An Advent Sermon on the Christmas Story
This is not a Christmas sermon. It’s an Advent sermon. It is on a Christmas passage. That was the Christmas story that was just read. But this is not a Christmas sermon. It’s an Advent sermon. In years past, we’ve used an Advent catechism with the children of our church. This year we didn’t promote it as much as in years past, but some of you may have kept using it. Here’s how it goes.
1) What season are we celebrating? / Advent.
2) What is Advent? / Advent is the season before Christmas.
3) What kind of season is Advent? / Advent is a season of waiting.
4) Where are we waiting? / In a land of deep darkness.
5) What are we waiting for? / The Light to shine on us.
6) What do we do during Advent? / Prepare our hearts to welcome Jesus.
7) What do we confess during Advent? / Christ has come; Christ will come again.
Where We’ve Been
As we’ve been walking through the first chapters of Luke, what have we seen? The first week, Pastor Jonathan unfolded the witness and joy of John the Baptist. A prophet like Elijah, John bore witness to Jesus. His birth to a barren woman brought great joy to her and those around her, and his mission of preparation for the Messiah brought great joy to the world by turning the people back to the Lord. From the womb, John the Baptist was celebrating his cousin Jesus, and throughout his life would live so as to draw attention to him, so that Jesus becomes greater, as John becomes less.
Pastor David then unpacked the story of Mary, the mother of our Lord. We saw Mary’s submission to the angel’s message (unlike Zechariah’s doubts). We saw her beautiful song, the Magnificat, which is more than a personal celebration of God’s favor to her but is a hymn of praise to who God is for all of us. He is the holy and mighty one, who gives mercy from generation to generation. He shows his strength, not by recruiting the strong, but by scattering the proud, bringing down the mighty, and exalting the humble and satisfying the hungry and the poor. And he does all of this in faithfulness to his promises with the ultimate aim that we would magnify the Lord by rejoicing in him, just as Mary does. And then we saw that Mary, like John the Baptist, points us to her Son. She is blessed. She is favored. But her son is the Son of the Most High, the Son of David, the Son of God, born by the Holy Spirit in the womb of a virgin.
Finally, last week, Pastor Jonathan returned to Zechariah, the father of John. His doubts led to nine months of silence. But he made the most of those nine months. For nine months, the angel’s words boiled and bubbled in his soul, so that when God finally loosed his tongue, Zechariah erupted, like Mary did, with a Spirit-inspired song of praise the God of Israel. And Zechariah’s story centers on mercy: the practical mercy of a baby born to a barren woman, the promised mercy flowing from God’s covenant with Abraham and David, the mercy that delivers us from enemies and sets us free to serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness; and finally the personal tender mercies of God that forgives our sins and gives light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and guides our feet into the way of peace.
The Christmas Story
And this brings us to Luke 2, and one of the most familiar stories in the Bible. You’ve heard Linus read this story in the Charlie Brown Christmas special every year since you were a kid. You know all about the decree of Caesar Augustus, and the journey to Bethlehem, and no room in the inn, and the shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night, and the angel and the glory, and the heavenly army singing “Glory to God in the highest,” and then the shepherds’s visit to the baby, and everyone’s amazement at what’s happening, and Mary pondering it all in her heart. And then there are the lesser-known parts of the story: Jesus’s circumcision at the temple, where an old man named Simeon was waiting for the consolation of Israel, knowing that God had promised him that he would not die until he saw the Messiah, and then he recognizes Jesus, and like everyone in this story, bursts into song (Luke 2:29-32):
“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”
And then Anna the prophetess, the woman who had been widowed for 50 or 60 years, praying and fasting daily in the temple, gives thanks to God when she sees Jesus, the redemption of Jerusalem.
And at the center of this story is the angelic announcement (2:10-11): “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” As Jonathan noted a few weeks ago, there’s a repeated progression in these chapters: the angelic arrival that causes great fear, the angelic exhortation to fear not, and then the replacing of fear with joy, in this case with “great joy.” Literally, he gospels them great joy. And the great joy is for all the people, because Jesus is the Savior, he is the Messiah, and he is the Lord. These three great titles stand at the center of this Christmas story.
He is the Savior; as Simeon says, “He is the salvation prepared in the presence of all peoples.” He saves us from our enemies, from the world, the flesh, and the devil. He saves us from our sins. He delivers all who trust in him, whether Jews or Gentiles, from God’s judgment.
He is the Messiah, the anointed king of Israel who sits on the throne of his father David.
As Psalm 2 says:
Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.”
