Tonight we gather in the dark, in the quiet last hours before Christmas morning. Some of us are here to sing the songs and hear the Scripture like we do each year. Some of us are here to sit next to family or see old friends or just to be together with others who believe. Many of us are here for the special moment when we’ll light our candles and sing “Silent Night.”
But the reason we are all here, really – the whole reason for Christmas – is a birth.
A normal, everyday birth.
Can you believe it?
When God chose to come into the world, it wasn’t with a flash of light or by a cherubim-drawn chariot. God arrived the same way we all arrived on this planet: through a nine-month pregnancy and a painful delivery and the first amazing cries of new life.
It was a normal birth.
And yet… there were signs from the beginning that it was not a normal birth. A pregnant young woman, not yet married… a man, who would have divorced her quietly except for what the angel said… the shepherds, sent to see a savior born in a manger… the wise men, who came from outside the boundaries of Israel to find a king born under a star…
This was a normal birth… and yet it wasn’t.
What kind of birth is this?
From the beginning, Mary was trying to figure that out. Luke tells us that she does a lot of “pondering.” When the angel first appeared to her – “Hello! Favored one!” – Mary “ponders” (Luke 1:29). When the town started to murmur with amazement at the shepherds’ news, we’re told that Mary “treasured” their words… but she also “pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Mary knew something strange was happening, something worth careful observation. She collected all these things in her mind like pieces of a puzzle and wondered what it meant.
What did it mean? What kind of birth is this, that it could be completely normal and yet not normal at all?
When an angel first appears to Joseph to explain his fiancée’s pregnancy, it tells him part of what will make this birth and this baby exceptional:
“[Mary] will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21).
This normal birth was the arrival of a not-so-normal baby who would save us all from sin.
And we need saving from sin. You can see it working around the edges of this Christmas story. It’s in King Herod, the one we don’t want around our manger scenes – he ruins the peaceful vibe. But he’s there. History tells us that this was Herod the Great, a crazy and cruel ruler. He was crazy enough to feel threatened by an infant. He was cruel enough to do whatever it took to protect his throne. He lurks in the story behind wise men, wanting to use them to hunt down this newborn “king of the Jews.” The wise men, we know, gave him the slip. Just after most of us stop reading the Christmas story – a little bit later in Matthew 2 – Herod’s rage boils over. Joseph gets a warning in a dream that his little family needs to run – run all the way out of the country, to Egypt.
That kind of sin is in the world, and we need saving from it.
Unfortunately, sin is not reserved for bad guys like Herod. Sin can lurk around the edges of our stories, too. It’s in hearts that were created to love God and love neighbor, but are too often filled with greed and lust and hate. Sin is even in average people who want to do the right things but keep finding that – no matter how hard they try – they cannot manage to be good enough.
That sin is why Jesus was born. It’s also why he died.
After this baby Jesus grew from boy to man, sin wanted to crucify him. In a surprise move, Jesus went willingly to the cross. At that moment – when the son of God was on the receiving end of the world’s violence – sin was so thick, so heavy, Matthew tells us that the world went completely dark (27:45).
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it!” (John 1:5).
Out of a pitch dark and strangely-empty tomb, light came shining! Through a resurrected Christ, light came shining into all the corners of the world and all the corners of our souls!
That is not normal. That changed everything.
We are here to celebrate a normal birth, the same birth that brought every one of us into being. We are also here because of something more, something exceptional, something once-in-history. We feel it as we sit in the dark of a winter’s night, we feel it in the strange stirring of our souls from the songs and the Story and the candlelight.
If you feel it – if you are pondering what you feel – let me explain:
This baby is here to save us all from our sin.
Tonight, may we turn from darkness; tonight, may we be drawn to the light like moths to a flame. Let us open our hearts to the Christ child and let his light shine in, revealing sin and leading us through forgiveness into new life. May that light re-purpose our hearts for what they were made for: To love God, and to love one another.