This sermon was prepared, written, and preached for St. David’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Cocoa Beach, Florida where I serve as Rector. I selected the lessons for Christmas I to be used on Christmas Eve.
“The most human trait is to want to know ‘why?’”
Since 2010, Google has released a video every December chronicling the “Year in Search.” These dramatic videos highlight the ups and downs of the year: achievements, tragedies, crises, highs, and lows. In short, the moments which have affected the whole world. As you can imagine, the year 2020 deserved a video just as powerful as it has been devastating, and Google delivered.
The video starts with a nighttime view of the globe from outer space. The narrator begins, “The most human trait is to want to know ‘why?’
“And in a year that tested everyone around the world, why was searched more than ever…and while we didn’t find all the answers, we kept searching.”
The video then rolls through pictures and clips of the havoc that 2020 has wreaked on humanity: the start of Covid, home videos from the first round of quarantine, Space X, Kobe Bryant, the wildfires of Australia and California, Beirut, George Floyd, Breona Taylor, Black Lives Matter, Chadwick Bosman, John Lewis, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Coronavirus vaccines, and the rising death tolls.
“The most human trait is to want to know ‘why?’”
Google’s video is an uplifting homage to humanity’s resilience and fortitude, but the makers of the video leave the message very open-ended. The video opened with the claim that “while we didn’t find all the answers, we kept searching” and it closes with one line:
Until we get to every answer…we’re still searching.
We’re still searching.
The video is not devoted to humanity’s resilience, but rather to humanity’s innate ability to ask questions and a deep need for answers…
And it’s not just Google. YouTube recently released a much shorter video stating that the most searched for topic in 2020 was “how.” How do I do this? How does this work?
How, how, how?
Why, why, why?
Beloved, the world is asking questions…
…but do we have answers?
Today/tonight we begin our celebration of the Nativity of our Lord, the birth of Jesus. Advent has been a long walk through darkness, ever lighting one more candle, ever taking one step closer to the birth of our Savior. Isaiah heralds an immediate and dramatic end to the darkness:
“The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light;
Those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”
Israel had been walking in darkness for centuries. After the Exodus, Israel grumbled and complained and wandered in the desert for 40 years; after Joshua came the Judges with their on-again-off-again, we-love-him-we-love-him-not relationship with God; after the Judges, Israel had the gumption to request a king “like the rest of the nations.” This isn’t all bad because we get David who becomes the archetype for the one who will sit and reign on the throne forever…but soon after David and Solomon the whole thing begins to fall apart as king after king abandons YHWH, choosing spiritual darkness by worshipping false gods. Israel is eventually conquered by a succession of empires: Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and then Rome.
In short, the darkness mentioned at the beginning of Isaiah 9 wasn’t short lived; it went on for generations. Isaiah’s passage could be taken to reflect his-present-day circumstances as though there might be relief from oppression and exile, but it is clear that this is the descriptive depiction of a future event.
There will be a time when darkness is replaced by light, when death is replaced by joy, when oppression is replaced by deliverance.
There will be a day when peace will reign over the throne of David and his kingdom.
There will be a day when the yoke of burden, the rod of the oppressor, and the bar across their shoulders are broken.
Who will accomplish all of this? YHWH will. God will make good on his promises; God will fulfill the covenant; God will redeem, rescue, reconcile, and restore his people.
Forgive the pun, but after the poignant prose of Isaiah 9, Psalm 96, and Titus 2, we are left asking ourselves, what child is this?
At the opening of Luke’s gospel, Israel was under the occupation and authority of Rome, one of the most brutal and ruthless empires the world had ever seen. The beauty of the gospel is that the narrative is the inverse of what you would expect in a great story. Certainly, it is the exact opposite of what Israel expected. Israel was looking for the one who would be “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.” But the emergence of the light of life, the light of the world is precisely not the bursting forth of military might, political power, or socio-economic superiority.
It is actually against this very backdrop that our story takes place in Luke’s gospel…
…and that’s the whole point!
We are told that Caesar Augustus called for a census of the whole world. Caesar’s intentions are utterly irrelevant to the story because God uses the history and circumstances of the world for his own purposes. Why then does Luke tell us of the census? Easy: because it is this very census which brings Joseph from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem, the city of David. The decree was clear that all “went to their towns to be registered” and David was “descended from the house and family of David.”
This is not a throwaway line, my friends. Luke is playing it cool, but this detail is of great significance: the prophesies of the Old Testament were certain that God would send one faithful Israelite from the line of David to sit on David’s throne forever. Despite being born in poverty and disrepute, Jesus has royal blood coursing through his veins.
