December 19, 2011
Author: Scott Hoezee
For Christmas Day this year, which falls on a Sunday, I offer the following sample sermon I preached several years ago. A blessed Christmas to all CEP readers! ~~ Scott Hoezee
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt once published some very intriguing data on what he calls “elevation,” which is the opposite of disgust. We all know that there are any number of things that disgust us or cause us to feel revulsion. When we witness hypocrisy, cruelty, betrayal, and the like, we recoil–there are even certain physical sensations we experience when feeling disgusted, such as a tightening in our chest, a clenching of our jaws, and perhaps even a flutter of indigestion in our stomachs.
Happily, however, witnessing acts of moral beauty also has an effect on us: it elevates us, moves us toward wanting to perform acts of morality ourselves. On one level, you might at first think that watching one stranger help out another stranger would not necessarily affect you much. For instance, on September 11, 2001, many of us watched the news and saw an image of a fireman from Brooklyn helping a bloodied Manhattan securities broker hobble down Wall Street after the attack. None of us who saw that had ever met either person and likely we never would. The injured person may even have been someone whose lifestyle on the glitzy end of New York City’s upper crust makes that person vastly different from us (he maybe would not be among “The 99” we hear so much about now). So why would seeing one stranger helping out another stranger affect us? Yet Dr. Haidt has discovered that it most assuredly does. Here, too, there is a physical response that includes a feeling of warmth, a tingle down your spine, tears in your eyes, a lump in your throat. More importantly, seeing acts of great moral beauty elicits in us a desire to do likewise, to be that kind of person ourselves.
What’s more, this kind of elevation is contagious. It rubs off on others. If a story of courage is told well, it can elevate an entire auditorium of people. Indeed, the Christian community has known that for a long time, which is why testimonies to God’s grace have so long been a hallmark of believers. If someone can stand up and tell his or her own story of “I once was lost but now am found,” it moves us all.
The shepherds of Luke 2 may well be a good example of this kind of elevation. They had witnessed something of profound moral beauty and had heard a message of radiant hope. The events of that long ago night quite literally elevated the status of these otherwise despised and dirty men of the fields–two millennia later we still remember them with honor and are only too happy if our child gets to dress up as a shepherd for a Christmas program at school or church. But even at that time, the message of the angels and the things the shepherds saw in Bethlehem elevated their own hearts into a realm of hope and joy. They wanted to be different people in the wake of what they saw and heard, and they were. They became the first evangelists, the first witnesses to start telling the gospel story.
Luke tells us in verse 18 that everyone was amazed at “what the shepherds said.” Their sense of moral and spiritual elevation was contagious. It quickly began to spread, to wow and to startle a great many people. “What the shepherds said” did all that.
But have you ever wondered just what it was they said?
We’re not told.
Of course, on one level this is an easy blank to fill: what did the shepherds say? Well, everything we read in Luke 2 starting at verse 8: they told a tale of angels and of a message of peace and hope. They told a story about a baby in a manger, a baby who was right where the angels said he would be. They used words like “Savior” and “Christ.” Luke didn’t need to tell us what the shepherds said: it’s obvious. It’s the same thing we’ve been saying and repeating this whole Advent season, same as every year when Christmas approaches.
But this Christmas morning I want to suggest that the shepherds may have said some things we don’t always think about. To see what those other things may have been, we need to go back over a few of the verses we read a few minutes ago–verses that are so familiar to us, we can hardly even hear them anymore. But we need to hear them afresh.
In fact, there is just one line from the angel that, if we can hear it the right way, may well suffice to get at what I have in mind today. At one time or another, most of us have received a birth announcement in the mail or maybe have gotten a phone call about a friend or daughter who has just had a baby. In such cases, there is a small batch of standard phrases we use. After our two children were born, my first phone call was to my parents. “It’s a girl!” I said the first time, “It’s a boy!” I said four years later. In the days before fathers were allowed in the delivery room, a nurse might come out and say, “You have a son!” Since our daughter was born on a Sunday morning about three hours before church was slated to begin, I didn’t make it to work that morning. Instead the vice-president of our Council stood up and announced, “Scott and Rosemary’s daughter was born this morning!”
