“The Promise of Christmas” a message by Dr. Bruce Havens Coral Isles Church, U.C.C. December 18, 2022 Luke 2:1-20 nrsv 1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place in the guest room. 8 Now in that same region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them, 19 and Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told them.
Promises are a tricky thing, aren’t they? Have you ever made a promise you couldn’t keep? Have you ever had anyone break a promise they made to you? Bad feeling, huh? This morning I want to invite you to consider how Christmas is a promise. And given our own experiences with promises, maybe that makes it hard to believe.
Faith is all about believing, isn’t it? Whatever we do in life is based on what we believe. And I am always aware of the gap between what I say I believe and how I act. I often fail to live up to what I say I believe. Sometimes I do it on purpose, and sometimes it is something I realize later. Sometimes it is a gray area I have to question myself on. If I say I believe life isn’t about having millions of dollars but I buy a lottery ticket, am I denying what I say I believe? Or am I just a hypocrite? If I say I believe in God but I hate others for being different from me in their beliefs or political opinions am I denying God, or just a common sinner?
Whoa, Bruce, it’s Christmas! What’s with all the heavy thoughts? Give us some peppermint candy canes and sentimental songs to sing. I know. But give me a bit of room to get there. You see I think Christmas is all about promises. So let me point to some things about God’s promises that I think we can believe. And maybe that will get us to candy canes and sentimental songs.
First, God makes promises. In some ways, the Bible is a book about God’s promises. God promises to bless Abraham to make his offspring more numerous than the stars. God sees the suffering of a band of people in Egypt and promises to bring them out of slavery and into a land flowing with milk and honey. God promises a covenant of love with these people and again and again keeps that promise despite the fact they break every promise they make with God. And then God promises a Messiah, a guide, a Savior to lead them into Eternal Life. And that brings us to what we call Christmas.
God makes a promise to Mary:
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
God makes a similar promise to Joseph:
“do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
Here’s a place to begin: “do not be afraid.” God said that to both Mary and Joseph. What God was going to do in their lives was incredible. It was miraculous. It was scary! And it was a promise.
Believing God’s promises is hard. It can be scary. It can ask us to trust in ways we never have and thought we never would. But that is what faith is. It is trusting God. Christmas is God’s promise that God is with us. It is a promise that God has saved us from our sins. Christmas is a promise that God will bring “peace on earth, good will to all,” for we have God’s favor, God’s blessing, God’s love.
So the second part of Christmas is God’s promise of love. Here’s why that promise is so hard to believe. We know how unlovable we can be. Even if we aren’t willing to admit it to another soul, and maybe not even to ourselves most of the time, we know we do all sorts of things that we would consider “unlovable.” We break relationships with others. We hurt others on purpose and more often, unintentionally. We harm ourselves. We overeat, we overdrink, we drive too fast, we don’t take care of our bodies. We participate in injustices we don’t even know about, and we participate in evils sometimes knowingly.
So here’s where we get to the sentimental song part. I love the song “O Holy Night.” The first time I ever heard it, Perry Como was singing it. What a voice. Oh, my! Talk about a beautiful song! And a sentimental one. It moves you. If “O Holy Night” doesn’t move your soul, you need to put your finger on your wrist right now and see if you have a pulse. You may be dead! As beautiful as the melody is, the words are always what capture me.
There are too many words and phrases for one sermon but let me lift up a couple. One of my favorite phrases is, “long lay the world, in sin and error pining.” I was struck when I read that a second meaning of “pining” is “failing gradually in health or vitality, especially from grief, regret, or longing.” In that sense we pine because we know how much we screw up, how desperately we choose the wrong thing so often, so repeatedly. But the more common meaning rings a bell for me too: I pine for something that is not yet, that I long for, that I hope and believe can and will happen.
The second phrase I love in the song confirms this: we pine until “until He appeared and the soul felt its worth.” This is the promise of Christmas. That our souls will feel their worth. That we will know our worth in God’s eyes, in God’s heart, in God’s mind. And here is what the Bible promises: that our worth is not in our performance. Our worth is not based on being perfect or even being better. It isn’t based on losing 20 pounds, on never screwing up our relationships, on never failing at our efforts to get sober. It’s based on God’s perfect love. Our souls’ worth is found when we trust the promise of God’s love.
Think about that promise. All those ways you have been trying to earn God’s love weren’t necessary. All those ways you tried to buy back the ways you failed were a waste. God promises to love you. God promises that Christ is your Savior. You do not have to earn it by eating vegan or psychologically beating yourself to a pulp on a daily basis. In fact, you can’t earn it. It is a gift – and a promise. The promise is that Jesus did not come into the world, or into your life to help you take all the right supplements. He came to save you. He came to do what you and I could not do on our own. Because God knows much as I want to, I cannot perfectly respond to “every kind of suffering and injustice that happens to every person each minute of the day across the entire planet.” I just can’t. And neither can you.
What we can do is another of those phrases: “fall on your knees. O hear, the angels’ voices.” We can accept the promise of Christmas. Christ has come. Christ is present now. Christ with us is the living sign of God’s perfect love for our imperfect selves. It is the kind of surrender that is so hard AA had to build a whole program about how to do it. To surrender my ego that I can save myself. To surrender my resistance to God’s love. To surrender my failures instead of hanging on to them like a sinking lifeboat in the middle of an Arctic Sea. To surrender all my promises to do better, be better, eat better, live better.
It’s that simple really. Christmas is the promise of God’s perfect love – already fulfilled and still being fulfilled and yet to be fulfilled. Where are you on that spectrum? Already filled? Filled and still being filled? Not yet fully sure of the promise? Well, I covered the sentimental song part of my promise. Here’s one more part of the promise I made about sentimental songs and peppermint candy canes.
I love peppermint candy canes. Even the stale ones that have been on the Christmas tree for the past three years. I have one here. It’s open. Maybe you like candy canes too. I’ll make you one more promise. God’s love is waaaaaay better than even a freshly opened peppermint candy cane. I promise. AMEN.
 Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Fall on Your Knees,” The Corners, December 14.