Sermon Options: December 17, 2023

November 2nd, 2020

The Good News of Christmas

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

In the comic strip Garfield by Jim Davis, Odie is asleep on the floor. Garfield walks up, lifts Odie's ear, and whispers, "Christmas is coming," then walks off. Odie is still asleep, but now there is a smile on his face and his tail is wagging ninety to nothing.

Christmas is coming and the excitement builds. The prophet speaks the words Jesus will read in his hometown and then proclaim, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:21) . In the very life of Jesus, these words become flesh and blood. The birth of Christ brings the good news of joy, unity, and salvation for all.

I. Christmas Is Good News Because It Brings Joy

Christmas is more than just lights and trees and presents. It is more than just a warm feeling. Christmas is that sense of renewal and liberation that comes from knowing great joy. Filled with the Spirit of God, the prophet promised that joy through the proclamation of the good news, through the binding of the brokenhearted, through liberty for captives and release for prisoners. After ripping into a Christmas present, a three-year-old girl picked up the toy and said, "Ooohhh, I've wanted one of these ever since I was a little girl." The marvelous thing about the joy of Christmas is that we didn't know we wanted it until it came. And the minute we first beheld God's glory wrapped in swaddling clothes, we knew it was what we had always wanted; what we had always needed. It fills us with joy.

II. Christmas Is Good News Because It Brings Unity

Through the gift and proclamation of this good news of comfort, liberty, and release, we find unity in Christ. The differences that exist between us no longer seems important when we stand at the foot of the manger, knowing that the innocent Christ child will one day grow to be the innocent Savior who loves us so much he willingly dies for us. That love removes all differences and makes us truly one in Christ.

One of the greatest instances of Christian unity I've ever witnessed was in Israel in 1992. On a tour of the Holy Land, our group was made up of United Methodists, Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, and Roman Catholics. On Russian and Greek Orthodox Christmas Eve, our Epiphany, we stopped at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Attached to the church is an ancient monastery. We visited the room where the Roman Catholic priest Jerome lived and translated the Old and New Testaments from the Hebrew and Greek into the Latin Vulgate, making the Bible accessible to ordinary people.

There, we paused to sing Christmas carols. While we were singing, a group of Korean and German Christians joined us. In mixed languages, in mixed national and denominational affiliations, we sang and celebrated the birth of the Savior of us all.

III. Christmas Is Good News Because It Brings Salvation

A cartoon shows two lightning bugs. One asks the other: "Do you think this is all there is, or do you believe in an afterglow?" That's a pertinent question. We live in the afterglow of both Christmas and Easter. We can't have one without the other. Easter without the Incarnation becomes a supernatural myth. Christmas without the Cross, the Resurrection, and the empty tomb is just a sentimental story that has no purpose or meaning. But the afterglow of both events gives life direction, purpose, and meaning. The One whose birth we celebrate also died and was raised from the dead to bring us salvation. Living in the afterglow is living in the light of Christ and being the light for others by proclaiming God's good news. (Billy D. Strayhorn)

Peace? At Christmas?

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Eight-year-old Johnny was sitting in church watching as the third Advent candle was lit. As the flame sputtered and then grew to life, Johnny tugged on his mother's dress and asked loudly, "Why are they lighting another candle, Mommy?" His mother leaned down and, as quietly as possible, explained, "We're getting ready for Jesus to get here." Quickly, Johnny shot back, "Well, I sure wish he'd hurry up!"

The Thessalonians also wanted to "hurry up" the coming of Jesus. In fact, his second coming is the major subject of both letters to this church. The Thessalonians were consumed by this future event. Many questions and doubts arose in their minds. Living in the in-between time is not the easiest place to live. So Paul writes them to explain how they should live until Jesus comes. In his closing prayer, Paul mentions "the God of peace" who will make us faultless "at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" (v. 23). In this often hurried-up season we celebrate the first coming of Jesus, the one called the Prince of Peace.

Peace. Something seldom found in our world. Whether the conflict is in the Middle East or in the heart of a struggling teenager, in Europe between two "religious" factions or in the worried mind of a fixed-income senior adult, peace is a rare commodity.

For the Thessalonians, peace was also rare. There was anxiety about those who died (4:13). There was concern about the coming of the Lord, its timing and its nature (4:16). But Paul reassures them all with this letter: "Be at peace among yourself" (5:13). Then, he shows us all the way to peace while we wait for Jesus' arrival.

