Pastor Chris Tweitmann
It was an unexpected announcement on that first, not-so-silent night.
As angels heard on high spoke to
shepherds watching their flocks in fields nearby.
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” – Luke 2:10-12
It was, for the most part, the same unexpected announcement
that came first to a young girl named Mary and then eventually
in a dream to her intended, a young man named Joseph.
It was an unexpected announcement that would come later to
a couple of wise guys from the East all thanks to
a western leading star of wonder and royal beauty bright.
But in one sense, this announcement shouldn’t have been unexpected.
It shouldn’t have been unexpected because it was a message
the Creator of all things had delivered from the very beginning
– in the aftermath of when this world was broken
and humanity completely fell apart.
It was a divine promise repeated throughout the progression of time,
by way of patriarchs, prophets, and priests,
– at times punctuated with signs and wonders
but more often than just an echoed assurance
that life would not always be like this.
That, things not being the way they’re supposed to be,
would not remain the status quo.
That there would come a reckoning. A righting of the wrongs.
That there would be a great redemption.
A regaining of what was once lost.
That there would be a lasting reconciliation.
A brokering of peace that would mend every fault line
and unify all life once more and forever.
This announcement that brings us together today
shouldn’t have been unexpected. But it was.
You see, long, long ago, back at that first Christmas,
when the Word was given, people had grown tired of waiting
after more than 500 years for what felt like an empty, divine promise.
They lost patience with the notion that what seems like an eternity to us
– a thousand years – is but a day in the measure of God’s timing.
Back in the age of empires, where might made right
and peace was kept by the threat of the sword,
where wealth was built on the backs of the poor
and laws were written and enforced to protect the privileged few,
in an ancient world not all that different from our own, modern one,
many lost faith.
Many chose to believe in themselves rather than a Higher Power, determining to take matters into their own hands.
They reasoned, as so many often do,
that we all have to make our own luck,
that we each must forge our own way in this world
in order to survive – let alone to get ahead.
And so the announcement of the birth
of humanity’s long-awaited salvation,
the delivery at last of peace on earth and goodwill to all people
ended up being unexpected and therefore was missed
by most people once upon a midnight clear.
Now, to be fair, there might have been other reasons why
this announcement was unexpected and missed by so many.
After all, it’s generally held that “It’s not what you say but how you say it.”
And most people, much like us, would probably have expected,
that a message of this kind of magnitude
– of a salvation that radically alters, not merely the future of this world,
but purposes to reshape the entirety of the cosmos – of all creation
– an announcement like that surely ought to have been given
with some style and substance –
heralded yes, by a great company of angels
– just not in the isolation of the night sky of some shepherd’s field
but proclaimed far and wide from every corner of the earth.
At the very least, such a pronouncement was more befitting of
the pomp and circumstance of the royal city of Jerusalem
than the muck and mire of a backwater town like Bethlehem.
And it wasn’t as if the address label on the envelope was the only thing that could have made this announcement something of a surprise.
The particular ambassadors through whom this divine declaration
was being delivered were nothing to write home about either.
Mary and Joseph weren’t exactly what we might call today,
a power couple.
They were common folk – from among the vast throngs of the working poor
– not deemed of much notice, worth, or importance in civilized society.
Truth be told, within their own circle,
the story of their relationship was something of a scandal.
An unwed, teenage mother carrying a baby
that did not belong to her future husband.
Exactly what child is this indeed!
This, this is Christ the King – the Messiah we’ve all been waiting for?
This son conceived out of wedlock?
This babe, the son of Mary, but not of Joseph?
This is the kind of stuff for gossip columns and the tabloids
and not proclaimed as “this is the Word of the Lord.”
Not of the kind of publicity that adds much credibility
to the idea, the message that God’s long-promised salvation
comes by way of these people.
Two nobodies whose only claim to fame is
their controversial, seemingly illegitimate love-child.
And while we’re at it, let’s not forget to mention
the particular packaging of this birth announcement.
Over the centuries we’ve sanitized
the gift-wrapping of the first Christmas
– crafting more pageantry, more of an “all is calm, all is bright” scene
rather than presenting this moment in the lowly, earthy, abject
marginalized context in which it is actually framed.
All our extensive touching up of the original family Christmas picture
only further reveals how unexpected this birth announcement was.
Back then and still today, we expect our idols, our would-be saviors
to make their entrances with a bit of fanfare
– a little glitz and glamor,
some sign, some indication early on of their greatness.
And yet these angels from the realms of glory
offer no such presumed identifying markers.
Instead, they direct all attention towards locating
the long-awaited Messiah in the last place anyone would ever look.
Not in the soft light and hushed quiet of a cradle
but in the darkness and dung, the stench and noise,
in the humble confines of an animal’s feeding trough.
