This was part one of a two part sermon given on Christmas Eve 2018. I did the first part and Daniel Harrell did the second part.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who lived in the land of deep darkness, on them a light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy. They rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest. As people exalt when dividing plunder for the yoke of their burden and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the trampling warriors, and all the garments rolled in blood, shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us. A son given for us. Authority rests upon his shoulders, and he is named wonderful Counselor, mighty God, everlasting Father, Prince of peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be an endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forever more. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
-Isaiah 9:2-7 (NRSV)
Will you pray with me?
Light of life, you came in flesh,
born into human pain and joy,
and gave us the power to be your children.
Grant us faith, oh Christ, to see your presence among us,
so that all of creation may sing new songs of gladness
and walk in the way of peace. Amen.1
Now, for some of you, you hear the words “For unto us, a child is born,” and you go right to Handel’s “Messiah,” right?
Well, for those of us who experienced Christmas in 1992, you may hear those lyrics and go right to Amy Grant’s 1992 rendition of the song for her Christmas album.2 Here I thought that she invented the song…turns out she didn’t. But I will never forget being a kid, walking into Target at Southdale that year and hearing that song on the overhead (she was in partnership that year with Target and so there were all these pictures of Amy Grant everywhere, which for me, as a huge fan of Amy Grant, was basically the most amazing thing: Jesus, Target, and Amy Grant. It was great!). Now what you don’t know, in addition to what I just told you, is that as a kid, I would dance around the kitchen to this song and pretend that I was like Katrina Witt 1988 Olympics and… that I was going to land a double axle and win the gold medal in the singles competition. Well, it didn’t happen for me.
So on this Christmas Eve, whichever song you hear in your head when you hear those words, “For onto us a Child is born,” whether it is some beautiful choral rendition of Handel’s Messiah, or whether it is nothing, we are all here tonight to celebrate the child who has been born and given to us; the one who comes in the midst of our longings, our joys, our hopes, our dreams, and our sorrows.
And tonight as we come to celebrate and welcome the Christ-child, I wanted to give you a little bit more context about this passage from Isaiah. The story and background of this text goes back to 734 to 732 BCE. At the time the land and people of Israel were experiencing an imminent attack from the north.
The ruler at the time was trying to figure out how they might stay safe and began to look at who he might ally with for his troops. And what happens in the midst of this, is the prophet Isaiah comes and says, “No, stop it. You’re looking for something to rescue you; seeking to put your trust in humans. But the call is to be the people of God, to put your trust in God, not in the political powers or structures of your day.” And here in the midst of this, the kingdom is reminded that God will continue to be faithful to them.
In this passage, we see the contrast of darkness and light, of anguish and hope, of people who are longing in the midst of the night. In the midst of oppression, of war, there comes assurance. Assurance of liberation from the evil Assyrian Empire of the day. Not maybe the most Christmasy message, Daniel, still, I give him thanks for letting me preach about it. Because here’s the thing about this passage, which one of my favorite scholars reminds us: This is actually an incredibly Christmasy message, because we know the realities of the world around us: realities of war and violence, of poverty, of sexism, and injustice. And we, in each of our own ways, long for redemption.
The word of Isaiah comes to us on this eve and reminds us, that we’re not to ally ourselves with powers that will make us feel like we will be buffeted, with identities that will prop us up. No, instead, the call to be the people of God is the same call it has been throughout all of human history: At the center of our world and of our identities, is to be following hard after this God, a God who from the beginning of time has fashioned all of humanity in God’s image.
This is the God who on this night, we remember as Emmanuel, God-with-us. This is the God who shows up in the real of human history and reminds us that hope isn’t something for a far off kingdom or time, no, hope is the promise and the whisper of God’s Spirit throughout not only all of time, but the promise and whisper that we come to hear this very night in the real of our lives. This is the God upon whose shoulders all things rest. This is the Prince of Peace, the mighty God, the wonderful Counselor. This is the God who will show up. This is the God who shows up. Not in the way of mighty forces that we might expect, but in the form of an infant born through a woman, comes the redemption of people that they had longed for throughout the years. “For unto us a child is born.”
And on this Christmas Eve, we light candles, because this light continues to shine in darkness, no matter what the darkness of our history or our current lives know so well. This is Emmanuel, the God who is with us, the child to whom is born to us. This is the God who is for us.
This God who is for us is Emmanuel, who shows up not only in the real of human history and of our political realities, but as has always been true, this is the God who shows up in the real of our lives. This is the God who three weeks ago, as my wonderful spouse rubbed my belly as we wept together because of our miscarriage, is the God who is Emmanuel, who is with all of us this night. Emmanuel, “For unto us, a child is born.” The hope for which we long, the grief that we bring and carry with us, and lay at the feet of the God who knows what it means to be born of human flesh and blood, of our hopes and our dreams and our longings, of the things that we do not yet know will be, but we hope through the night.
So on this night, I don’t know what you bring into this space. I don’t know what political realities, or family situations, or jobs, or anything that you may be carrying, but I do know this: this is a God who throughout all of human history has shown up as love.
The God who is with us.
The God who is for us, the everlasting one, inside of history, meeting us in the real of our lives.
Not the one who comes to wage war, but the one who brings peace, peace to our nation, peace to our world, peace to our homes and our bodies and our hearts and this earth. So on this night, as we sing, “Come oh, come, Emmanuel.” And as we, together with church throughout all of human history, affirm, “For unto us, a child has been born.” I pray that this peace might be yours. For Emmanuel is, Emanuel was, and Emmanuel will be.
So let us fall on our knees and receive this good news: “For unto us a child is born.” God is for us, God is for you. May this babe who is born this night meet you in the real of your life. Don’t rely on the powers or look to them to save you, but on this night might you look for the child who comes in the manger to save us, and might we rely on the love of Christ on whom all rests.
Will you pray with me?
God of glory,
your splendor shines from a manger in Bethlehem,
where the light of the world is humbly born
into the darkness of human night.
God, that you would open our eyes to Christ’s presence, to the Emmanuel, the God with us in the shadows of our world,
so that we, like Christ, may become the beacons of your peace and your justice and your reign and your way of doing things.
May we be defenders of all for whom there is no room, as you, indeed, make room for us. In the name of Emmanuel, the child to whom is born to us.
- From the Vanderbilt Common Lectionary, https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/prayers.php?id=99.
- Amy Grant, “Joy to the World/For Unto Us a Child is Born,” Home for Christmas (Nashville: A&M, 1992).
- From the Vanderbilt Common Lectionary. See: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/prayers.php?id=99.