I. We Experience Peace by Living Peacefully

In verses 16-18, Paul lists three characteristics of peace-filled people. "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances," sounds remarkably like his counsel to his other Macedonian congregation, the Philippians (Phil. 4:4-6). But in Philippians, he includes the results of doing these three things: "The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (v. 7). Peace at Christmas is possible if we heed Paul's words.

If we're going to have peace in the church and in our personal lives this season, the "big three" are essential.

II. We Experience Peace by Yielding to God's Spirit

The second way to peace in our hearts and in the church involves the Spirit (vv. 19-22). God's Spirit must be given free rein in our hearts and in the church. His word must be proclaimed, and his people must "test everything." In celebrating the coming of the Prince of Peace, our personal lives may be anything but peaceful. Christmas can be a time for flaring department store tempers, churning checkout lane stomachs, and parking-spot brawls at the mall! "Test everything," Paul says.

We Christians must reevaluate how agitated and tumultuous we've allowed our celebration to become. While the rest of the world hurries and worries, God calls on us to hold fast to the good of this season and discard the bad. Is your Christmas a time of peace? If not, examine your life. Then, as Paul commands, "hold fast to what is good" and avoid the evil, chaotic temptation to be swept away in the commercialization of Christmas.

You think it's too late? Has your celebration of the coming of our Lord already been anything but peaceful? Paul's final words are hopefilled: "The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this" (v. 24). Only the God of peace can ensure that the Prince of Peace finds his way into our hearts this season. (H. Blake Harwell)

Playing Games

John 1:6-8, 19-28

The whole passage reads like three TV game shows, with John the Baptist being questioned by a panel of celebrity judges, all trying to find out who he is, what he is doing, and what it all means. Some of the questions prove better than others.

I. "To Tell the Truth"

On the show "To Tell the Truth," a panel of near-famous questioners would face a panel of three contestants with all three claiming to be the same individual. "My name is..." whatever—all three said the same name, and then there would be some clues given about this person and the occupation. The challenge was to see whether the near-famous could determine, by asking questions, which of the three was the real one. The three played it close to the vest, trying not to reveal too much. It was funny to the extent that the questioners got befuddled and confused.

This passage is funny in the same way. Celebrity questioners—priests and Levites sent from the Pharisees—are asking questions in turn and trying to figure out who John really is. "Are you Elijah? A prophet? An impostor?" John plays it close, of course, saying more of who he is not than who he is. And they are so confused, comically so.

At the end of the game show, the announcer would say, "Will the real ———- please stand up!" One would, and confusion would give way to clarity. One can only imagine that the Pharisees wished, if secretly, someone would stand and clear things up concerning John.

II. "What's My Line"

A variation on "To Tell the Truth" was "What's My Line." It was up to the panelists, through questions, to determine the occupation of one contestant, who did his or her best to confuse the celebrities. The studio and TV audience would know what the panelists didn't—that is, the contestant's "line"—and the show was funny to the extent that the celebrities were off target and unable to see what, to us, was so obvious. If the contestant could keep them that way, he or she would win the money.

The text for today is funny in the same way. We already know who John is—a witness sent to testify to the Light, one who has come to proclaim the advent of the Savior. A prophet, in other words, after the fashion of Elijah, if not precisely Elijah himself.

And the questioners in our text are very confused: unable to see what we already know; unable to see what seems to us so obvious. They know something of what John is doing, but they do not know what it means or, more precisely, what his real job is. And they are off target.

Why are you baptizing? Who are you? What do you say about yourself? And you get the sense that John has the money in the bag.

III. "Jeopardy!"

The last game show is still on, the one where the host gives the answer, and the contestants supply the question. If they get the question right, they win the prize.

John has given his questioners the "final Jeopardy" answer, but it would seem they have gotten the question wrong. When John says, "Among you stands one whom you do not know...", their answer seems to be, "Where is the Messiah?" Why, in Bethany, of course. Across the Jordan where John was baptizing. But that's the wrong question.

The real question is not, "Where is he, that we might see him?" It is, "Who is he, that we might follow him?" One has to feel sorry that these unfortunate contestants seem to have missed the grand prize. (Thomas R. Steagald)

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