But as unexpected the Messiah in a manger might be,
the biggest surprise was what no one
– not any of those patriarchs or priests or prophets ever saw coming.
is almost casually slipped into the announcement
of these heavenly messengers.
THIS is the headline. THIS is what changes the game.
“Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you;
he is the Messiah, the Lord.” -Luke 2:11
For this Messiah, it is declared, is the Lord.
Translation: The infinite has become finite.
The God who, from the very beginning, vowed to
rescue, redeem, and reconcile everything He has created,
comes down in person to make good on that promise.
The fancy, theological buzzword used to describe this inconceivable
and yet very much conceived miracle is the Incarnation.
To incarnate means to give flesh to something
— to give form and substance to an insubstantial quality.
For example, a person who regularly extends
compassion and kindness to others, always sharing
from whatever they have, never holding back anything,
might be called the very incarnation of generosity.
Such a person gives substance to the quality of generosity.
He or she embodies what generosity looks like in the flesh—in practice.
What makes this announcement unexpected is
the incarnation of something, of someone
that was never envisioned or imagined as possible
– that defies logic and reason – the incarnation of divinity.
The embodiment of divine not in a generic sense,
but the enfleshment of divinity in a very particular, absolute,
and personal way.
For hark, the herald angels sing,
the birth of the newborn king is more than a gift from God;
this heaven-born Prince of Peace, this Son of Righteous,
this child named Jesus, is the gift of God – God with us.
It is the gift of God, the Light and Author of all Life
– of all that was, that is, and ever will be,
– of angels without number, stars without limit, and galaxies uncountable –
laying His glory by, willingly sharing in
the physicality and bodily nature of His creation.
It is the gift of God, the King of Kings becoming subject to
the vulnerabilities of our flesh and blood.
It is the gift of the God in whose image we are all created,
embodying His pure and perfect character
– His wisdom, His righteousness, mercy, grace, truth, and love
in the countenance of our own skin, our humanity.
Despite this headline-making news,
once again, on that very first Christmas,
this announcement intended to bring joy to the world
as well as the precious, sacred gift which that good news unveiled
was so unexpected, it went unheard, unreceived by nearly everyone.
But perhaps the greater irony is even though this same message
has been repeated for centuries upon centuries,
this same announcement remains something of a surprise still today.
As the observance and celebration of Christmas have evolved
over the years into magic sleighs and flying reindeer,
elves on shelves, and grinches who try to steal all our holiday joy,
many of us hear and receive this message
as just another treasured fable in the seasonal catalog
– more out of a sense of nostalgia
than any perceived recognition of need.
It’s a great story and all – but most of us don’t expect it,
don’t embrace it as Gospel – as an announcement
that’s relevant to our daily lives.
And if we dare believe this to be more than some religious myth,
of all the things we’re asking for Christmas,
why should the good news of this gift possibly make the list?
…if the last couple of years have made anything clear,
not much has changed in the world
since this announcement was first given
– at least not for the better.
Make no mistake, we can and may speak of
the advancement of humanity – of improvements in
human thought, calculation, invention, and enterprise.
Yet when it comes to the evolution of human behaviors and actions,
for all of our so-called progress,
the more we are the same as we always have been.
In the midst of global-wide isolation and sickness,
societal division and civil unrest, political polarization,
economic disparity, as well as a continuing environmental crisis,
there can be little doubt that we still very much –
perhaps now more than ever – need saving.
And as more than 2,000 years of recorded history
since the first giving of this announcement make clear,
contrary to all our insistence otherwise, we cannot help or fix ourselves.
In fact, the more we appeal to self-help –
that the power of change lies within ourselves,
the more all our self-improvement ultimately proves to be self-serving.
Behind all the positive thinking in which we tell ourselves
I am the master of my own destiny,
that life is whatever I make of it,
– that I am only limited by the limits I put on myself,
is the beginning of the justification for
each of us looking to our own interests,
for everyone doing what is right in their own eyes.
And while we may, in good faith, appeal to philosophies like
“Live and let live” and “To each his own,”
there is no unity, no healing, no lasting salvation to be found here either.
As well-intentioned as these sentiments might be,
in practice, as we’ve witnessed over and again,
our tolerance of others only extends as far as
we perceive our perceived rights and freedoms are being infringed upon.
For when the line of our personal autonomy is crossed,
we no longer view ourselves as our brother or sister’s keeper,
we instead start framing our reality as us versus them.
This fatal flaw that universally marks the human condition is nothing new.
It is a mutation within our spiritual DNA that goes
all the way back to the origin of the species
even as it repeatedly echoes throughout every generation.
In these parts, we call it SIN – individually and collectively
making up our own rules for life rather than following the
original designs and stated intentions of our Maker.