But wouldn’t most of us be taken aback if someone put it this way: “Dad, this morning there was born to you a grandson!” Or what if some Sunday morning I announced that a young couple of our congregation had had a baby but said, “There has been born to us a new child at Calvin Church!” By now you can clearly see where I’m going with this: why did the angel say, “There has been born to you a Savior”? In the Greek of that verse the personal pronoun “you” is in the plural and is in the dative case. English doesn’t have a dative case, but many other languages do and if so, the dative is reserved for things that come directly to another party. So the dative would be used when I give a gift to you or if I pull you aside so that I can say something directly to you.
In any event, the dative is personal in the sense that something is being directed quite specifically your way. If you are celebrating the birthday of one of your children, perhaps another child will ask, “How come nobody is giving any presents to me!?” Your answer will likely be along the lines of “Because it’s not your birthday.” We direct gifts at specific individuals for specific reasons. Similarly, if someone interrupts a conversation you are having with another person by asking a question about something you just said, you may respond, “Right now I’m not talking to you so please don’t interrupt!”
The angel tells these lowly shepherds that a Savior had been born. But far from some generic birth announcement, this particular occasion is personalized: this Savior has been born to you, which could also be a way of saying that Jesus the Christ had been born for them. There is a very specific purpose behind this birth, one that will end up affecting these shepherds and untold numbers of others in a quite personal way. This Savior came to them and for them. They were involved in this person’s birth in a way far more dramatic than simply hearing the announcement. If you tell me that you and your wife had a baby the day before yesterday, I may well be delighted to hear it and will, in some small way, share your joy. But that is a quite different matter than having my whole life changed because this child who has been born is going to involve me personally.
“Today a Savior has been born to you.” Those last two words get swiftly repeated in the next verse when the shepherds are told, “And this will be a sign to you.” We all know what that sign was: a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. A “sign” is something that points to something else like an arrow showing you the way to a wedding reception or a party you are attending. If so, then to what did the sign of the baby in the manger point?
Typically we tend to think that the main thrust of this particular sign was to back up what the angels had said. In case the shepherds thought that maybe that whole angel thing had been a hallucination brought on by some bad wine or something, their actually finding this baby in a feedbunk would let them know for sure that the angels had been no dream. And certainly that is partly what this sign meant and partly why it was given.
But then again, look at verse 15: the shepherds say, “Let’s go to Bethlehem to see this thing that has happened which the angel of the Lord has told us about.” Notice how they put that? They didn’t say, “Let’s go to Bethlehem to see if this is really true” but said right up front that they believed it had indeed happened. Further, the reason they seem to have that confidence even without yet having laid eyes on the baby Jesus is because they already believed they had been visited not by a ghost and not by a dream but by “the angel of the Lord.” So they didn’t need a sign to prove they hadn’t been hallucinating.
So to what did this sign of a baby in a manger point? What truth did the shepherds see when they trotted over to the stable and found Mary, Joseph, and also that baby, who was lying in a manger? The truth they saw was that indeed, this Savior who is Christ the Lord had been born to and for them!
After all, suppose the scenario on that long ago night had been different. Suppose that those same shepherds had been drowsing on those same fabled hills keeping watch over their flocks by night, same as every evening. But then suppose that instead of an angel in the sky, what roused them from their sleep was a Roman centurion on a stallion shouting out through cupped hands, “Hear ye, hear ye! There has been born this day, in the city of Rome, a son to Caesar Augustus, and he shall be the heir apparent to the throne of the Empire.”
Now I’ll ask you to set aside for a moment the fact that a band of shepherds in Judea wouldn’t be able to trot over to Rome very easily. But suppose these musty-smelling keepers of mutton had said, “Let us go over to Rome to see this thing the centurion has made known to us.” If they showed up at Caesar’s grand palace in Rome, do you suppose they would have been let in? If they said, “We’ve come to take a gander at the emperor’s new son,” would the palace guards say, “Sure, come on in, the nursery is to the left”?
Of course not.
