I am preaching at Dover UMC in Dover Plains, NY, tomorrow. We will be lighting the 4th Advent Candle at the beginning of the service, celebrating communion during the service and lighting the Christ Candle as part of the benediction. Dover Plains is on the edge of part of the Catskill region of New York. The Benediction for tomorrow will be something on the order, "having heard the Words of Christmas, now Go Tell It On The Mountain" (the congregation will sing).
It is with some degree of sarcasm that I say that the three most dreaded words of Christmas are “some assembly required.” It isn’t that we dread assembling the toys or items that we bought at this time of year that causes the dread; it is reading the instruction or interpreting the diagrams that accompany our purchases. It seems so often that it takes an advanced degree with additional post-doctoral study to understand and comprehend what must be done.
The same is true for the words and rituals of the sacrifices that the writer of Hebrews alludes to as he writes down the words of Christ. (Hebrews 10: 5 – 10) The writer points out that Christ came to serve as the one true sacrifice because the words and rules dealing with sacrifices had become too complicated. Instead of bringing people to God, the words and rules were driving people away from God. It is for that reason that Christ came into this world, to bring the people back to God.
I sometimes wonder if today is not much different from two thousand years ago. We see darkness enveloping our society just as darkness envelopes the world. We search for simple answers to complex questions. And the churches of today give answers that sound simple but do not answer the questions we ask.
In the darkness that seems to be our life, we readily accept the answers that we are given. But when we read those words again in the light of knowledge, we read words of fear and exclusion. We hear the innkeeper saying “go away, my inn is full.” We hear churches today say the same thing, “go away, we’re full.” We hear churches today say, “Go away, you’re not our kind.” These are not the words of Christmas; these are not the words of hope and promise that we seek.
The words of Christmas must be and should be words of hope, joy, and promise. The words of Christmas should not drive people or keep people from the church; the words of Christmas should bring them in.
We do not know what Elizabeth and Zacharias said when they first discovered that Elizabeth was pregnant. But, since Luke wrote that Elizabeth had been barren (Luke 1: 7), we can only assume that they were words of amazement and wonder. We do know that Mary’s words were also words of amazement and wonder when she discovered that she was pregnant. But we also know that she was troubled by this event. We can only imagine what her neighbors said. Mary was betrothed to Joseph and to be pregnant before the actual marriage was a sign of infidelity. Any words that her neighbors spoke would probably have been words of abuse and ostracism; they would have been words of hate and fear. Mary would have easily been shunned by her community and cast aside in disgust.
Even Joseph first thought in those terms. As we read in Matthew, Joseph was first inclined to divorce Mary for her apparent violation of the marriage agreement. (Matthew 1: 19) The rules and words of society at that time would easily allowed Joseph to cast marry aside and let words of shame follow the rest of her life.
But the first words spoken by the angels who visited Elizabeth, Zacharias, Mary, and Joseph were “fear not, for I bring good news.” God spoke to each one of them and told them that what was to come was a great and wonderful thing, not something to be feared or ashamed. Joseph, who was described as a righteous man, resolved to stand by his betrothed. Elizabeth marveled at the grace that allowed her a role in God’s great plan. She knew that God owed her nothing and that God had mercifully given her much. (Luke 1: 41)
And as noted in the Gospel reading for today (Luke 1: 39 – 45), the child in Elizabeth’s womb leapt in joy when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting. How can the words of Christmas be anything less than joy and praise? As we lit the fourth Advent candle this morning and read the Psalter for this morning, we repeated the words of Mary as she sang of joy and hope. Her words are the true words of Christmas, of hope and promise for all, not just for a select few.
And we remember the first words that were said to the shepherds in the fields outside the city of Bethlehem. Shepherds were among the lowest of society; yet they were the first to hear the words announcing the birth of Christ. And like the angels who spoke to Elizabeth and Zacharias, Mary and Joseph, the angels’ first words to the shepherds were “fear not.”
The words of Christmas take away fear; they bring forth joy and hope. They are words for all, not just the mighty and powerful. Micah pointed out that the hope of the nations would come from the smallest of the tribes, not the biggest. The hope and promise of the future is seen in terms of the coming Messiah, not in the words of the present (Micah 5: 2 – 5). The words of Hebrew also tell us that the present order, that which we have tried to do in order to achieve salvation, would be replaced by Christ’s sacrifice.
So, we come to the table this day remembering what transpired in the Upper Room that last night before Good Friday. We remember the words of Christ telling us that the bread that we eat today represents the body of Christ, broken on the Cross for our signs. We remember the words of Christ telling us that that juice of the vine that we drink today represents the blood of the new covenant, poured out for all who believe. As we celebrate communion today, we remember that complicated and complex rules of the old days are replaced; the words of fear are replaced with words of hope and promise.
And when we light the Christ candle in the Advent wreath during the benediction, we will remember the words of John who told us some two thousand years ago that God so loved us that he gave us his only Son. The words of Christmas are words of love, hope, and promise. As we celebrate the birth of Christ again this year, let us remember that and go out into the world with the words of Christmas.