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Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas 06 Sermon

Christmas Day, 2006

Text: John 1:1-14

It’s striking how people can become accustomed to almost anything and begin to think of it as normal. Plato tells the story of men who are born in a cave who never see the sun. The only light they see is that cast by a fire lit and kept behind them at all times. The only forms they see are shadows of objects flickering against the wall in the dim firelight. But they don’t mind being in this state so much because they don’t know anything else. They’ve never heard of the sun, let alone seen it.

But then take these men out of their caves and bring them to the surface. What will be their reaction? Do you think they will thank you for showing them the light? Certainly not. They will squint with pain and wonder what torment you’ve subjected them to. Only with time, will their eyes adjust. And then everything will be different. They will experience colors and shapes and images they’d never imagined. They will enjoy beauty they didn’t dream could exist.

Some, however, will refuse to believe that this searing brilliance will ever amount to anything good and they immediately long to return to the comfortable darkness they’ve always known.

It’s sort of like the ancient Israelites who begged to be liberated from their bondage in Egypt but then immediately complained about the discomforts of the wilderness. And they began to pine to be back in the land of their captors where at least they ate onions and cucumbers and melons instead of that boring manna day after day. It’s not that they enjoyed the slavery when they were in Egypt, but they had hoped to get to the land flowing with milk and honey a bit quicker. They had no patience for the lifelong pilgrimage in between.

Jesus Christ is the light which gives life to men. The prophet foretold: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined (Is. 9:2).” Men, however, love the darkness, even though it is killing them. The bright light of day is intimidating, demanding and overwhelming. And that’s because it changes you. St. Paul said that at the glorious return of Christ when the dead are raised and all those who are in Christ will be taken to meet him in the air, he said, “We shall all be changed.”

But I’m here to tell you that that metamorphosis has begun in you already. It is the seed planted in you at your baptism which will only fully flower on the day of your bodily resurrection from the dead when you shall be glorified.

The light of Christ is not just light in the sense of showing us the way. Psalm 119:105 says “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” So Christ is the light who illumines the correct path. But He is more than that.

Sunlight that strikes the leaves of a plant does not give instructions to the plant. It does not teach it what to do and how to be. No, the sunlight is the power which enlivens and awakens the plant, giving it health, and causing it to grow and bear fruit.

In a similar way, Jesus Christ is not just a moral guide telling us how to live better and more effective lives. He is the light which gives life. Jesus changes us from dormant seeds into vibrant blossoming plants full of color. But sometimes it hurts to change. Sometimes men prefer to be lifeless, barren and bland. We prefer the drabness of our sins because the Deceiver has convinced us that it is better that way.

This is one of the things I really love about The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, especially The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. If you’ve read the book or seen the movie, you know what I mean. Under the control of the evil witch, the land of Narnia is stuck in perpetual winter; everything is frozen, covered in snow, with no warmth or joy or color. It’s always winter but never Christmas, they said.

That is, that’s how it was before the great lion Aslan arrived. Aslan, of course, is Lewis’s Christ figure in the stories. When Aslan comes, everything begins to change. The ground begins to thaw, flowers of yellow and purple and red begin to pop from the earth. Birds are singing, the sun is shining, and you can hear the flow and trickle of water around you. When Aslan came, the evil witch began to lose control of Narnia. It slipped from her spell and what was a barren wasteland metamorphosed into a garden teeming with life.

And that’s how it is with Christ. The devil freezes us. He imprisons us. He promises us that a life of sin will be happy, but it’s not. It’s dull and boring and the same old – same old all the time. Only with Christ does life begin to vibrate with color and warmth and interest.

The story of the birth of Jesus is not told in the Bible because it is sweet and makes us all warm inside. Even Martin Luther succumbed a bit to this kind of sentimentality in his Christmas sermons saying that God became a baby because who can resist a baby? No one is afraid of a baby, he said. Everyone loves a baby. I’m no exception. I love children. But the Son of God didn’t become a baby in order to charm us with his pudgy little knees and win our love by being cute and adorable.

As much as we all love this time of year and are so fond of the Christmas story, we must acknowledge that it’s not all red ribbons and sugarplums. There is much pain and suffering in the Christmas narrative if you have ears to hear. The ridicule which Mary and Joseph must have been subject to. The hard travel while 9 months pregnant. No room in the inn. This young girl, giving birth presumably without the comfort of her mother or family. Not to mention the madness and deception and vicious bloodshed of King Herod the Great.

The life of Jesus, even from the start, was characterized by suffering. Commemorating the martyrs this coming week reminds us that the cute and adorable baby is, in fact, the sacrificial lamb who will break his mother’s heart and be handed over to wicked men who will do unspeakable things to him before killing him for all to see. Aside from all the sweetness, this is a story about God getting serious about sin and its fatal consequences. This is a story about God rolling up his sleeves, and getting down amongst the problems of our world and doing something about them. Jesus was quite literally born to die.

They say that familiarity breeds contempt. I think it also breeds deafness. In the church, we hear these realities spoken and sung so often that we may at times fail to hear them. The baby of Bethlehem was always going to be killed on a cross. His crucifixion was not a mistake or a detour. It was the purpose of his incarnation, birth, and life among us. To shed his blood as a ransom for many, to offer his own life to rescue sinners from eternal damnation.

A Roman Catholic author whom I admire named Flannery O’Conner once said that for the hard of hearing, you must shout. She meant that for those who are morally and spiritually hard of hearing, it becomes necessary for the church to speak more boldly. So let’s enjoy our nostalgia, our Bing Crosby albums, our Jimmy Stewart movie. But let’s say out loud for all to hear that Jesus is God in the flesh come to rescue us and give us eternal life. He is, in fact, the light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome.

Christmas is more than just a birthday party for Jesus. It’s the recognition that God is in the business of saving sinners. When the angels announcing Christ’s birth sang about ‘good will toward men,’ they were not singing about people showing good will toward other people, but about God showing good will toward all of us. Instead of treating us as our sins deserve, God is in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.

It’s a wonderful life, when you think about it. Not the film. But life in Christ. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Frank said...

Pastor Stiegemeyer,
How often do you get to preach now that you are at CTS? I hope all is well with you and yours.

Pastor Scott Stiegemeyer said...

I've preached 3 times at Redeemer and twice at the seminary chapel. Plus I wrote and recorded 7 advent devotions on our website. So it's certainly not like being in the parish, but I get to keep my homiletic muscles flexed, so to speak.

I have to say that my pastor, Rev. Petersen, is very gracious to invite me (and the other clergy in the cong.) to preach at Redeemer from time to time. He is a very skilled preacher and his people want to hear him. I want to hear him. His preaching was one of the main draws for us to join Redeemer.

Kevin Pritchard said...

Did you know that the choir from Dedham Church was featured on the album 'A Christmas sing with Bing' (Crosby that is) in 1958. Ah those childhood memories! Ironic as this year's sermon mentions Bing Crosby Albums!
Kevin Pritchard

Kevin Pritchard said...

Did you know that the choir at Dedham Church was featured on a 1958 album 'A Christmas Sing with Bing' (Crosby that is)? Ironic as this year's surmon mentioned Bing Crosby Albums!!

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