Yet Someone vastly more important than any earthly ruler was born, and the likes of grungy shepherds had no difficulty gaining access to this one whom the angels hailed as the Savior of the world. He really had been born to and for them. The sign the shepherds saw in that stable was this: the Savior and Christ of God had been born right on their level. The little guy was only a few hours old and he already smelled like a barn, same as the shepherds smelled most days. For this little Lord Jesus, as the children love to sing, there was “no crib for a bed,” but the shepherds could relate to that, too: they couldn’t remember the last time they’d slept in a real bed.
A sign is an arrow that points to something. The sign in the stable pointed to the truth that for the shepherds and everyone else like them in the world, past, present, and future, the birth of the Messiah was for them. Luke tells us that people were amazed at “what the shepherds said.” The story of the angels lighting up the night sky was part of what the shepherds said, and it properly amazed people. Probably the fact that the shepherds found in Bethlehem exactly what they had been told they would find was part of what the shepherds said, and it, too, properly amazed a few folks. But the single most amazing thing the shepherds said is also the one thing we tend to forget about in our own focus on the glitter and brilliance of the angels: and that is that the Savior who is Christ the Lord was born to and for those shepherds. If the shepherds said, as likely they did, “This Savior came for us!” then that was a message so full of wonder, joy, and above all of holy hope as to burst the boundaries of everything we know or ever thought we knew.
And it’s because of that portion of what the shepherds said that I can declare on also this Christmas Day all these years later that this Savior was born to also you. A great many of the people in this room this morning I know on a first-name basis. But even if I can say your name at the door in a little while at the end of this service, that doesn’t mean I really know you. I can’t see the hidden pain or shame or guilt you may have dragged along with you into the sanctuary today or every week. Of course, there are some of you who are guests with us today whom I don’t know at all.
But that’s a small matter: because the Gospel according to Luke lets me declare that whoever you are, whatever you’ve done in the past and whatever greasy little sins you may commit before this week is out; however piously you’ve lived or however miserably you have failed in trying to live a Christian life; whether you come from a family that is economically prosperous or one that frets about getting the bills paid every month: whoever you are, hear again the angel’s clarion voice that there has been born into this world a Savior who is Christ the Lord. And above all hear that this Savior was born to you and for you.
We opened this sermon thinking about how our witness of an act of great moral beauty can change us, elevate us, make us aspire to be better persons ourselves. And we said that this can happen to us even if the thing we observe doesn’t involve us at all but involves only strangers. How much more elevated wouldn’t you feel if you not only witnessed a firefighter’s courage but were the one rescued by that courage?
In the history of the world, what act has ever been more beautiful than the birth of God’s only Son? The Son’s condescending to our human, earthly level–indeed, his willingness to come down to not just earth but to an impoverished corner of this earth at that–is a sacrifice of stunning power. But this central moment of Christmas is not something we observe from afar and it’s not something that involves strangers. As it was for the shepherds, so for all of us: this Savior involves us personally because he was born to you, to me, to everyone. Witnessing that yet again changes us fundamentally and forever.
As at least some of you know, a common complaint that is often lodged against contemporary Christian music is that it’s too individualistic with song lyrics that are all “me and Jesus” sentiments–songs that use the personal pronouns “I, me, my” at the expense of the corporate “we.” There is something to that critique, although were you to look at the index of hymns in the back of most any traditional hymnal, you might be startled to discover that the titles to nearly 25% of those hymns contain the first person pronouns “I, me, my!”
The truth is that to a certain extent there is no escaping the personal dimension to faith and salvation. Jesus is indeed the cosmic Christ who died to redeem the whole creation. We cannot over-estimate the scope of Jesus’ saving work.
Still, there remains the vital dimension to Luke 2 that we’ve been thinking about this Christmas Day: the Savior whose birth we celebrate was indeed born to you and for you all. If you can hear and believe that part of what the shepherds said, then no matter what happens the rest of today or this holiday season, you will be able to join those shepherds in glorifying and praising God for all that you have seen and heard. In the light of that, merely to say “Merry Christmas,” seems weak.