I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
And most surprisingly, he is the Lord. Now Pastor David noted this in his sermon on Mary. The term Lord (kyrios) appears 25 times in these two chapters. 23 of those times it refers to God. Twice it refers to Jesus—once in the mouth of Elizabeth, and now in the mouth of the angelic host. This Savior, this Messiah, is no mere human king. He is the Lord, Yahweh, Israel’s God and the Maker of heaven and earth. That announcement—Great Joy for All Peoples because the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord is born!—is at the center of this Christmas story.
Advent and Christmas
But this is not a Christmas sermon. It’s an Advent sermon. Which means I want you to notice the progression in these two chapters as they build to the angelic announcement. I want you to hear the first chapters of Luke with Advent ears. And what kind of season is Advent? Advent is a season of waiting. Where are we waiting? In a land of deep darkness. Advent songs are often sung in a minor key (O Come, O Come Emmanuel), and so hear that minor key as it plays through Luke 1-2.
First consider the variety of people who are waiting in this land of deep darkness. There is an old respectable childless couple, descendants who can trace their lineage back to the days of David and Moses. Consider the teenage peasant girl who is in the midst of planning her wedding. Consider the dirty, lower class, rough-around-the-edges shepherds as they guard their flocks from thieves and wolves. Consider the old, righteous man, living in Jerusalem, and the old woman praying at the temple. Young and old, rich and poor, married and unmarried and widowed. This story contains all types of people.
Now consider the darkness that these people are dwelling in. Consider the deep darkness of infertility, and the shame and reproach that only a barren woman knows (1:25). It might seem strange to be ashamed of infertility and barrenness. It’s not like Elizabeth could help it. But as a wise man once said, “Sometimes we are most ashamed of the things that we can’t help.” Consider the deep darkness of a man whose ancestors reach back over a thousand years and yet does not have any children to continue his line. Consider the deep darkness of the poor, of those oppressed by the proud and mighty, those like Mary and Joseph and the shepherds who know hunger and thirst and need, who sleep outside in winter and give birth in mangers. Consider the deep darkness of those who sit in the shadow of death, like the old man in Jerusalem who is just waiting to die. Consider the deep darkness of the lonely, like the old woman who lives at the temple because her husband died decades ago.
And then reach back even farther into the land of deep darkness. Reach back to Genesis, where we’ve been all semester, and listen with Advent ears. Hear the minor chord in the story of the patriarchs. Consider the deep darkness of the jealousy and strife between twin brothers, Jacob and Esau, who battled each other from the womb. Consider the deep darkness of the jealousy and rivalry of two wives, Rachel and Leah, whose father used them and manipulated them into marrying the same man. Consider the deep darkness of Jacob, as he wrestled with God and his promises in the night and then limped for the rest of his life. Consider the deep darkness of a family torn apart by jealousy and envy, as eleven brothers sell their own kin into slavery. And then consider the deep and tumultuous darkness of that man’s story, as he is thrown into a pit, and then sold into slavery, and then rises in Potiphar’s house through his faithfulness, only to be falsely accused and thrown into prison, where he is forgotten by men of power whom he helped but then left him to rot. Advent is a season of waiting. And these saints from Scripture were waiting in a land of deep darkness.
From Darkness to Light
But then, consider the movement of these chapters, as they walk through two birth announcements and then two births. Listen how the Light begins to dawn in their darkness. Notice how the story builds from chapter 1, when Gabriel announces good news to Zechariah. “You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth” (1:14). And then it builds as Gabriel brings God’s favor to Mary, promising the birth of the Son of the Most High. And Mary and Elizabeth meet, and John “leaps for joy” in the womb because he knows the Lord is near. And then as John is born, the one who will prepare the way, we hear Zechariah celebrate the tender mercies of God that will “give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (1:79).
And these notes of joy and light and peace build until, one night, in the bleak midwinter, the darkest time of the year, when you can have a candlelight service at 5pm because the sun is already down, in a land of deep darkness, the Light bursts forth and shocks some sleepy shepherds. Blazing Glory, Brilliant Light, Bright Shining, and Good News of Great Joy for all people! Triumphant splendor that scatters fear, and a heavenly army heralding peace on earth. And now we sing our Christmas songs in a major key.
Joy to the world!
the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her king.
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,
Glory to the newborn king.
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled.
Joyful all ye nations rise.
Join the triumph of the skies.
With angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem.”
Hark! The herald angels sing.
Glory to the newborn king.
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
O Come all ye faithful, Joyful and triumphant,
Come ye, O Come ye to Bethlehem.
Come and behold him.
Born the king of angels.
Come let us adore him.
