“Participants in the Kingdom”
Isaiah 42:1-9, Romans 8:18-25, Luke 2:1-20
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Christmas Eve 2020
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. 2He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. 4He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
5Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: 6I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,7to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. 8I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. 9See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them. (Isaiah 42:1-9 – NRSV)
18I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:18-25 – NRSV)
In 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. (Luke 2:1-20 – NRSV)
Isaiah prophesied to Hebrew exiles in Babylon. He shared a message of deliverance with Jews who had been displaced from Jerusalem for enough generations to be well past any kind of Stockholm syndrome. For many, Babylon had become home. However, if the very presence of prophets among the Hebrews says anything about their state of mind, they knew that they were not, nor would they ever be, Babylonians. They had been called into something far bigger than comfortable captivity in a wealthy, powerful, and even somewhat accommodating empire.
Through Isaiah, God says, Don’t acclimate to this! I am raising a servant who will be saturated with my spirit. He will work for justice. He will reestablish you, Israel, as God’s chosen sign of the covenant with the Creation. He will lead you out of captivity so that you help to bring light to the nations, to open blind eyes, and set captives free.
And God is working on this new thing right now, says Isaiah. Today.
And the people gaze toward Jerusalem, wondering, Who is this servant?
About 800 years later, Paul writes to Jewish Christians in Rome saying that while the present age is fraught with oppression and suffering, those things will not prevail. Indeed, such experiences are themselves the birth pangs of something new. The people, then, can live in hope because the same God who promised deliverance to Hebrews in Babylon is still at work creating and recreating, bringing the kind of light, justice, and freedom that the nations cannot deliver because they serve only themselves.
Isaiah and Paul penned messages of great promise and hope. They’re Christmas messages because through them God does more than utter words. God creates incarnate expressions of healing grace in and for a suffering Creation.
While this is wonderful news, there’s a fly in all this healing ointment. Neither Isaiah, nor the servant, nor Paul act alone. So, the people to whom they speak cannot sit back and merely watch what happens because God doesn’t call spectators. Seeing isn’t believing in God’s realm. God calls and equips participants who join in the faith-generating work of doing justice, showing compassion, and sharing joy.
In Luke, the angels’ announcement to shepherds was not for a superhero who had come to save the day singlehandedly. No, they announced the arrival of a messiah, a leader, one who would walk with the people as together they overcame the challenges and obstacles of disorienting oppression and injustice. And that messiah had arrived as a child, an infant, one who would need to be held and nursed. His diapers would need to be changed. Long before he would be immersed in John’s baptism, he would need to be immersed in the scriptures and rituals of his people. And as savior, his salvation would be about far more than individual transgressions.
In his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, an adult Jesus, fresh from his baptism and temptation, reads from the scroll of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” says Jesus, “because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And when Jesus finishes reading that prophecy, he sits down and lets Isaiah’s words marinate in silence. Then he utters his own challenging and transforming words: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21)
The child born this night is savior to a Creation in exile. And the salvation he brings liberates us from captivity to materialism, fear, and violence. Those foundational idolatries lead to all other transgressions. The “sins” from which we often claim deliverance through Jesus are merely symptoms of the deeper more destructive realities that enslave us. And our own culture is as materialistic, fear-driven, and violent as anything the ancients experienced. That’s precisely why faith matters, and why Christmas matters.
Jesus comes to do more than forgive our sins. As the Anointed One, he comes to lead us in the ways of faith, righteousness, justice, and peace. To me, Jesus seems far less interested in believers than he is in followers. His salvation comes not through dogma regurgitated but through love shared. And like Jesus, we inhabit God’s realm through our willing and determined participation in the kingdom of God. Here and now. Today.
We’ve all just experienced an extremely difficult year. We’ve endured a global pandemic, and even as vaccines are rolling out, some of the most difficult days still lie ahead. Like Rome, Covid is an occupying force. Like Babylon, it keeps us exiled from people and communities we love. But modern science, one of God’s shining stars, heralds good news, and it’s coming to us far more quickly than it would have just a decade ago. God is and has been at work through the minds of scientists and the hands of caregivers, as well as through the hearts of people who take precautions on behalf of their neighbors.
We’ve also experienced social and political upheaval this year. Across our country, we have recognized that the disease of racism still festers in our midst. Becoming aware of an institutional evil like racism is kind of like getting diagnosed with a life-threatening virus. And long before acceptance, parts of the body struggle with denial. And yet, throughout the generations, voices of grief have wailed, as the prophet Jeremiah says, like “Rachel…weeping for her children; [and] she refuses to be comforted…because they are no more.” (Jeremiah 31:15) Those were prophetic tears, tears which have been flowing for 400 years as prayers for deliverance, prayers for the very sort of kingdom-of-God justice that Isaiah promised.
All around us and within us, there are sufferings which may hold nothing when compared to “the glory about to be revealed,” but they’re sufferings nonetheless. Jesus, the Christ, comes to redeem that suffering by leading us in the ways of peace, justice, and love.
Friends, it’s Christmas, and the gift given to us in the child born in Bethlehem is the gift of freedom from exile, freedom from fear, freedom from greed and hopelessness. In Christ, God gives us one whom we may follow into lives and communities that are not only redeemed by grace, but that participate in God’s work of redemption in the Creation. Thus is this “good news of great joy for all people.”
Like Mary, let us treasure these words and ponder them in our hearts so that we nurture the new and renewing Christ Presence within us.
I give thanks to God for all of you. And I give thanks for the myriad ways in which you participate in God’s transforming work wherever you are, whoever you are.
Merry Christmas to you all, and Merry Christmas to others through you.