Isaiah 52 7-10 and Colossians 3: 12-17
Good evening and grace and peace, in the Name of the One who was born as gracious gift and as Prince of Peace. The door swings open this night--open to Christmas and to a new world.
Like the Isaac Watts hymn, Joy to the World, which draws the great themes of Advent and Christmas together, singing with exuberant gladness about the Coming of Christ at the Last Day and the renewal and restoration of all things under his authority and power. But all that shadowed forth and anticipated in this hour, this holy night. He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.
Or as in the psalm appointed for this night: O sing unto the Lord a new song; for he hath done marvelous things. With his own right hand, and with his holy arm, hath he gotten himself the victory.
In our imaginations we see them moving quietly through the shadows across a dark landscape. A week’s journey or perhaps a bit more on foot from Nazareth in the Galilee to Bethlehem. In the far distance, shepherds on the hillside. The sky glowing softly with first light--angel light. A new world dawning. On its way and already here. Coming to life wherever he is. Seated in glory on his heavenly throne. Or lying quietly in his manger bed.
The convergence of all history. In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was made flesh and came to be with us.
Hundreds of years before that night, the Prophet Isaiah: in anticipation. Seeing far, seeing deep with prophetic vision. The reading tonight from the 52nd Chapter. God’s word in that particular moment to those in far exile, in the distant lands, the refugee camps and ghettos of Egypt and Persia, Syria and Babylon, whose last memory of holy Jerusalem was of ruin and disaster, the archetypal Biblical image for the consequences of sin. The royal palace and sacred temple pillaged and burned in the utter misery of collapse and defeat. All in ruin. But then in that silent night of loss, a word. Word of God’s peace. Scattering the darkness. Generous grace. Forgiveness. Transforming the silence with hymns of joy.
The prophet proclaims: good news, salvation. His voice echoes across the centuries. How beautiful the feet of the messenger who announces peace. The music of those words, to fill and heal empty and broken hearts. Over the realities of violence and war. Death and disaster. The poetic and prophetic vision, that the one God who because of their unfaithfulness had departed from his temple, would soon return. Was now returning. Was on his way. The return of the Lord to Zion. To dwell in the midst of his people as they are to be gathered by him and brought home.
Every liturgical procession down the center aisle is to remind us of this. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God!
To come in power, to bring comfort, strength, salvation. And not for old Israel only, but for a new Israel. Of every tribe and people. Reformed and transformed and born again in him. He bares his arm and shows his strength before the eyes of all nations. And all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.
Here in Isaiah 52, hundreds of years before that Holy Night in Bethlehem, but it’s all about Christmas. In a way everything in the Bible and the whole story of the world and the universe, all leading to this. All about Jesus. All about Christmas.
In Scituate, Massachusetts, the town where my wife Susy’s mother’s family has lived for generations and centuries, there was a wonderful little department store called the Welch Company right down on the harbor. It actually was descended from a lumber and shipping supply business started by Susy’s great-grandfather back in the later 19th century—so a fun family connection. And when we would visit grandma and grandpa and the family home on summer vacation each year our kids loved to go into the Welch Company because in the back there was a room dedicated all year ‘round to Christmas furnishings and decorations. Just fun on a 100-degree late July afternoon to step into a space that was all twinkling lights and snowflakes and Santa.
An image perhaps for us this evening. To understand Christmas not simply as an ancient story from Bible times or as one day in the year for special worship services and family gatherings and festive meals, or even as a season on the church calendar, but as a new and continuing state of being for all the world and all creation. A new state of being. A new way of thinking. A new way to live our lives.
The cry of the mother giving birth in the dark night, and the pivot point of all time, all history.
In the C.S. Lewis story “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” the children step into the land of Narnia, which is a fallen world, a reflection of our fallen world, where it is “always winter, but never Christmas.” But then things begin to change, and we hear tonight the new news. That it is and will be always Christmas.
I mean, the trees and greens will be out the door in a week or two for most of us—perhaps some of us trying to hold out as best we can until Candlemas, February 2. Decorations back in their boxes and back down to the basement for another year. Life goes on, and into the New Year.
But to be always Christmas not in outward expression, but in our hearts and minds, in our conduct of life, our relationships with one another. Christmas as a new way of living, which is what I would just pause over for all of us tonight. Because that is what I believe this night calls us to. Not simply an interlude, a special day or week or time of year. But a new life. A new obedience, if that's not too scary a word for us. In a night that out beyond the walls of this church seems perhaps something other than silent and holy. In a season of political and social polarization, selfishness and isolation-- in a world which knows too well the horrors of violence and crime, terrorism and war. A fallen world, as we know it first in the shadows deep in our own hearts.
And I would conclude on this holy evening to share just a word from scripture, of what that might mean, what this might look like. At least to begin to picture it. Christmas as a new way of living. A foundation of a new constitution for God’s people, a Rule of Life.
I would turn to a short passage from St. Paul, in the 3rd chapter of his Letter to the Colossians, beginning at the 12th verse. Not ordinarily a Christmas reading--but as I said before, it's all about Christmas. A passage we might want to look up later, to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.
Write it on a slip of paper to carry in a pocket or to tape over the bathroom mirror for daily reading. To recall when we sit down for church meetings or family dinners. To let it sink in and work on us.
Anyway: Paul writes this pastoral letter during a time of his imprisonment. He can’t come to visit in person, but he has heard a report of distress in the congregation at Colossae. Division and dispute—and also of a kind of drifting off the path spiritually. He has heard reports of hurt and anger and dissension. The fresh spirit of their conversion to Christian life as perhaps begun to fade. Paul’s pastoral word in this letter is complex, rich, sometimes giving doctrinal instruction, sometimes advising about conduct and holiness of life. But there is a pastor’s love that is communicated throughout.
And it is a word for Christmas and about Christmas—and about what it would mean to live when we know that every day is Christmas Day.
So from Colossians 3, two thousand years ago, for them, and for us, Christmas as a way of living:
“As God’s chosen ones,” Paul says, “as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” (Sometimes people say they don’t like Christianity because it is all about following rules. I think those might be some good Biblical rules to pay attention to, actually: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. We spend time choosing wonderful Christmas sweaters and caps and dresses and shoes. Here is more about a Christmas wardrobe.)
Paul continues: “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (There again, another very good rule! Something to wear at Christmas!) And finally, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.” (Which is what it means that we have been called to be a part of this Body, his Body the Church. Called into his peace.) “And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.”
What we do at midnight Christmas Eve, but always singing, from now on. “And whatever you do”—whatever you do—“in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
Blessings in this Christmas, tonight, in the season ahead, in the new year, and always. To live in Christmas. To dress for Christmas. To be all about him: 24/7/365. “No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.”