Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Sermon: Christmas Eve - Midnight Mass

24 December 2008 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Luke 2:1-20 (Isa 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

The idea of midnight is associated closely with Christmas. In fact, to many people, it just isn’t Christmas without a Midnight Mass and the flickering of candles.

The carol “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” invokes this idea that the birth of Christ came at the darkest moment of the night. And this is based on a prophecy with which we began this Divine Service so close to the darkest time of the darkest day of the year. The apocryphal Book of Wisdom proclaims: “When all was still and it was midnight, Your almighty Word descended from the royal throne.”

The Book of Wisdom is included in many older Lutheran Bibles, but isn’t usually treated as authoritative. And yet, without any Biblical evidence, the Church universal chooses commemorate the birth of Christ at midnight – the time when the sun is farthest away – on December 25, which, in the days of the birth of Christ, was the winter solstice, the day on which the sun shines the least.

In other words, the birth of Christ is commemorated at the time of the peak of darkness.

Our Lord Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the sunshine of God’s righteousness. He warms the hearts of us living in a cold and gloomy world, bringing a warm glowing flame to a desolate and dreary home of fallen man.

The prophet Isaiah speaks of the Christ child, born in the midnight of our souls, taking flesh in the solstice of the evil of the world, when he writes: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined.”

“Let there be light” said our Creator, bringing order to chaos and heat to lifeless and motionless matter. And though we have dimmed this light by our sins and by our rebellion, and though man has chosen the darkness over the light – nevertheless, the light still triumphs! The light scatters the darkness and dispels all gloom, removing our sins the way a shaft of sunlight reduces a shadow to nothing less than non-existence. We worship none other than the “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God.”

And this Light was indeed “begotten, not made” and “for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man.”

Traditionally, when Christians have said the Nicene Creed, at this point, at “and was made man”, everyone would drop to one knee, even as the shepherds genuflected before the incarnate Lord in the manger, and the people confessing the Creed would stop in a holy hush and a ponderous pause to contemplate the mystery of this Christmas incarnation of God into human flesh.

For this incarnation and this holy birth took place at the depth of human darkness, even as paganism ruled the world, as the Winter Solstice was not merely a geological phenomenon that resulted in coldness and darkness, but rather was celebrated as a “holiday,” as a festival in tribute to the created objects rather than the Creator, as a devotion to the darkness that covers the evil deeds of man, the same darkness that tried in vain to snuff out the Light of Christ that truly did come upon a midnight clear.

For what does the prophet say accompanies this holy Light? “You have multiplied the nation and increased its joy. They rejoice before You according to the joy of harvest.” God Himself has “broken the yoke” of our burden in this world of sin and death, in which the sons of Adam must live by the sweat of his brow, contending with thorns, and groaning under the weight of the yoke of sin’s burden and death’s harness.

The Lord’s coming has also broken the “rod of his oppressor,” and true light will come from the fire lit by the “warrior’s sandal” and by “garments rolled in blood” – for indeed, “unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government will be upon His shoulder.” We sinful men are not worthy to untie His sandal, and yet we sinful men stripped Him of His garments bloodied with the very blood that saves us.

And the prophet testifies that the name of this Light of Light, this child whose beaming countenance splits the darkness of night, will be called “Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father” and “Prince of Peace.”

For this child in the manger is God in the flesh, the One who has come to illuminate us and warm us with His very body and blood, with His Word, with His sacrificial love, and with His victory over sin, death, and the devil.

As St. Titus reminds us: “the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men,” the very “blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us that He might redeem us from every lawless deed.”

Our Lord Jesus Christ was born in a time of deep and profound darkness, of a multiplicity of lawless deeds. For these were the days of Caesar Augustus, the powerful man who was worshiped as a god, the head of an empire that would try to extinguish the light of Christ and to destroy the holy Church – and yet, in the process, would itself be brought to the light under the sign of the cross. Our Lord was born in the days when men worshiped the creature instead of the Creator and celebrated darkness in the form of the Solstice Festival – which some today who love the dark are trying to elevate as an alternative to our celebration of Holy Light.

And even after Herod’s attempt to destroy the Christ child, even after Caesar imposed a tax that would force the pregnant Virgin Mary to take a long and arduous trip, and even though there was no room for Him at the inn – our Lord, the Light of the World, was born into this darkness, where shepherds kept watch “over their flocks by night,” even as an “angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.” And it would later be a shining star that led the gentile kings from the orient, men of wisdom and science, to see this divine Child, whose birth was to be “a light to lighten the Gentiles and the Glory of [God’s] people Israel.

Dear friends, the darkness of our sins has been dispelled by the light of Christ, the good news that the “incarnate Deity” is “pleased as Man with man to dwell, Jesus our Immanuel” on this “silent night,” this “holy night” in which we sing:

Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus Lord at Thy birth,
Jesus Lord at Thy birth.” Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

No comments: