Sermon: “Good News of Great Joy” (Christmas 2014)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Good News of Great Joy” (Luke 2:10-11)
Christmas 2014
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Have you ever noticed that you are given the best Christmas presents by those who know you the best and love you the most?

When I was six years old Christmas rolled around and I was bouncing off the walls with excitement. As we opened our gifts there was one present in particular that I most eagerly anticipated opening. As I examined it I was sure it would be a very cool toy of some kind, and I could not wait to open it. I was so convinced it would be the best present that year that I decided to open it last. The time finally came, and grinning ear to ear I tore off the paper. Do you know what it was? An Old Spice soap-on-a-rope—the perfect present for a six year old boy—after all, every six year old boy longs to be clean and smell like Old Spice ☺.

But I did not learn my lesson, and ten years later Christmas came again, and once again I identified the present that appeared to be the best and put it aside to open last. I was convinced it was a Sony Walkman or some other electronic gadget. But I was wrong…it was a lint brush—the perfect present for a sixteen year old guy because sixteen year old guys are not interested in cars or sports or girls, they are interested in removing the lint from their clothes ☺.

With all due respect for the givers of the Old Spice soap-on-a-rope and the lint brush, they were relatives who barely knew me at all. Over the years I have received the best gifts—like an iPod or Leatherman pocket tool or a # 44 Washington Redskins jersey (John Riggins, of course)—from those who know me the best and love me the most.

On Christmas we celebrate the ultimate gift from our Creator, from the One who truly knows us the best and loves us the most. As the angel of the Lord proclaimed to the shepherds in the gospel reading—“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).

Scripture assures us that the reason the birth of Jesus Christ is indeed “good news of great joy for all the people” is because Jesus gives us grace—that as John writes in his account of the gospel, in Jesus “we have all received grace upon grace” (John 1:16).

In December 1792 a baby boy named Joseph was born to an unmarried mother in Salzburg, Austria. He grew up in a Roman Catholic parish learning the scriptures and music, and later was ordained a priest. On Christmas Eve 1818, the twenty-six year old Joseph Mohr brought a poem he had written to his friend, Franz Gruber, who composed music for the poem within a few hours. This song, which was destined to become a Christmas favorite around the world, was sung for the first time at midnight mass that very same Christmas Eve. The third verse includes these familiar words:

Silent night, holy night
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord at thy birth
Jesus, Lord at thy birth
(From Silent Night, Hymn 111).

The birth of Jesus Christ is “good news of great joy for all the people” because it marks “the dawn of redeeming grace.” In his final book, All is Grace, Brennan Manning describes what this “redeeming grace” like this:

“My message, unchanged for more than fifty years, is this: God loves you unconditionally, as you are and not as you should be, because nobody is as they should be. It is the message of grace…It’s not cheap. It’s free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the orthodox foot and fairy tale for the grown-up sensibility. Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all of our might to find something or someone it cannot cover. Grace is enough. He is enough. Jesus is enough” (192 and 194).

Jesus is indeed enough—and as the angel of the Lord proclaimed, Jesus was born “to you.”

Last year I saw an online news story that illustrates this grace. A woman named Cece Bruce was working as a waitress at a Steak and Shake restaurant in Indianapolis. One day she was being treated poorly by some rude customers, which was not unusual—“I was having a hard time at another table,” she said, “but I just kept smiling and going on because that’s what you have to do.”

And then Cece encountered unexpected grace…she picked up the credit card payment from a customer whose order had cost $5.97 and found that the customer had added a tip of $446—about 75 times the cost of the meal. Cece ran out of the restaurant and chased down the customer and tried to refuse the gift, but the customer smiled and insisted. Cece said this to the reporter, “I didn’t think I was worth $400 dollars, but apparently she felt that I am.”

Perhaps some of you do not feel you are worth being given grace by God, that you are not worth God giving you his Son at Christmas. But apparently God thinks you are worth it—as we sing in O Holy Night, “Long lay the world in sin and error pining—‘til he appeared and the soul felt its worth.”

In fact, God gives you so much grace, that not only was Jesus born for you, he also died for you. Scripture tells us that “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

The birth and death of Jesus are inextricably linked, as the seventeenth century Anglican priest and poet John Donne beautifully expresses in the opening sentences of his Christmas sermon entitled “The Showing Forth of Christ”:

“The whole life of Christ was a continual Passion; others die martyrs but Christ was born a martyr. He found a Golgotha (where he was crucified) even in Bethlehem, where he was born; for to his tenderness then the straws were almost as sharp as the thorns after—and the manger as uneasy at first as his cross at last. His birth and his death were but one continual act, and his Christmas day and his Good Friday are but the evening and the morning of one and the same day” (The Showing Forth of Christ: Sermons of John Donne, 76).

And on that “one and the same day” “the dawn of redeeming grace” began—and the “radiant beams” from the holy face of Jesus are still shining on you.

And not even death can stop those radiant beams from shining.

Often at Christmas people remember loved ones who have died, and are flooded with vivid memories of Christmases past. In 1851 Charles Dickens published an oft-overlooked gem entitled What Christmas Is as We Grow Older, in which he poignantly describes this:

“We had a friend who was our friend from early days, with whom we often pictured the changes that were to come upon our lives, and merrily imagined how we would speak, and walk, and think, and talk, when we came to be old. His destined habitation in the City of the Dead received him in his prime. Shall he be shut out from our Christmas remembrance? Would his love have so excluded us? Lost friend, lost child, lost parent, sister, brother, husband, wife, we will not so discard you! You shall hold your cherished places in our Christmas hearts, and by our Christmas fires; and in the season of immortal hope, and on the birthday of immortal mercy, we will shut out Nothing!”

And in the same way our hearts shut out nothing when it comes to remembering lost loved ones on Christmas, the redeeming grace of God in Jesus shuts out nothing. There is nothing in your life that the redeeming grace of God in Jesus cannot redeem—nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing.

Through his death and resurrection the redeeming grace of Jesus even triumphed over the City of the Dead, and rest assured, in his time, God will redeem everything in your life—“good news of great joy” indeed.

So on this “birthday of immortal mercy,” may you experience anew in your heart the “dawn of redeeming grace” from the One who knows you the best and loves you the most.

Merry Christmas!

Amen.