracious God, bathe us always in the light of your Word made flesh, Jesus Christ our Lord. C: Amen.