Isaiah 52: 7-10
LUKE 2: 8-20

Christmas Eve 2023

Oh my friends, Christmas is upon us once again! How beautiful it is to consider God’s love … through Jesus Christ whose mere name should lead us to shout with joy and to lift our voices to sing together as the prophet declared! MERRY CHRISTMAS … such a heartwarming phrase filled with joy for ALL!

You do find that name Jesus Christ special … right? A joy to the world name! A name whose embodiment has changed your priorities from the world’s to God’s … am I correct … AM I CORRECT that as you focus in on tomorrow’s happenings that by your mere presence in this church tonight or through the magic of streaming wherever you are in God’s world … YOU ARE HERE because you want to be closer to Jesus Christ than you were yesterday … closer than the day before … and when you heard Justin Timberlake’s song, ‘Can’t Stop the Feeling,’ you smiled because you wanted to get up and dance because of God’s amazing Christmas gift … a gift that has turned you into a person who loves God and loves all of your neighbors. A gift named Jesus who doesn’t need a Christmas tree to squeeze under to offer an everlasting present to you and me through His presence in our lives. Thanks to the Holy Spirit.

Don’t you just love knowing that tonight across every time zone in the world there will be people of every color and every background including those like you and me … unable to stop the feeling of joy in knowing God’s love gift. In peaceful places and war zones … rich or poor … no matter what one’s politics are … whatever your family looks like … voices with beautiful accents including those like mine … everyone filled with joy and dancing together not judging nor rejecting just pure Christmas joy! A Jesus Christ.

That’s why I showed the video … showing people from every corner of the world from the Middle East and from Asia from Africa and South America and some from just a few miles from where we are tonight … showing all of them happy … all filled with joy … so happy that they had to get up on their feet dancing … all the same yet all different … a love moment in time because of a song and perhaps a moment we need to remember still is a possibility within the diversity that makes up humanity. Because in Jesus Christ we have more than a song to dance to … we have God’s gift to rejoice in and yes lots of songs to sing and dances to dance to that are associated with Him. Joy in Jesus!

One of the truths of God’s gift through Jesus was to show humanity … you and me and all of our neighbors wherever they live or come from … that God expects us to be the kind of people who love each other with joy rather than joining those who attempt to put down and hate others because of their differences … those who attempt to thrive on division are actually being anti-God and anti-Christ and are an embodiment of an anti-Christmas’ essence. But we … folks who tonight are celebrating Christmas throughout the world … WE are called to stand up and showcase the reason for our celebration … to share it … to sing and to dance with joy because of Jesus Christ! He said LOVE ALL of your neighbors … LOVE.

God wants us to sense joy through our faith rather than to allow what we perceive as religion or religious folks or religious rules to take us down. It’s easy to find issues that lead to excuses not to invest personal time in worshiping God with joy. Faith is a living process that is celebrated IN CHURCH … God’s concept of church is for it to be a welcoming place where we worship God, the Creator, with joy!

There’s a reason that Paul uses the phrase “rejoice always” in two of his letters that we know about …. REJOICE IN THE LORD ALWAYS … Nehemiah states clearly in the Old Testament, “The joy of the Lord is your strength!” Peter reflects, “You believe in Him and are filled with inexpressible and glorious JOY!” Luke shares that even the angels in heaven … the ones who shared the GLORIA’s of that first CHRISTMAS EVE … those angels “rejoice in heaven over just one sinner who comes back to the Lord.” And boy oh boy did those shepherds who left the fields to see Jesus … experience joy … they were glorifying and praising God with huge smiles on their work-driven faces. I bet when they finally fell asleep amidst their sheep that they were smiling … joy-filled and connected with Jesus, the Son of God.

Joy to the world … is one reality that you can find in this church called St. Paul’s. We believe in sharing joy in worship … sharing joy in friendship … sharing joy while caring for each other in love just as Jesus taught! We actually smile and laugh as we worship God! We know we have something good in Jesus Christ and in this church family!

I think there’s a common misconception out there in the world where the glitter and the reindeer’s lead who has a bright red nose takes control of our seasonal connection … a misconception that I believe has led to empty places called churches … reports that joy is never present… that harsh judgement is a commonality. But truthfully joy is meant to be in church throughout the year and each of us has the chance to experience that joy!

Perhaps it is the candles that brings folks to churches tonight … or it’s remembering again how Luke reports that momentous event of history … “And, there were in the same country shepherds abiding in their fields …” men who had put in a very hard day’s work caring for their precious sheep. I do not find it surprising that those who the angel of the Lord reached out to were shepherds because Jesus was born into this world to serve as a shepherd for you and me. Our caring guide … our loving Lord and Savior … the Prince of Peace who came to bring peace to every human willing to pause … willing to believe. God puts the burden on us to bring peace to the world … to bring peace to our neighborhoods … to bring peace to our social media but Jesus came to bring us the peace you did not find under last year’s Christmas tree and won’t find tomorrow morning under this year’s tree.

So, do you even remember what was under last year’s Christmas tree? You know all those items that you rushed to purchase for someone … the boxes prepared with care at the North Pole. Have any of them had a life impact on you beyond that December 25th calendar date and a few days or weeks after? The starting gift of Christmas can have that lifetime impact … but it’s a gift that requires us to actually leave the streaming services and the minutia of Tik Tok to embrace God … to open up the Gospels where we can read what Jesus said rather than what some politically focused religious type implies is in the Bible. We need to find the everlasting joy … if you have been missing peace in your life … joy because of an inexplicable hope that God provides even in the dark moments in your life … then it is time to embrace the true gift of Christmas not as a burden but as something that will make you want to get up and dance with an energy you had forgotten you had.

In writing the words to the song ‘Believe,’ Paul O’Neill from Trans Siberian Orchestra offers to listeners a 21st century Christmas story that I found even more meaningful over these past 12 months since opening presents under last year’s Christmas Tree. A reflection of God’s gift in Jesus whose presence always matters … as Paul writes,

“I am the way, I am the light … I hear your hopes and feel your dreams. Don’t turn away, just take my hand and when you make your final stand. I will be right there I will never leave and all I ask of you … believe.”

Friends, it’s Christmas Eve … and yes there are trees with presents under them waiting to be opened this evening or tomorrow morning, but will you remember what was under this year’s tree when we gather to sing Silent Night by candlelight next Christmas Eve.

I will guarantee that if you accept the gift of God in Jesus Christ as more than a momentary name to sing about and instead discover THE WAY … THE LIGHT … and I can tell you from personal experience after having moments of screaming in the dark, feeling alone with my heart in hand I realized that Jesus was still there for me. Jesus was still bringing me joy even amidst the sadness and fear … just as He has brought JOY TO THE WORLD since arriving in the manger when there was no room for His poor early family. The shepherds found Him and the angels praised Him as they praised God, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men!”

His birth was a historic moment of joy but God’s gift of Jesus for each of us and for all of humanity is more than a cute manger scene celebrating His birth. God’s Christmas gift that doesn’t require a tree nor packaging is a Savior who can be there bringing you “the fruit of the Spirit, which is love, joy peace, patience, kindness, and much more.” Something we all should strive to have and then celebrate once we have it. With joy!

© 2017- St. Paul's United Methodist Church, West Deptford, NJ