Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas… A Merry Christmas indeed. But in what way was it merry? The events leading up to the birth of our Lord are in many ways a tale of misery and frustration. What mother wants to travel across the country in the last weeks before giving birth? It’s not as though Mary or Joseph had much of a choice: at the whim of tyrants from thousands of miles away, the gears of faceless bureaucracies were set in motion so that like it or not, the time was neigh to register and pay the taxes. So Joseph goes. However the hallmark movies may feature the romantic return to the hometown, Joseph’s hometown relatives couldn’t even find a proper room for him and his pregnant wife stay. She has to give birth in the stables. Shortly afterwards strangers who smell like livestock barge in, raving about angels and gloria in excelsis.
The language St. Luke was inspired to use to describe our Lord’s birth is beautiful, but if you think about it, the situation sounds more like a bad dream. Jesus was born into a world full of darkness. The shepherds had to abide in the fields by night because there were wolves nearby, stalking around to devour the helpless sheep. The shepherds were right to be sore afraid of the angels, because angels are holy and powerful, while we are wretched sinners who deserve our misery. Governments like Imperial Rome establish a martial sort of order through the violent power of the sword… the poverty and dangers of one child being born meant nothing to them. Even the hometowns and hearths are not as welcoming as we would hope… sinful people tend to be more interested in their own comforts and pleasures than the objective good of another human life brought into the world. True, Mary and Joseph both seem to love with a real love – not a passing feeling or sentiment, but the dedicated self-giving love that acts sacrificially for the ultimate good of the beloved. Their virtues are a good example for us today. Yet even what they had to give was not enough. Carpenter Joseph went the extra mile for his family, but he couldn’t provide a crib or a bed for this child to lay His head. All Mary had for Jesus was swaddling clothes. But really, how merry could that little family have been?
Into just such a dark world [of failed loves], the Lord Jesus Christ is born. The account of the birth of Christ Jesus is a story of love… but not human love in the way we think at first. St. John writes in the epistle this evening: “9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:9-10) If love were simply about the feeling, or if merriness consisted in having comfort or a reduction in stress, then it would be entirely dependent on our outward circumstances. Neither Mary nor Joseph nor Jesus could possibly have had a merry Christmas, because the world was still dark and bleak. Maybe, amid hectic preparations and the circumstances of our aging bodies, some of us can reluctantly relate.
Yet the Love of God is put forth in Christ Jesus shows a different kind of merriness, a joy and peace that passes earthly understanding. God is love, and in His great mercy He gives of himself for the ultimate good of you, His beloved. It is not because you have everything together or are worthy or lovable on your own or are even adequately prepared. God’s self-giving originates in Him. He saw fit to create the world and all good things in it. Humankind’s sinful rebellion of self-love separated us from God and from one another. If left unchecked our sin would lead the unbeliever to hell. God’s heart is grieved by this (cf. Gen 6:6), yet His self-giving love is undaunted. In love, He sent forth His Son to share in our humanity. Jesus took on a human nature to be the propitiation, the payment for all our sins. The perfectly righteous and holy Son of God did no wrong, yet was crucified in our place in order to bear our sins in His body. The stable would be replaced by a tomb, the swaddling cloths turned into grave cloths. Yet the Lord of life is undaunted by darkness (Jn 1:5), He rises again on the third day for our justification. The self-giving love of God keeps on giving: you who believe and are baptized, you who receive the Word and treasure it in your hearts by repentant faith, you have life undaunted and unending on account of Jesus the Christ.
It’s easy to see why we love the Christmas story so much… in many ways it is our story. Not that it is about us, but rather that we are the ones being rescued. We feel the weight of distant kings and their burocracies. We know there are dangers in the world, and out of love we try to protect and nuture our families as best we can. We know that we are sinful people, and long to be made holy. The story of Christmas is the start of the story of our rescue. It’s worth hearing again, rejoicing in the details, decorating our hearts and homes with it, celebrating the humble humanity that our savior takes on for us and for our salvation.
The merriness of Christmas – it’s joy, peace, and hope – doesn’t have to come from our failures to love one another or recreate the spirit of Christmases past. It doesn’t come from our circumstances. All of that joy is a side effect of believing, receiving, and abiding in the love of God, which is given to us first by God on High. So even if your weekend is shaping up to be one frustration on top of another, take a moment to reflect. The set of experiences we tend to expect from a holiday season sound an awful lot like circumstantial worldly happiness. Even our good and right love for one another isn’t always enough to fix all the problems in life. But Christmas, that is, the celebration of the birth of Christ, … is not about our capabilities or accomplishments, but rather the capable, loving, work of Christ Jesus. Fear not, be merry and rejoice, for Christ Jesus has done it all.
His birth is one step along the way of His salvation for you. It’s not the only step, by the way, [so if you’re only used to being here for only two or three times a year, you’re really missing out.] There is more to the life of Jesus than His birth, a lot of good comes from a living and active connection to the Lord of hope. You ought to come back later to hear more of the story... what He has done and continues to do every week.
The merriness that Christians have at Christmas is not one of our own making, but rather the joy at knowing that Christ has done it all. He shares in our human nature to lift us up from our poor miserable condition. God on High loves us unlovables with a self-giving love, and so there may be peace on earth in Christ alone. Glory be to God on high, and thanksgiving for His love and peace and joy. Merry Christmas to you. In the name of + Jesus. Amen.