Matthew W. Kingsbury
In many ways, I envy those who grew up in faithful churches, but I think I have one advantage over them. By virtue of having been exposed to the worst sermons imaginable from liberal ministers, I have an appreciation for the preached Word that my more advantaged brethren do not have. If one expects a pastor to exposit Scripture faithfully, one can afford to be critical of the manner in which he handles the text. But if one is pleasantly surprised when there is actually a text for the sermon, one tends to be perpetually grateful for the dullest of homilies.
This is why I love Christmas Eve services: traditionally, they do not include a sermon. Consisting of set readings and hymns, the service cannot be bent to man's whims because it includes only the Bible and the most orthodox songs in Christendom. At least, this was the case during my childhood, when the ministers were older than my father and took seriously their obligation to carry on the church's traditions, no matter what their own theological proclivities were. But in my late teens, the ministers became younger than my father and lacked their predecessors' sobriety. The nadir of all Christmas Eve services for me came when members of the youth group, instead of reading Scripture, read from a "novelization" of the Bible, and the homily was a lame imitation of Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion monologues. Sadly, it lacked even what spiritual insight one might hope to find on National Public Radio.
What I was robbed of that night, and what I hoped for every Christmas Eve of my young life, was the angel's proclamation: "Fear not!" I don't remember many white Christmases, but on every Christmas Eve it was dark, very dark. Each year I was with those shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, surrounded by darkness.
As are we all. I have been accused of pedantry for insisting that the Bible does not identify evil and sin with the color black, but rather with darkness. Nonetheless, this is not an unimportant distinction. Our problem has nothing to do with color; our problem is that we have no light by which to see color or anything else. In the darkness, we are blind; being blind, we are afraid. We know our sin, we know death is impending, and we cannot see any way of escape. I can't speak for the shepherds, but I know that none of us need the glory of the Lord to make us afraid. We begin afraid and we stay afraid because of sin and death, because of the darkness that surrounds our lives.
And into that darkness shines the glory of the Lord. All of a sudden there is light—the presence of God himself. And should we fear even more? Has God come in judgment?
No preacher, no matter how gifted, can improve on the words of the angel: "Fear not! For I bring you glad tidings of peace, which will be for all people."
The light is the glory of the Lord. That light shines in the darkness and gives hope to the Gentiles. The angel's glad tidings bring you out of darkness into light, from death into life, from sin to redemption.
I was in grave rebellion against the Lord, utterly unfaithful to my baptism, until 1988. But, in retrospect, I can now admit—indeed, I can now gladly confess—that which I refused to acknowledge during all those prior years. I longed to hear (each and every year, each and every day) that, in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord had been born for me, a sinner in the darkness.
And in glorious confirmation there comes the yet stranger and more wondrous declaration, one so astounding it took an entire chorus of angels to proclaim: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is well pleased!" At the very moment of the Incarnation, the doctrine of election is clearly articulated for our everlasting comfort and assurance.
The first angel did not merely communicate a factual account of what had just occurred in Bethlehem. As a messenger of the Lord, he preached the gospel, which is made effectual by the Holy Spirit in those with whom God is well pleased; that is to say, in his elect. In other words, because a Savior was born for me, because the Lord was faithful to my baptism, I am at peace with God. Through the Cross, all those who are in Christ the Lord need no longer fear condemnation because they are at peace with God.
Unlike the wise men, the shepherds weren't looking for Jesus. Yet the Lord was well pleased with them, despite the obvious fact that they were, at least at that moment, uninterested in the fulfillment of prophecy. Rather, they were only out doing their job. The Lord is well pleased with just such people who, like you, weren't seeking him out, have done little to please him, and instead have repeatedly offended his righteousness and holiness. Despite this—no, because of this—he sent his angel to find those shepherds, to tell them they were at peace with him because a Savior had been born for them in the city of David.
And he sends his messengers to you as well—not because you have pleased him, but because, of his own good pleasure, he has chosen to be well pleased with you. Those messengers are called preachers.
I find it ironic that now, not once a year but twice a Sunday, I find myself on the other side of the pulpit, trying to explain what required a heavenly host to be proclaimed effectively in the region of Judea about two thousand years ago. I have heard too many preachers get in the text's way; what we must do instead is step aside and let the good news be heard in all its marvelous clarity and life-giving glory. The text is not merely the basis for the sermon; it is the gospel which must be proclaimed by the sermon. That gospel is the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ the Lord for sinners. That gospel is the good news that the Savior has been born for you. The good news is that the darkness has, once and for all, been overcome by light. Thus, with the angelic host, our response to the doctrine of election must be joy and glory.
We're not in the darkness only once a year. We're there, it seems, all the time. We live in a world oppressed by sin and death, a world in which the paths of the Lord are hard to make out. It is just plain too dark. And yet the darkness is no longer the gloom that precedes the Lord's fury. It is merely the precursor and background against which light can shine in all its blazing glory.
The light has shone. The son of Mary has grown and died and been raised again for the justification of all who will turn to him. He lived in the darkness with us, so that you don't have to do so any longer. You need to be reminded, year in and year out, that you live in his light, a light which will grow and grow until it reaches perfection in glory, and night is banished forever. Because of Christ Jesus, because God was and is with us, there is only day here.
I don't need to read the words; they are written on my heart and mind, as I suspect they are on yours. But I need to hear them, and sometimes I can even manage to say them: "Fear not; for behold, I bring you glad tidings of peace, which will be for all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." Accordingly, "glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is well pleased." Amen.
The author is pastor of Park Hill Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colo. He provides his own Bible translations. Reprinted from New Horizons, December 2007.