Let’s try instead a “Hallelujah!” For there has been born to you and for you a Savior. For you. For you. Amen.
Author: Scott Hoezee
History is full of tragic figures who had great potential, who had perhaps even risen to prominence, only to fall from the very heights they had worked so hard to scale. Often what accounts for the downfall of a leader is the fact that he or she possessed either great wisdom or great strength but not both. But failing to bring those traits together often yields unhappy circumstances. It’s usually not enough to know what the right thing to do is–a person needs also the strength and the ability to then do it. Conversely, there have been leaders who have been very strong and stalwart and able to actualize grand plans but they lacked the wisdom to make good plans and so the result of even strong acts ended up being disastrous. The proverbial bull in a china shop is a bad thing but so is the proverbial ninety-pound weakling who doesn’t dare to do what even he knows is right.
The first and last titles that we read in Isaiah 9:6 reminds us that in God’s Messiah, we find someone who embodies both wisdom and strength. What’s more, the larger sweep of Isaiah 9 reminds us that to do anyone any good, the Messiah needs precisely wisdom and strength working in tandem. Let’s reflect on Jesus as Wonderful Counselor and Prince of Peace to see how this combination brings hope to this world.
To see this, we begin where Isaiah begins: in the dark. Isaiah paints a grim portrait in the preceding chapters and in the opening verses of this ninth chapter. The people have been living in the dark. They have been dwelling in the chilly shadow of death itself. Worse, he tells us in verse 4 that the people have been afflicted by a burdensome yoke, a kind of heavy bar across their shoulders even as they get driven forward under the stinging blows of an oppressor’s rod and whip. The images here are awful. Isaiah goes on in verse 5 to talk about warrior’s boots, about garments rolled in blood, and we can presume that this is the shed blood of the people who are being oppressed and enslaved.
Of course, historically Isaiah was referring to the exile experience of the people of Judah during the seventh century B.C. But metaphorically this could just as well stand as a description for humanity’s larger enslavement to sin and evil. At any given moment, you can locate people who are literally suffering under an oppressive regime somewhere. Think of the genocide in the Sudan in recent months. Think back to the slaughter that took place in Rwanda some years ago as well as the dreadful violence that has gripped Sierra Leonne. Think of the Jews marching to Nazi gas chambers in World War II’s Holocaust or Native Americans on this continent suffering and dying on the Trail of Tears.
But we all know that there are more ways than one to suffer from burdens that oppress our hearts and minds and spirits. Even we modern-day Americans are an oppressed people when you think about it. We live in the freest society on earth and millions of us are also very comfortable in terms of income, lifestyle, and the like. Yet in some ways we are also a mess. More people than not are on some kind of medication. We have hundreds of possibilities for ways to treat aches and pains, to lift our moods, to control our high blood pressure, to relax our frayed nerves, to enhance even our sexuality.
We are a driven people. You can’t get out of the grocery store anymore without being assaulted and assailed in the checkout aisle by a dozen or so different magazines, every one of which features women and men whose bodies and sculpted good looks proclaim what the goal of our lives should be physically. But since these same magazines featuring all those skinny women and handsome men are usually situated right next to the Snickers bars and M&Ms, you get the funny feeling that someone out there is conspiring to make you despair!
Seldom before in history has there been such a systematic effort on the part of manufacturers and advertisers to keep us feeling inferior. Recently we heard the story about a mother and father whose high school graduation gift to their daughter was a gift certificate to have plastic surgery for breast augmentation. Even in the most private areas of our bodies we are being told day and night that we may very well be lacking and so need to buy something or do something to fix it.
All of this cultural silliness seems trivial compared to what I mentioned a few moments ago in terms of the Sudan or the Holocaust, and of course it is comparatively minor. Yet there is a connection somehow, too. There is just something about the nature of this world that keeps us in bondage one way or another.
In the New Testament the apostle Paul often talks about the “powers and principalities” of this age. We often slide past that kind of talk. We’re not sure what to make of such rhetoric for one thing, but perhaps we are a little scared off by it, too. We don’t always like to entertain the notion that maybe we and our world are in the cross-hairs of real powers, truly evil forces that are out to work woe in our hearts and lives. Probably for that very reason we prefer the Luke 2 version of the Christmas story compared to the far more startling version of that story we get in Revelation 12 (indeed, most of you just now thought, “There’s a Christmas story in Revelation 12???”).
