Christmas Eve Sermon: Birth and Grace

From the Christmas Eve candlelight service.
Tonight we remember when a Jewish man learned that his fiancee was pregnant, and it was not good news.

He and his bride-to-be were, after all, in a binding relationship; it was much more formal than modern-day engagements.  They weren’t living together and yet they were committed to a life together.  At this point, though, they have not performed the deed that consummates marriages and makes babies.  Her growing stomach suggests that she has performed this deed with some other.

That was not good news.

There was Jewish law to cover situations like this.  Deuteronomy 22 runs through several hypothetical situations and their consequences.  In this case, it’s a betrothed woman living in a city; she could have yelled for help and some neighbor in earshot would have come to her aid.  It seems she did not yell for help, so she will be stoned to death.

That was not good news.

The particular Jewish man at the center of the story doesn’t like this outcome.  He knows the due punishment, but it makes him uneasy.  He’s hurt and embarrassed but he doesn’t want his young woman dead.  So he looks for another way, a different way:  a quiet divorce that leaves her to deal with that growing belly and him the chance to avoid complete humiliation.  That’s a more than gracious response by a man who’s been cheated on.  Right?

It wasn’t good news, but it wasn’t the worst news.

But then comes the dream, and the dream changes everything.  It’s a different kind of dream, with one foot in reality and that foot belongs to an angel.  And the angel tells him, “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife.  The baby she’s carrying isn’t what you think.  It’s the Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit.  Marry her, and name that boy Emmanuel:  ‘God with us.’”

Was that good news for Joseph?  It’s certainly not easy; he had a plan to deal with this and now it’s been derailed by this undeniable vision.  Because of that, Joseph was compelled to do what the angel asked:  to return to his fiancée, to reclaim their life together and to accept her challenge as his challenge.

That was good news, not just for Mary and Joseph but for all of us.  News of a surprise baby who would save us from our sins.  News of grace.

Grace is a part of this “good news” from the very beginning.  Even before the angel talks to him, Joseph has already chosen grace:  a quiet separation instead of his Torah-given right to capital punishment.  Then the angel asks him to go even further, to marry her anyway, to take on her challenge as his challenge.

Jesus Christ is born into an act of grace.

This is good news, because we are a people in need of grace.  We sin, make mistakes, fail to do the right thing.  Sometimes we do this in a big and public way where there are consequences.  Other times our failings are dark and hidden and the burden of carrying them with us feels as heavy as a public trial.  We long for a fresh start, to be born again like Jesus was – born into grace.

But there is good news.

This troublesome baby of grace would grow into a troublesome man of grace.  He’d stand in front of a letter-of-the-law Pharisee like Nicodemus and invite him to be born again, born differently.  Then he’d extend that same invitation to all of us with his most famous line:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

That is an invitation to every one of us to be born again into grace through Jesus Christ.

That is good news.

ChristmasEve2Tonight we remember that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin named Mary.
Tonight we remember that her fiancée, Joseph, had enough faith to give Mary a radical amount of grace.
Tonight we remember that Jesus Christ was born into grace,
and died for the sake of that grace,
so that we could be born again.
Tonight we remember good news.

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