A sermon by Rev Richard Keith on Isaiah 9:2-7 and Luke 2:8-16 on Christmas Eve 2018
Our message tonight is about the light that shines in the darkness. The message of joy to the broken-hearted. The song of peace for our war-torn world. It’s a message we need today as much as any time before us.
For I was a child of the Cold War, born during the Vietnam War. I grew up in a time dominated by two super powers and I lived in the shadow of mutually assured destruction. And yet I lived long enough to witness two extraordinary moments. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Apartheid regime in South Africa. These two events seemed to promise that we could all at last live in freedom and peace.
Sadly, that promise was still-born. The faces changed in Africa, but corruption continues, and the fall of the Soviet empire gave birth to a host of conflicts. Bosnia. Kosovo. Afghanistan. Iraq. Isis. Ukraine. Why is peace as elusive as ever? Why do men of war always seem to rise to the top? Is it not because we are all so afraid? Is it not because we are too scared to surrender our weapons and to leave ourselves defenceless?
In Isaiah chapter 9 and Luke chapter 2 we hear two songs of peace that ring out louder than the cries for war. Together they speak of the child who will calm our fears and disarm our hearts and bring us peace.
Isaiah chapter 9 is a song of promise. It is the promise of the coming of light to those who live in the darkness, who dwell under the gloom of the shadow of death. It is the promise of the coming of joy. A joy like those who have gathered in the harvest. Like those whose labour has not gone unrewarded. Who have worked all season and lived to see the earth bring forth its fruits in response. Who now may feast knowing that they will have food for the winter.
It is a joy like those who have been victorious in battle. They left their homes. They put down their hammers and ploughs and took up swords and shields and against all hope they turned back their oppressors and regained their freedom. Their bloodied uniforms are good for nothing now but to be burned to stop the spread of disease, and the precious metals of their weapons can be put to better use as agricultural implements. They can go back to their regular lives. Their sons will not need to fight and their daughters will be safe from violent men.
These hopes that stand in bleak contrast to the cycles of violence that never seem to end, rest not upon a man of war, a man of strength. They rest instead on a child of peace. For us a child is born. To us a son is given. And the government will be upon his shoulders. He will not bring us sharper swords and bigger guns and thicker armour. But he will bring wisdom and justice. Wisdom that can cut through the lies that we believe. And justice that will right the wrongs, not just of a privileged few, not just for one side of the conflict, but for all. He will come in the name of God equipped with all the divine power. In the shelter of his rule their will be no need for weapons. No one will be afraid. The cycle of violence will come to an end. Everyone will be able to put down their swords and go home.
Luke chapter 2 is a song of fulfilment. For the child of promise was born. He may seem to be just a pawn in the Emperor’s plans to count and tax his empire. His pregnant mother may have been forced to leave her home in Nazareth and then to lay her new born baby in a manger, an animal’s food trough. But it is only part of the divine plan that the child of promise would be born in David’s town, in Bethlehem, and that he should make him home among those he came to serve, the poor and vulnerable and powerless.
And the angel spoke. Not to princes. Not to merchants. But to shepherds. Working men who lived on the fringes of polite society. Never fully welcome. And never fully trusted. But they were entrusted with the message the world most needed to hear.
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you. He is Christ and Lord. This will be a sign to you, you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Any number of babies could have been born that night. Most of them would be wrapped up by the midwife in cloths to keep them safe. But only one would have to share a bed with the animals in a place so exposed that even shepherds could come uninvited and look at him.
And then the angels sang their song of peace. Not a duet. Not a trio. But a mass choir of heaven’s army, performing their greatest work for the lowliest of men. And their message was glory. Glory to God. Glory to God in the highest. What had happened that night in the stable in Bethlehem would result in praise to God who had fulfilled his great promises, bringing about the greatest good for all the people.
And their message was peace. Peace on earth. Peace on earth to those on whom God’s favour rests. For the child of peace had been born. Not in a palace. Not with the help of a host of midwives. Not laid among satin sheets. For the super powers of the child of peace were love and sacrifice and service. Love that reaches out even to the enemies of God. Sacrifice that gives its best because it gives its all. And service which humbles itself to do good for the poor, not so that the rich miss out, but so that the rich might see their true poverty and not miss out too.
This is the child we remember at Christmas. The one born in the fulfilment of promise to become the one who brings us peace. Peace to calm all our fears. Peace with God in the forgiveness of sins. Peace with ourselves as we surrender our weapons and take our rightful place as the children of God. And peace with each other because by God’s love we learn to forgive each other. Peace to stop the cycle of violence. This child of peace, Jesus Christ, who grew up to become the carpenter of Nazareth, the teacher of Galilee, the Saviour of Calvary, the risen Lord of Lords, this is the one who disarms our hearts, who leads us in his way of love that in his example we might disarm others as well.
We live in a world where the cries for war are still heard, and men of war still rise to the top. But the angels’ song is still heard as well, announcing the child of peace born in fulfilment of promise. Sometimes that song is sung loudly. At other times barely heard at all. Hear it tonight. Glory to God in the highest. Because through him there is peace on earth. This is the light that shines in the darkness. This is the message of joy for the broken-hearted. This is the announcement of peace for our war-torn world. Let this message calm all your fears. Let the Christmas child disarm your hearts. And by his Spirit working in you may you be peacemakers as well.