The actual birth narrative in Luke’s gospel is rather brief and anticlimactic. The focus of Luke’s gospel has thus far been on the annunciation to Mary, the shared joy of Mary and Elizabeth, and the songs that Mary and Elizabeth each sing in response to the good news they received from on high. We read Mary’s Magnificat this last Sunday. It is filled with political overtones. She sang about the world being turned upside down, about the radical reversal of reality, about God hearing the cries of his people and exalting the lowly. Today we are simply told that Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem to register, she was pregnant, she gave birth and laid him in a manger because there was no room at the inn.
And that’s it.
Royal children are born in regal, palatial, elegant settings and yet the Savior, the Messiah, God incarnate comes to us in the form of a helpless babe, to an unwed mother in the backyard of the Roman Empire where Caesar is known as the son of god.
But our story is not yet over. The scene shifts and Luke tells us of shepherds who were watching their flock at night. Shepherds were at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to class and significance. Being a shepherd was not an appropriate or aspirational career path for an individual. And despite the lowly nature of shepherds, Israel has a long history of shepherd-leaders: Moses and David.
Is it no surprise, then, that the angel of the Lord would appear before shepherds announcing the birth of the King of kings?
The good news of Jesus’ birth is that the lowly are being lifted up,
the high and mighty will tumble,
the world will be put to rights.
Salvation has come.
The good news is for all people.
It isn’t just for the people who read the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal nor is it only for those who read Guns and Ammo.
It isn’t just good news for those in the top 1% nor it is only good news for the poorest of the poor.
It isn’t just good news for the Jews nor the Greeks nor the Romans nor the Gentiles.
It is good news for all people.
“To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Friends, the light of the gospel, the light of the world was born in the humblest of ways and yet his birth has had, is having, and will have ramifications far beyond the joy experienced by his parents or even the excitement of the lowly shepherds. This is the beginning of a history-altering-event which has forever shaped and changed the world.
This Advent, I have repeatedly claimed that we cannot separate Jesus’ first coming from his second coming, and today we need to take this a step further: you cannot separate the incarnation, when God put on flesh, from the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.
The very, very good news of Christmas is that Jesus’ birth is the beginning of all he accomplished through his death, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of the Father.
The significance of Christ’s birth cannot be overstated: it is the birth of the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one. It is the birth of Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. It is the birth of the faithful Israel who assumed our humanity and who would destroy sin, suffering, and death.
Like Google and YouTube, we might be left asking questions: How did the incarnation work? Why did Jesus come? How does his birth have meaning for us? Why didn’t he vanquish Rome?
We are asking the wrong questions. Just as Google and YouTube have suggested, we have questions and we want answers, but we need to start asking the right question. It is not a matter of how or why but of who.
Who is it that we worship?
Who is this Christ?
The darkness cannot overcome the light of Christ. Jesus was born that he might break the yoke of burden, the rod of the oppressor, and the bar on their shoulders, the bars of sin, suffering, and death on our shoulders. He came to rescue, redeem, restore, and reconcile all people to the Father, a mission which far exceeded Rome or empires or Caesars.
This wasn’t about Rome, it was about sin and our separation from God, it was about our inability to keep the covenant, it was about the grace of God for all people, it was about Christ assuming our humanity that he might redeem us completely.
There is no shortage of good news tonight. The good news is that light has burst forth into the world; that love has come down from heaven, put on flesh, and dwells among us.
The opportunity in front of us is to carry this good news to the ends of the earth that all nations might be blessed, just as God intended Israel to do all the way back in Genesis 12. As you sit in the church today, or at home via the livestream, and as you consider the good news of Christ’s first coming, I implore you to consider how this might be good news for all people. As humanity continues to search for truth, purpose, and answers to all of the hard questions of life, we have a unique and urgent opportunity to show them that they aren’t looking in the right place. YouTube and Google are telling us that the world is asking how and why, but we need to show the world that the answer is actually who.
Jesus is the Savior, the Messiah, the Christ. He is the author of salvation and perfector of faith. He is the one who put on flesh in the form of a helpless babe; he is the one from the line and house of David who will sit on David’s throne and reign forever in glory and majesty, ushering in his peace. He is the one who brings light, love, hope, peace, joy, and mercy as he ushers in his kingdom. Jesus is the one who has come to radically reverse reality, to turn the world upside down, to show that the lowly will be exalted, to put the world to rights. He is the one who has come to announce the year of the Lord’s favor, to bring sight to the blind, to free the captive, to crush the stranglehold that sin has over each of us.
What child is this? The King of kings and Lord of lords…glory to God in the highest!
Beloved, the world is asking questions. The world is searching for meaning and understanding.
What kind of answer are you prepared to give?