The story of the birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke is a story full of holy messengers and holy messages.
An angel visits a priest named Zechariah to announce the coming of a child named John, who will turn many people towards God. An angel visits a young woman named Mary to announce the coming of a child named Jesus, whose holiness and power will be greater than any who have come before. Angels visits shepherds, bringing good news of great joy for all people, announcing the birth of a longed for Messiah, a baby who bears God within.
These holy messages of our Christmas story began spreading over two thousand years ago. Once a year, we gather to heed them again.
We gather tonight to receive the holy messages of Christmas in scripture, and perhaps even more, in song. Hymns and Carols are such an important part of what it means to celebrate this feast. Perhaps the most famous Christmas Hymn is Joy to the World, this year celebrating its 300th anniversary.
Joy to the World was written by the prolific English hymn writer Isaac Watts. Watts draws on Psalm 98 and several other pieces of scripture to share his exuberant belief that through Jesus, God brings about righteousness and equity in the world. This is such good news, that he encourages all of creation to break into song. Let heaven and nature sing! Let fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains, repeat the sounding joy!
Set later to a tune that echoes Handel’s Messiah, this hymn returns each year to proclaim: Joy to the world! The Lord is come!
We gather tonight to receive holy messages in scripture and in song. What will we make of them? These messages are very familiar to some of us; but familiar or not, they are quite strange. How could the birth of one baby, or even two, change the world so very much? How could the presence and person of Jesus somehow liberate us from all that is evil? If these events so long ago were really so momentous, wouldn’t things be different today?
For, of course, though we are all cleaned up for the holiday, there are some here among us tonight who are bearing great loss or pain. There are so many with unmet needs around us. Every nation and culture and community on this earth struggles to live in justice and peace. Creation itself is groaning due to the destructive acts of humankind. Where is the righteousness and equity in our world today? Where is the joy? Where is our God?
We may long for a quick fix Christmas, for s sudden holy intervention, setting everything aright. But Christmas has never been about a quick fix. Contrary to what we often pretend, Christmas is not about “be cheerful, no matter what” or “pull up your bootstraps” or “just pretend that everything is fine,” either. Instead, on this holiday, on this night, we gather to ponder the mystery of how holiness can dwell even in humanity; how hope can coexist with oppression and pain; how good can slowly emerge even in the most difficult circumstances.
When those first holy messages of Christmas arrived, the human recipients didn’t jump for joy. Zechariah, Mary, and the Shepherds all reacted with uncertainty at first, if not terror. The invitation to holy hope in the midst of our everyday realities can be scary. It is only with time, with companionship, with prayer, that those the angels visit begin to trust in the holy messages they have received, and then share them with others.
Perhaps it is as if a great, beautiful bell was struck all those years ago, on that night when angels were thick in the air; when a baby was born to Mary by the Holy Spirit; when that baby was wrapped in cloths and placed in a manger. A great, beautiful bell was struck, to drive out fear, and to offer hope, and to make way for change. The vibrations of this bell hummed in the hearts of those around the manger in Bethlehem. The tremors were so great, the rumbling even reached people in far distant places.
The echo of that first bell is dim, now, but also pervasive, diversified. So many have received and shared its sound, again and again, over time and through space, that it shimmers around us now in wondrous harmonies. If we open our hearts to prepare Christ room, we may find that it begins to pulse with sounding joy; with the whisper that Love is real and present among us; with the murmur that a different way of life is possible.
We are here to receive holy messages tonight, and We, too, can be holy messengers; instruments in the great orchestra of God’s creation; part of the praise band; part of the bell choir. Tonight, may the clarion call of God’s wondrous love born into this everyday world reverberate in you, driving out fear and despair, making room for healing and hope. Perhaps, in time, we will each find a way to join in the chorus, to magnify the message, to swell the song that bursts into our broken world again tonight, proclaiming glory and peace. May it be so.