A sermon preached on Luke 2:1-14 by the Rev. Justin Clemente at New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD on December 24, 2019, Christmas Eve.
“Joy” says Tim Keller, “is the thing everyone is after today, it’s our highest good and yet it has never been scarcer and no one can quite seem to figure out why.” As you look out on our culture today, how does that strike you? True enough? In our world today, there is plenty of polarization, plenty of hate, plenty of self-absorption, but very little deep and lasting Joy (that’s with a capital J – C.S. Lewis would be proud of me). In fact, I believe many will go to church or gather with family at this, the happiest time of the year, and miss out on the Joy of the Christmas Gospel.
Joy in the Gospels
That’s what struck me this year as I prepared for Christmas Eve and the twelve days of Christmas: how utterly joy-soaked the Gospel accounts are, beginning with the birth of Jesus. Watch: the joy comes from heaven and begins with the angels. First, the angel Gabriel comes to Mary, announcing Jesus’ birth: “Greetings, O favored one!” He says. But his greeting is more than meets eye – literally, it means “rejoice” or “be joyful!” And here, as Joseph Ratzinger says, “This exclamation from the angel…marks the true beginning of the New Testament.” (Infancy Narratives, pg. 26) After this, an angel of the Lord arrests the shepherds on the night of Christ’s birth, saying “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy (χαρά) that will be for all the people.” (Luke 2:10) From here the joy spreads to earth as the shepherds meet the Messiah. The wise man come to him later, too, and they rejoice with great joy (χαρά – Matthew 2:10). Later, as Jesus’ public ministry begins, John the Baptist will say that his joy (χαρά) is complete as he announces the arrival of Jesus (John 3:29). In his parables, Jesus himself compares the kingdom of God to a treasure, hidden in a field, which when found, will produce great joy (χαρά – Matthew 13:44). Likewise, he teaches that there is joy (χαρά) in heaven over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:7). After Jesus’ resurrection, the women depart the empty tomb with great joy (χαρά – Matthew 28:8). Finally, the disciples are glad, and rejoice (χαίρω) when they see the Lord after his resurrection, as he shows them his nail-pierced hands and spear-pierced side (John 20:20).
“Joy” said Lewis, “is the serious business of Heaven.” Why so much joy in the Gospels? Because earth now harbors heaven, and with heaven comes the meeting of our deepest need and longing: redemption and reconciliation with God. Long ago, Augustine pinpointed that need and that longing when he said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O Lord.”
One more thing to ponder when it comes to joy. In his book on Jesus’ birth, Joseph Ratzinger reminds us that the words for joy and grace are from the same root. Why so much joy? Because of the greatness of the grace. Our reading from Titus says it perfectly: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy.” (Titus 3:4-5) Jesus Christ is the mercy of God and therefore the highest joy in the entire world. You can run to end of the highway, you can look to the ends of the earth, but without him, there is no true and lasting joy. That old, trite saying is true: No Jesus, no joy. Know Jesus, know joy.
Receiving This Joy – The Strange Sign (vs. 12 and 7)
Let’s talk now about receiving this Joy. Verse 12 of Luke’s Gospel tell us that the sign given to the shepherds by the Angel is this: “you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” What a strange sign! Think about this: the shepherds converse with angels, yet the sign the angels give them is not they themselves, but another. They point somewhere else – to a baby. If they, who stand in presence of God are not the sign, the how great is the sign! On the other hand what a, as Joseph Ratzinger puts it, non-sign! What poverty! What weakness. This sign connects back to verse 7: “she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” St. John unpacks the meaning of this for us in his Gospel: “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” (John 1:10-11)
Joseph Ratzinger further unpacks this for us: “From the moment of his birth, he belongs outside the realm of what is important and powerful in worldly terms. Yet it is this unimportant and powerless child that proves to be the truly powerful one, the one on whom ultimately everything depends. So one aspect of becoming a Christian is having to leave behind what everyone else thinks and wants [and] the prevailing standards.” (Infancy Narratives, pg. 67)
From the beginning, the Gospel that Christians have preached tells us that God became man for our salvation. And this is utterly unlike anything else in the world. Some time ago, we had our neighbors over for dinner. This was after one of our church community cook outs, which includes a clear gospel message. I asked them what they though of the message. They blithely answered, “Well, you know, I think all the religions are teaching about the same thing.” I said to them, in so many words, “Christianity says that God became man, that God made a way to us when no other way was possible. No one else has the nerve to say this.”
If you are here tonight, and you do not know Jesus, in order to receive this powerful, joyful, humble, life-changing sign – the one in the manger — you will have to be willing to leave behind the way the world thinks about God, about salvation, about good works, about who is good, about most everything that truly matters. Nonetheless, may it be yours this very night and may you rejoice in it. This is where true Joy is found. Amen.