And so the call goes out in that major key: “Come to Bethlehem and see. Marvel! Be amazed. Ponder in your heart.” The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5). Post Tenebras Lux. After Darkness, Light! That’s Christmas.
But this is not a Christmas sermon. This is an Advent sermon. And so don’t miss the minor key that runs through these stories, and continues to persist after the good news of great joy.
Great Joy!, and then that old man, Simeon, who is about to depart in peace, says to the child’s parents (in 2:34-35), “This child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel. His presence will reveal the thoughts of many hearts.” This child will begin a sifting; he will be the aroma of life and joy and light to some, and the aroma of death and misery and darkness to others. And then that old man, who is just waiting to die, looks at that mother and says, “A sword will pierce your own soul.”
Great joy! And a sword is coming that will cut you deeper than your teenage heart can imagine. And that young teenage girl pondered those words in her heart.
And that’s not the only sword in this story. Great joy! And elsewhere in Bethlehem, there are other young women bearing children and nursing newborns, and in a few short years, soldiers from a wicked and desperate king will break down their doors and swords will pierce their toddlers on what will undoubtedly be the darkest night of their lives (Matthew 2:16-18).
Great joy! And somewhere in Capernaum, there’s a young boy who is paralyzed and will lay on a mat for his whole life while he watches his friends (his good friends) play, wishing that he could take up his mat and walk (Luke 5:17-26).
Great joy! And somewhere in the country of the Gerasenes, there is a man. In a few years, his life will start to spiral out of control, as the thousand evil voices in his head begin to overwhelm him until they imprison him in his own body (Luke 8:26-39).
Great joy! And somewhere in Galilee there’s a young woman walking the streets. In about 18 years, she is going to start bleeding and it won’t stop, and she will spend over a decade seeking relief from doctor after doctor after doctor, all of whom will only make it worse (Luke 8:40-56).
Great joy! And in Capernaum there is a young man named Jairus who aspires to one day be a ruler in the synagogue. In about 18 years, he will have a daughter, the apple of his eye. Twelve years after that, he will watch as she begins to waste away by some unstoppable illness, and then she will die, while he is out making one last desperate attempt to get help (Luke 8:40-56).
The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it, but neither does the darkness disappear.
And that’s not all. 2000 years later, in a land of deep darkness, a great variety of people will be gathered to hear the Christmas story at the darkest time of the year. And they will have swords piercing their own souls, each sword a little different.
Great joy! As families are torn apart by relational strife and intractable conflict.
Great joy! As families and individuals reckon with the long-term consequences of substance abuse and childhood trauma and marital unfaithfulness.
Great joy! As families and individuals face the uncertainty of the future, the loss of the job, as the bills pile up and the savings run out.
Great joy! As unmarried men and women long and yearn to find someone to share their lives with.
Great joy! As heavy-hearted couples silently bear the burden of infertility, grieving that God hasn’t answered their prayers as he did for Sarah and Rachel and Hannah and Elizabeth.
Great joy! As young couples experience the shocking emotional whiplash of miscarriage.
Great joy! As people young and old face life-changing diagnoses: cancer, strokes, genetic disorders.
Great joy! As individuals and families reckon with crippling anxiety and inexplicable depression and sometimes a darkness so deep that the desire to live is overwhelmed and the will to go on is extinguished.
Great joy! As parents ache for their children who are wandering far from the Lord.
Great joy! As children ache for their parents who are wandering far from the Lord.
Great joy! As families grieve the loss of Mom or Dad or Brother or Sister or Son or Daughter, who still lie buried beneath the land of deep darkness.
This is not a Christmas sermon. This is an Advent sermon.
1) What is Advent? / Advent is the season before Christmas.
2) What kind of season is Advent? / Advent is a season of waiting.
3) Where are we waiting? / In a land of deep darkness.
4) What are we waiting for? / The Light to shine on us.
5) What do we do during Advent? / Prepare our hearts to welcome Jesus.
6) What do we confess during Advent? / Christ has come; Christ will come again.
Advent is a reminder that in this life, in this land of deep darkness, the great joy of Christmas is never without its sorrow. The major key of triumphant joy contains the minor key of grief and affliction. The curse that hangs over this broken world is real. But the story is true. And I want to gospel you great joy for all people, here at this Table. I’m here to bring you good news of great joy. There is a Savior. He is Christ the Lord. He has come to make his blessings flow, far as the curse is found. And at this Table, I want you to remember that whatever sword is presently piercing your soul, the nails pierced his hands and the spear pierced his side, for you. His body is for you. His blood is for you. Heis for you. So, come and behold him. Come, let us adore him.