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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017

 Angels We Have Heard on High

Isaiah 62:6-12; Luke 2:1-20

            Today is Christmas Eve, or at least it will be tonight, and we return once again to what is the deepest, truest story that the human family has to tell.  Yet, as Luke tells this story, it really has more of the force of a hint, a subtle hint, by God – a baby born to peasant parents, and placed in a manger, a food trough for animals – and this is how the Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, entered our world?  Why would an all-powerful God, who could do whatever God wanted to do – at least the God that Jews and Christians believe in –why would such a God ever choose to enter the world in this quiet, seemingly insignificant, oh-so-easy to miss, way?

            The answer might be suggested by a parable that was written many years ago, of a king who fell in love with a lowly maid, a servant girl.  When asked, “How shall I declare my love to her?”, his advisors said, “Your Majesty, you only have to appear in all your glorious royal raiment, with your royal retinue behind you, and one look at you and she will fall down and will be yours forevermore.”

            But it was precisely this thought that troubled the king.  He did not want her to be bedazzled, overwhelmed, overpowered, at the thought of being married to a king.  In return for his love he simply wanted hers, freely given, from the heart.  The one thing he did not want was her submission to all his kingly power and glory.  What a dilemma, the king thought, “Not to declare my love would spell the end of any hope of love, and yet to declare my love might kill any hope for real or true love.”  Finally, the young king realized love’s truth, that freedom for the beloved requires a certain equality with the beloved, because love is only love if it is freely given.  So late one night, after all his advisors and his attachés had retired, the young king stole out the back door of his castle, and appeared before the maid’s cottage, dressed as a lowly servant.  

            Søren Kierkegaard wrote this parable to be a kind of Christmas story.  In Kierkegaard’s parable, the king wants the maid to love him, not because he is king, but because he is a man who truly and deeply loves her.  But what about the maid in the parable?  If I were her, I would want to know a little bit more about this servant boy who stood at my door and simply told me that he loved me!  Don’t you think that Harry being Prince had at least something to do with Meghan Markle falling in love with him?!

            Likewise, before we get all sentimental and gush about the King of Kings, and the Lord of Lords being born in a cattle stall to peasant parents, let’s be honest with ourselves.  We too would often prefer that God be God, rather than to come to us so helplessly, so ordinarily, into our midst.  We want God to be strong, so that we can be weak.  But what if God chose to be weak, so that we could become strong?  I get the frustration of the prophet Isaiah, who offered that word with which we opened Advent four weeks ago, in Isaiah 61: “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down … that the nations would tremble before you.”  That is the kind of God that we want!  A God who comes in strength and power, and with decisive and unmistakable glory. 

            Yet, at Christmas, God comes in weakness; God comes as a helpless baby.  Why, any of us here have the power to crush that baby’s skull upon a rock!  God is not safe from us.  Herod would, in fact, according to Matthew, attempt systematically to kill all the male children born in that region at that time.  No, God is not safe from us, and God being born as a baby reminds us that we need to protect God.  One of my favorite theologians wrote a book a number of years ago he called, Narratives of a Vulnerable God.  In many ways that is what the New Testament offers.  Last week I said God is playing the long game, and the long game is all about the power of love, and not at all about the love of power.  

            Parents and husbands and wives and true friends spend their whole lives learning these lessons, if ever we are to grow up.  Love is only love if it is freely given.  And more than anything else, this God, whom the Bible declares “is love,” wants most of all our love in return for His.  So God became weak in order that we might become strong, by growing up and freely choosing love.  What speaks of love more eloquently, more universally, more truly, than a newborn baby?  God came to earth as a child, so that you and I might finally grow up and live our lives the way we were meant to live them, in the strength of love, which is all about giving and sacrifice and focusing upon the other.

            We are not called to obey God’s power, or to obey because we fear God’s power, or because we want to court God’s power or favor.  We are called to obey God’s love.  God’s favor has already been granted to the whole human family through the birth of this baby in Bethlehem, through this daring, risky act of love.  Love is always a terrible risk.  I don’t care how old you are – it is risky to admit that you are deeply in love with another, because love can always be rejected, or abused, or simply ignored.  But God does not want submission to His power, or a love conditioned by what we somehow think we can get in return from God.  God wants one thing and one thing only, and that is our love, in return for His love.  God comes to earth as a baby so you and I will finally grow up and live our lives in love.

            Luke begins the Christmas story firmly rooted in human history, too often the story of loveless power.  Luke begins his story by mentioning Caesar Augustus, he begins with a Roman Empire that imposes a census for the purpose of collecting taxes.  Then he even mentions Quirinius, the Roman Governor of Syria.  Then Luke mentions Bethlehem, the City of David, tying the history of Rome, the history of the world, to the history of the Jewish people, because Bethlehem is the City of David.  This journey of eighty miles that Mary and Joseph took was a forced march, the last trip in the world that they wanted to have to make, and it turned into the most blessed journey that any human beings ever undertook.

            Isn’t that the way so often that the story of our lives unfold?  What speaks of love more universally, or any better, or any more eloquently than a baby, totally helpless, in need of our nurture and care?

            I was talking with one of our boys many years ago, and in an honest moment, he said to me, “You know, I don’t really know whether or not I want ever to have children.”  I appreciated his honesty.  In fact, I said, “You know – I still feel that way on many days!”  I am sure you can grow up without ever having kids.  And God knows, not everyone is made or meant to have children.  But I did tell my son, honestly, that without having children I would have missed out on so much, and I don’t know how else I would have learned that love is finally about giving and giving, and then giving some more, only to have your heart broken by all that giving.  And it is ultimately about letting someone else go.  If life is about love, and love is about giving, then children are our teachers.  

            Fred Buechner writes these words: “God never seems to weary of trying to get Himself across to us.  Word after word He tries in search of the right word.  When creation itself doesn’t seem to say it right – sun, moon, stars, all of it – God tries flesh and blood.”  A baby, a child, given so that we might love God in the way that God loves us, sacrificially, heartbreakingly, freely, without any strings attached.

            Which brings us this morning to the angels’ song.  The story begins rooted in human history, speaking of human pretentions to power and glory.  But it ends with angels singing to shepherds on a starry night, and their song gives voice to God’s longings for this earth, and for our lives. 

            “Do not be afraid,” the angels sing, because perfect love alone casts out fear.  “I bring you good news of a great joy for all the people.”  God intends through this baby to bless the entire human family.  This is the heart of the Christmas Gospel.

            Finally, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those whom God favors.”  The gift of the Babe of Bethlehem is the statement of God’s favor freely given to the whole world and to all God’s children.  An end of fear; good news of great joy for all people.  “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth.”  These are the gifts that the Baby Jesus brings.  God’s gifts all wrapped up in a little child.  Can we grow up enough to live into the love and the peace that Christmas brings?


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