Philip Yancey once wrote about the apocalyptic Christmas tale that John presents in Revelation 12. Satan, in the form of a dragon, plays the role of a kind of grim OB-GYN just waiting for Mary to give birth to God’s Son so that he can devour the infant before he draws his first breath. But at the last second, the moment the child is born, he gets whisked safely away and so the dragon snaps its jaws around empty air. He is then hurled down to the earth where he is down but not out–before his final defeat, this demonic dragon would still have some kicks. That is what lies behind the New Testament talk about our spiritual warfare with the powers and principalities of the age.
When and where the devil can oppress people in violent, dreadful ways, he will do so. But the devil has always been flexible, has always been a world-class opportunist. If he can’t oppress us in one way, he will find another. Maybe we need to sense such wicked designs on our lives, therefore, even in our society’s greedy drive to consume more and more of what this life has to offer even as at the same time we are driven forward to feel better, look better, and perform better than maybe anyone has a right to expect of him- or herself.
In short, we are under attack and we need Someone to deliver us from all the bondage, violence, and unhappiness that infects this world. This is where Isaiah’s prediction about God’s Messiah being a Wonderful Counselor and the Prince of Peace come in. We will begin with Wonderful Counselor. This ties in with the Bible’s wisdom tradition, encapsulated best by the Book of Proverbs but really on display all through the Bible. A counselor is, of course, someone who dispenses advice.
But in the wisdom tradition of the Bible, what you get from a counselor is not information in the book-smart sense but counsel on the way life in this world works and how you can best fit yourself into that. Even today no one goes to a licensed counselor to get help with algebra. You don’t visit a counselor to learn the same stuff that got taught to you in school. You visit a counselor to talk about the shape of your life, the shape of the world, and how you can get your life and the world to gel.
That’s why the biblical wisdom tradition could be called a kind of “street smarts” over against the kind of learning involved in memorizing the periodic table of elements in chemistry. True wisdom discerns the way God has set up this world and then tries to go with the flow as God established it. Whether people like to acknowledge it or not, the fact is that there is a right way and a wrong way to do just about anything. Sometimes reading a how-to manual is enough to teach you the right way to proceed. Currently the DIY movement is popular: DIY stands for “Do It Yourself,” and on the Internet as well as on TV specials experts can teach you step by step how to fix plumbing, how to wire a light switch, how to put up drywall, and so on.
But in other parts of life you need not an instruction sheet but a wise and discerning heart. No one can teach you from a book precisely what is the best way to raise a child, how to woo someone you’d like to marry, or how to deal with the variety of different kinds of people you encounter at work or in school. Those of us who are parents can learn some things about child-rearing by reading books, but we all know that no child ever gets raised strictly “by the book!” Each child is unique and so woe betide the parent who isn’t able to discern the best way to adapt general principles to different kinds of kids.
Wisdom is the knack for getting along in the varied circumstances of life. Wisdom is what helps us figure out how to behave, what to say, and so how best to get along in life according to the blueprint God himself established in the created order. So it is wisdom that lets us look at the goals our society tries to set for us only to have us say in response, “This is folly! These are not the things our God in Christ wants us to pursue.” With the Spirit of Jesus in our hearts, we have the chance to take his wise and wonderful counsel.
But this will not happen easily or certainly automatically for us. Because keep in mind what I just mentioned: at least part of the explanation for what drives us toward so much that is finally foolish and destructive is the fact that there are powers and principalities out there whose only goal is to keep people enslaved to their appetites, to make people fall in love with their own selves, and to reduce all of life to a relentless competition whose end is always the diminishment (if not the outright destruction) of those who get in our way. This is where we need God’s Messiah as the Prince of Peace.
