A year ago today was the first time in my life that I did not set foot inside a church on Christmas Eve. It was an odd feeling. To be sure, there were lots of joyful options for online worship – and it was fun to get to collaborate on some of them with other clergy friends of mine. We put in a lot of work to try to make Christmas Eve worship happen safely. But it was still so strange not to be here.
I’m happy and thankful to get to be here with you tonight. It warms my heart to see all the faces gathered in these pews. After so much turmoil in the past two years, there is just something about gathering together in person for worship on Christmas Eve that feels really hopeful. We’ve come a long way in the last year.
That being said, in many ways, 2021 still wasn’t the year that we had hoped it would be – the year that we were promised it would be. Life didn’t just snap back to normal, the way I think many of us secretly hoped it would. The pandemic left us with too much loss to simply move on from it. It highlighted the extreme inequality and division and prejudice that already existed in our world and then made these things worse. It stole our sense of safety. And for many of us, the pandemic took away some of the people we loved most.
And the real kicker is that the pandemic isn’t even over yet. This year, even those of us who are vaccinated got hit with the Delta variant when that wave came through – I myself got sick just last month! – and now we have Omicron coming up behind it. I was just reading in the news this morning that thousands of flights have been canceled all over the world because of rising new cases. And around here, I keep hearing about holiday celebrations being postponed or canceled due to covid. It feels like this will never end.
And so here we gather – we come with our hearts tentatively hopeful, but also carrying burdens. (However you come tonight, you are welcome here. Your joyful, hopeful heart, your grieving, sorrowful heart, all of you is welcome.) I would venture to guess that many, if not all, of us come here tonight carrying some mixture of disappointment and uncertainty, even fear about what the coming year will hold for us. And many of us come carrying grief, missing faces around the table whose absence we especially feel around the holidays. Disappointed, fearful, frustrated, grieving, lost – we are all, in one way or another, people who are walking in darkness.
Yet even in this darkness, light is still shining. It isn’t the light of Christmas trees or candles or tinsel. It isn’t the elusive light at the end of the tunnel that means that this pandemic is really and truly behind us.
This light, which we celebrate tonight, is the light of Christ. It’s the light of Christ who shines because God chooses to come and meet us where we are – wherever we are – even in the depths of doubt and disappointment and despair. Christ comes to be with us. God, the creator of all that is, loves human beings enough to slip into human skin and be born as one. Christ is born as a tiny child, right in the midst of the messiness and the chaos of human life.
And Christ comes to us in the flesh not to judge us or condemn us. He doesn’t come as some kind of divine Elf-on-the-Shelf who reports all our various misdeeds to God the Father. Christ comes to redeem us; Christ comes to reconcile us with God the Father once and forever. He comes in love to heal our deep brokenness, to bring us out from death to new life, and to teach us how to love God and to love one another as God has first loved us.
Jesus Christ is born today. He is God made flesh. And he is God’s loving faithfulness made flesh. Jesus is a living sign that God is trustworthy and true. God keeps the promises that God makes to us: promises of forgiveness and salvation, promises of everlasting life in God’s presence, promises of love that is stronger than the grave. In Christ, these promises are all made true.
I know you’ve heard these stories a thousand times. And a thousand times again. You know the story of the tiny Christ-child: hope made flesh and laid in a manger. I’m not telling you anything new. But you didn’t come here tonight because you hoped to hear a new story. You came because you wanted to hear the old story. You came because you wanted to hear the good news. You came because you wanted to hear that the promise is still trustworthy and true.
So listen and hear the good news again:
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined… For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, [God has] broken… For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”Isaiah 9:2-7 (selected verses)
Christ has come in love to dwell among us, to fulfill God’s promise of redemption and salvation and everlasting life. He has come with authority, to establish God’s rule of justice and love – and his kingdom will have no end.
This is the good news – and even though it probably isn’t news, it is definitely still good. In times of uncertainty, in the midst of fear and grief, all kinds of untrustworthy promises get made, and there are often many false lights to follow. But for us, Christ remains our constant hope. No matter what the coming year may bring, we place our hope in the Word of God made flesh: because Christ will never fail us nor forsake us.