Christmas Eve, 2013
After lighting the four Advent candles, the candles of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love, we light tonight the final candle, which is the Christ candle. All along we’ve been lighting it at the beginning of each service to remind us of God’s spirit in our midst. But tonight, on Christmas Eve we light it “officially.” And this year, our Advent Liturgy suggests that we consider that this candle too has a theme. And that theme is “Praise.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Advent liturgy with that as a theme, but I like it!
If you think about it, Praise is a big part of the story of Christmas. That’s the response of many of the characters in this story. A couple of weeks ago we talked about the song Mary sang when she went to visit Elizabeth. At the sound of Mary’s voice, the baby within Elizabeth “jumped for Joy.” Do you remember that? And then, as they were speaking, Mary burst out in this psalm of praise. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior!” That’s the passage we since called “The Magnificat.” And it is just that. It is a “psalm of praise.” (It even has that doubling of phrases, which is characteristic of many of the Jewish Psalms! “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior!”)
So, in all this amazing experience, Mary was full of praise. So were the angels as they appeared to the shepherds in the fields. The first angel told the good news. But before he left those frightened shepherds, he was joined by a host of angels singing, (what?) “Glory to God in the highest!” We read those words as a matter of course in the Christmas story, don’t we? We hear the voice Linus reciting them in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” But can we even begin to imagine that scene? A legion of angels, just one of which would strike fear in the heart of anyone! But here there was a host of angels. And in the climax of the story, they are doing what? They are singing praise to God!
Well, those shepherds “went with haste,” we’re told, and they found things just as the angels said. They found the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger. And again, that’s part of the story we’re so used to. We don’t often think about how unexpected it was for the Son of God to have come into the world in that way!
So, the shepherds told Mary and Joseph what they had seen and heard. And we can only imagine how that was a confirmation to them of all that had happened so far! And that brings us to the final part of the shepherds’ story. And this is what I want us to think about this evening. Luke tells us that “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God, for all they had seen and heard!” That’s the moment in this story that I want us to focus on. That’s the mental image I want you to take with you and think about tomorrow morning, and throughout the Christmas Season.
“The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God, for all they had seen and heard!” Praise! That’s the result! That’s the response in this story that we can’t forget in our celebration of Christmas. But we do, don’t we? If you think about it, even the meaning of that word “celebration” is sometimes lost on us. We say we “celebrate” something, but often we simply mean we “observe it,” or we “commemorate it’s occurrence.” Think about that. Sometimes we say “I’m celebrating my 60th birthday.” But are we really “celebrating” it, or are we just having it?
In the case of Christmas, it’s too easy for the same thing happen. We love Christmas, don’t we! As we said, it is a season of “Hope.” And sometimes we have that hope, despite our circumstances – and maybe even in difficult circumstances. It is a season of “Peace” and “Joy” and “Love,” and often we feel those things, too. There are times we do get a good sense of the meaning of this event, and we are humble and we are thankful!
But what about the shepherds’ response? Do we leave “glorifying and praising God for all we have seen and heard?” It’s easy to forget that part of it, isn’t it? Oh sometimes the music helps us remember. Sometimes we sing the angels song, “Glo-oria, in excelsis deo.” “Glory to God in the highest.” But that’s the angels’ song. That carol is about their story. Is that really our song?
The psalmist wrote, “God is enthroned on the praises of his people.” And I’ve often said that means “God is with us in a special way when we praise him.” But maybe it’s more than that. Maybe it’s more like, “the relationship God wants with us is most deeply expressed and felt when we praise and glorify him!” If you want to be closer to God, then praise God. And as I’m sure by now you would expect me to say that that’s something we need to choose to do. And you’re right! Worship and Praise don’t always happen all by themselves. We have to choose to do so, intentionally!
That’s what I want us to think about tonight, tomorrow, for the “rest of the year” – and beyond. Think about that image of the shepherds going out “glorifying and praising God for all they had seen and heard.” Think about yourself. Will you seek the Christ child? Will you remember this wonderful story and try to fathom the depths of its meaning? Will you let it fill you with Hope and Joy and Peace and Love? And will you too go out “glorifying and praising God?”
I hope you will. We close with our traditional singing of Silent Night. And I’m glad we include the words the fourth verse in our bulletins. And I hope it will help you think a little more about glorifying and praising God, as you sing, “With the angels let us sing, Hallelujah to our King. Christ the Savior is born!”
Eternal God, in the Christmas story you have indeed given us Hope and Peace and Joy. In the Child of Bethlehem you have shown us your Love so that we can learn to love. We thank you for all of this, and indeed we give you glory and praise for all that we have seen and heard, now and forever, world without end, Amen.