A Sermon for Christmas, 2016
The Epistle, Titus 2:11-14 – The Gospel, St. Luke 2:1-14
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
We say in the liturgy that we believe in “One God the Father Almighty,” but this affirmation does not seem to match up with the Christmas story. Almighty God makes his grand appearance in history as a baby in a manger—and everything seems out of control. The Holy Family is in Bethlehem because Caesar Augustus decreed a census, and not even the Mother of God, “great with child,” was spared from the hardship it caused. As we follow the Christmas story to Epiphany, we learn that another tyrant, Herod the Great, is anxious to kill the one “born King of the Jews”—turns out Herod was unwilling to share the title.
During his ministry, Jesus would exhibit power over sickness, death, sin, and evil. But these were all temporary victories. Those he healed and raised got sick and died again. His ministry pushed back against sin and Satan, but only temporarily. The Son of God exercised almighty power in a definitive and final way only on the Cross and in the Resurrection. Death came for him and he conquered death. Thus, we must wait until Good Friday and Easter to understand how this baby is really the Son of the Almighty Father, and how he merits for eternity the title, “Lord.” Christmas makes Easter both possible and inevitable. That is its primary importance.
Our lives as followers of Jesus reflect similar themes and questions. If God is almighty and we are his children by baptism and faith, why do our temporal circumstances so frequently contrast with his omnipotence? If he is in control, why does it so often seem like he has taken a break or decided to focus on another universe for a while? The difficult answer is that, as with Jesus, he is aiming at a larger victory for us. God can and does intervene in countless ways to make things better for each of us in time. He can and does crush enemies, relieve pain, and extend lives. But these are temporal mercies. There will be another enemy, more pain, and another cause of death.
His primary gift, which we receive through baptism and faith, is to renew the Christmas miracle of Incarnation in us. The Son of God, who took up residence in Mary and in Bethlehem, takes up residence in us. If Christ lives in us and we live in him, then we can expect our lives to follow the pattern of his life. It won’t always seem like God is in control. But our lives are moving slowly and surely towards the ultimate and eternal victory.
This is the meaning of Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23). “God is with us.” He is not with us in some magical, make believe way that makes every problem vanish. He is with us in a real way. He is with us in our pain so that it is literally impossible for any temporal thing to separate us from him. As Romans says, “neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:38-39).
Jesus has conquered death for us and in us. Baptism and faith make Easter possible and inevitable for us also. As 1 John says, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life” (5:13).
Faith is not only or mainly about the future. Only when we are reconciled to God and set free from the fear and reality of death can we begin to really live now. Faith is the beginning of life, and Christmas is an invitation to faith; an invitation to trust that God is in control even though it may not appear that way. Christ lives in us, and we are destined for Easter. Therefore, we can begin to live eternal life right now. As 1 John says, “God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life” (5:11-12).