Call it what you want but there can be no denying
that we are our own worst enemy.
That we, more often than not, get in our own way.
That whether we admit or accept it, we all fall from grace.
We all screw up – more times than we can count.
We all get it wrong – especially in those moments
where we vigorously insist on being right.
Oh, we can pretend we’re okay.
We can keep comparing ourselves to others
– arguing that we’re better than the average person
and at least not as bad as those people.
We can continue to point fingers, to look for a scapegoat
– someone else to blame for all our faults and our troubles.
Or we can, at last, acknowledge, finally confess that
broken people living in a broken world can’t fix, can’t cure what ails them,
that we all need saving – all of us – saving and not condemnation
– because we can’t save ourselves.
We can gratefully receive this “good news of great joy”
that the angels bring “for all people.”
Let’s hear that again – because we often forget it
– especially, sadly, within the Church.
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will
cause great joy for all the people.” -Luke 2:10
This unexpected, glorious announcement is for ALL people.
Not some people. Not just the nice versus the naughty people.
Not just the believing people. But all people. No one is left out.
No one is excluded from receiving the first, true gift of Christmas
unless it is by their own refusal to take this child, Jesus, into their arms.
For in this act of confession, this angelic message becomes
something more than good news; it becomes an invitation.
It becomes a directive, to go, like the shepherds, and learn more
“about this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
“When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” -Luke 2:15
The unexpected announcement of Christmas is
merely the start of a journey – a journey of faith, hope, and love –
a journey of discovering and following the One –
the Word of God made flesh – born to us this day in Bethlehem.
For the gift of the Incarnation does not stop at the manger.
The borning cry of the Son of Man named Jesus will soon
be revealed to be none other than the voice of the Son of God…
The voice that calms the storms – the wind and the waves,
The voice that blesses bread and fish so that none go away hungry,
The voice that brings forth sight for the blind and freedom for the captives,
The voice that casts out the demons which oppress and overtake us,
The voice that speaks wisdom and truth in a world full of lies,
The voice that calls out and recognizes those on the margins of life
who are otherwise ignored or repressed,
The voice that will become silent as Christ walks through
the darkest valley of every stain, every addiction, every hurt, every failure,
that burdens our humanity in order to willingly sacrifice Himself
to break the inevitable shadow of death that hangs over all existence.
The voice that will not speak when falsely accused and unjustly treated, that will not make a sound before all the evil that men do,
all the mockery and violence we will pour upon him,
until that moment hanging between life and death,
when Jesus will declare that all is forgiven in the name of love.
But most unexpected part of this announcement that begins on Christmas, the biggest surprise of all, fittingly, arrives,
at what we perceive as the end of the story.
For the child who is born to die is revealed to be
the One born whom death cannot hold.
As Jesus, the firstborn of the womb of Mary
becomes the firstborn from among the dead
when He walks out of the tomb intended to be his grave.
Incarnation shall give way to Resurrection.
The sacred nativity of Christmas anticipates
the inauguration of humanity’s rebirth through Easter.
And so this announcement we call the Gospel
takes one final, unexpected turn.
For those who believe and follow Jesus become the Body of Christ.
The gift of Christmas, the breadth and beauty of the Incarnation,
is not to be limited to historical particularities of
Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
No, those who hear and receive this good news are
both called and empowered to embody this message – to incarnate
the character and promises of God revealed through Christ to others.
“When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them…The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.” -Luke 2:17-18, 20
Just as Christ reached down through time and space
to take up residence with us, to assure that we are not alone,
so we are to come alongside each other,
to be fully present to those around us.
Just as the Light of the World first shined brightly in our lives,
piercing the veil of all our insecurity and fear, so we too are
to carry the Light of Jesus and push back against the darkness
which threatens to overtake those burdened by loss and sorrow.
Swaddled in the love of God in Christ not because of what we’ve done
or might do, but simply, unconditionally because we are His children,
we are commissioned to clothe others – particularly those in need
– with limitless compassion and mercy,
with extravagant forgiveness and grace
– reminding and reclaiming each and every person
as a beloved daughter or son of God.
In this – and only in this – is the evidence that
we have heard and believed the unexpected announcement of Christmas, that we have taken this good news to heart rather than for granted.
My friends, an unexpected announcement brings us together today.
Through the baby born in Bethlehem, the One named Jesus,
God is forever born anew in our time, our place, our lives.
It’s a birth announcement that seeks to move us from
merely celebrating the event of Christmas
to becoming conduits of the experience, of the Spirit of Christmas.
Let us pray, let us sing, yes
– but may all our prayers and all our singing lead us,
like the shepherds, like the Magi, to go and see, to come and worship,
to become a part of who Jesus is by sharing what Christ has done,
in word and deed, with each other.