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Sermon for Christmas Eve – December 24, 2022
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Tonight we celebrate good news of great joy: that a child has been born for us. Tonight we celebrate that in the town of Bethlehem, during the chaos of a census demanded by a Roman emperor, a baby was born. Tonight we celebrate that to a couple whose only shelter that night was a stable, and whose only available crib was a feedbox for animals, a son was given. Tonight we celebrate a birth, the birth of our savior. Tonight we celebrate God coming to us as an infant.
There aren’t very many births being celebrated in our country these days. I was listening to a podcast recently where the discussion was about the plunging birth rate in the United States. Since 2007, the birth rate has fallen a shocking 20%.
This has many sociologists alarmed. You see, when there aren’t enough babies to replace the existing population, it can have a devastating impact on society. The tax base shrinks and there aren’t enough workers to carry out vital services. Already in Japan, where the birth rate has been dangerously low for decades, they’re having to use robots to care for the elderly.
It is a complicated issue with many competing interests, but what really got my attention in this podcast conversation was a comment from a demographer from the University of Southern California who described the current birth rate as a “barometer of despair.” Yes, economic factors have always played a role in the typically small fluctuations in the birth rate, but there’s something else which has been going on to make the birth rate drop so dramatically over the past fifteen years, and this demographer links it to a growing sense of despair about the world, a lack of hope.
This makes some sense to me. I mean, it rings true, at least anecdotally. I personally know a young couple who have said they aren’t having children because of the state the world is in. I hear stories of couples making similar decisions for similar reasons quite often. I’ve heard the sentiment expressed by people in my family. My oldest son was born two months after the 9/11 attacks. In fact, our first childbirth class was on 9/11. The world seemed shattered during those days, and a relative actually asked us if we regretted bringing a baby into it. We didn’t. Not for a second. But you can see the mindset, and this mindset has grown exponentially since then.
Now, a couple’s decision to have a baby or not, or the decision about how many children to have, is always deeply personal and highly contextual, heavily influenced by one’s circumstances. I get that. Moreover, because of physical or relational impediments, not everyone has the opportunity to have their own biological children, and that can be very painful. I understand that too.
But broadly speaking, the USC demographer has a point. A culture in despair doesn’t have babies. A society which is lacking in hope doesn’t want to bring children into the world.
What a sharp contrast we see, then, between this human response to a broken world and God’s response to a broken world! While human beings have recently been looking at the mess the world is in and saying no to babies, God looked at it and said, “Oh yeah, now it’s time for a baby.” When the angel announced to Mary that she would bear God’s Son into the world, she didn’t hesitate. She said, “Let’s gooooo!”
The world Jesus was born into was a mess. St. Luke anchors his birth narrative in real history, naming specific historical leaders like Caesar Augustus and the governor Quirinius. This is no fairy tale, but happened in real history, which is always messy! While the world was currently under the pax Romana, the peace of Rome, this had only come about because the emperor Octavian had defeated all of his rivals after about 20 years of brutal civil wars. He beat back challengers like Mark Antony and Cleopatra and was now the sole ruler of the entire Mediterranean Basin. Octavian then took a new name for himself, Augustus, meaning “the exalted one.”
St. Luke is reminding us of this historical setting, calling to mind that God’s people lived under the heavy hand of this ruler who came to power through terrible violence. Octavian had Israel firmly under his thumb, governing them with oppressive taxation and an overwhelming military occupation. God’s people were beaten down and persecuted and largely poor. Moreover, the expansion of Roman culture brought with it with every kind of immorality you can imagine (there is nothing new under the sun), and God’s people often willingly participated in it!
And yet, God so loved this world that he himself was willing to be born into it. God entered into this broken world as an infant. God came to be its savior, its long-promised Messiah.
Not only was the world a mess, but life was a mess for Mary and Joseph. When Augustus snapped his fingers, you had to go, and so while it was hardly an ideal time to be traveling, Mary and Joseph had to make the four-day, ninety-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be counted for the census Augustus had demanded. When they arrived – you know how the story goes – there was no room for them in the inn, and so they had to camp out in the stable. This would be like if all the Best Westerns were full in a town you were visiting, but they let you sleep in the garage on the floor next to the shuttle van! Mary and Joseph were camped out amongst the work animals when she went into labor. They were far from home, far from the familiar women who would have been midwives to Mary, who would have been a comforting presence in a stressful time.
And yet, in spite of the chaos and the fear and the brokenness of Mary and Joseph’s lives, Jesus was born. God came into their utterly imperfect situation. The One who spoke the universe into being now cried and cooed as an infant as Christ the savior was born.
The world we live in has seemed more broken than usual over the last few years. Some of this is due to fear mongering and social media-induced anxiety, but it is also true that our world faces some serious challenges. Our society seems to be struggling. Our culture seems to be in a downward spiral. This is leading to widespread despair that is showing up not just in the birth rate, but in all kinds of places. There is a lack of hope that is plaguing many people’s lives. Maybe even yours.
On a more personal scale, our lives are often messy and stressful, just like Mary and Joseph’s were. We sometimes feel subject to powers outside of ourselves which are making our lives very difficult. We often find ourselves in conditions beyond our control. We sometimes feel like we’re alone, like we’re on our own.
And yet God looked at our broken world and said, “I want to be born into that.” God willingly came into our world, as dangerous and frightening and troubled as it is. God not only came into it, he came into it as an infant, as the most vulnerable kind of human being there is! This is God’s sign to us that he hasn’t given up on this world. He has come into it as a baby to redeem it!
In the same way, God has looked at your life and said, “I want to be born into that.” Yes, God knows every last detail about your life. God knows your brokenness. God knows the damage you have done, and the damage done to you. God knows your fears, your sins, your troubles. And God wanted to be part of it all, and so he comes to you tonight as a baby, as the Christ child.
This is what the angel said: “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. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
The good news of great joy we celebrate tonight is that God has come to us as a baby. God has sent us a savior. The birth of Jesus means there is hope for the world. The birth of this baby means there is hope for you.
Christ has been born to bring us forgiveness, life, and salvation. May he be born anew in your hearts tonight.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church