But there is a hidden irony tucked into this particular moniker. When we think of “peace,” we usually associate it with images of the “Silent Night” variety. Peace means “peace and quiet.” Peace means a lack of conflict. Yet I contend that as the Prince of Peace, God’s Christ is a very active and aggressive figure. But that seems counter-intuitive, right up there with encountering a loud mime or a fierce nun! Yet the Hebrew used in verse 6 means a champion of shalom, a military-style captain who wages peace precisely by doing battle with all that threatens this world’s shalom.
Because, of course, shalom means so much more than what we typically mean by the word “peace.” Shalom involves a lack of conflict, true enough, but more positively shalom refers to a world where every person and every creature is involved in a vast network of mutually edifying relationships in which each contributes to the flourishing of all. But that is such a very different picture from just about everything that characterizes our world now. Today even slight differences among varying groups of people can become enough to incite entire civil wars. Today we don’t celebrate diversity, we kill each other over it.
But in a world filled with shalom, everything is different. In shalom we do celebrate the very differences that today become the cause of bloodshed. Today nothing sets our tongues to wagging more than a juicy piece of gossip about a scandal. In shalom what will excite people’s imaginations and cause them to collar one another on the streets will be good news, glad tidings, the happy report of how a neighbor succeeded at something.
A world devoid of envy and competition may seem nearly unimaginable to us sometimes. That’s why if God’s Messiah is ever going to achieve that kind of peace for us, if he is to be the Prince of Peace in the sense of being the Captain of our Shalom, then he will have to work long and hard to do it, defeating all those spiritual forces that are constantly tugging the other direction. Revelation 12’s dragon that tried to slay God’s Christ is still lurking about. That’s why even on the very small battlegrounds of our own lives we need a Christ who can not only give us the wonderful counsel we need to discern what is right, useful, and gracious in this world, we need also a strong champion for shalom who will strengthen us to then do what God’s Spirit is telling us.
If you doubt that this is how things really work in our spiritual lives, I ask you to look back on one of the most foolish, sinful, ultimately hurtful things you ever did. Maybe it was flirting with someone not your spouse, a series of ostensibly “harmless” flirtations that somehow led to something anything-but harmless. Maybe it was indulging in pornography or drinking too much one night. Maybe it was really giving old so-and-so a piece of your mind that one time. Whatever the situation, if you’re honest, than you will admit that even at the time, at some level you knew, you just knew, that this was probably an unwise thing to do. You sensed you should stop yourself. But then you did it anyway.
Often times we know full well what’s right and wise, but we don’t follow that path because although we were hearing the wonderful counsel of our Christ’s Holy Spirit, we did not tap the strength we needed from our Captain of Shalom. As M. Scott Peck wrote in his best-selling book The Road Less Traveled, every therapist could produce a long list of people who quit therapy not because they had concluded they were never going to figure out what they had to do to make their lives better but because they lacked the will and the courage to do what they now knew needed doing.
Even so, on the eve of this day when we have been celebrating our Savior’s birth, this is not to say that tapping into the strength of our Peace Prince is easy. Our lives remain fraught with struggles. But the hope we grab at Christmas and always is that we do serve, and are inhabited by, a Savior who has both wisdom and strength. The counsel we need, and the spiritual energy we require to do as our Lord directs, is available.
This rich passage concludes with the line “The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.” We tend to read that line without much thought, but what exactly is this “zeal” of God’s? The Hebrew word there in verse 7 is the same word for “jealousy.” If a husband is jealous of his wife’s affections, this jealousy leads to action in case the treasured relationship is threatened by someone trying to woo his wife away from him. The Bible says that our God is a jealous God because he loves his people so fiercely that he will brook no rivals, he will tolerate no threats when it comes to helping his cherished people flourish.
So when we are told that the zeal of our almighty God will accomplish this increase in shalom and goodness, we are not looking at some abstract zeal. We are being told again how very, very fiercely and ardently and zestfully we are loved by God. That’s the good news of Christmas: love really did come down. And when you realize anew how much you are loved by the God of the galaxies through Christ Jesus the Lord, you will surely find delight in the wonderful counsel he gives even as you rest secure that he has all the power needed to make a world of shalom your dwelling place now and forever. Amen.