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12.24.17 Christmas Eve Prayers and Message, Beware of Resolutions

by on December 27, 2017

Lord, as we gather on this dark and frigid night, we remember that it was also at night that you assembled the first small community of witnesses. The promise to generations of people, and your gift to the rest of the world, was about to be born. Amidst an industry too busy to offer adequate hospitality, you came to weary travelers and rugged shepherds. And even as we huddle together in the shadow of the earth, we come to receive and bear witness to the Christ in whom we see your life and light. Bless us this night, we pray, through the presence of your Spirit, that our remembrance of him in this time and place will call and transform us as his disciples, and that we may carry your life and light into the deserted places and lonely lives of all who need you. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Walking in darkness can lead to some pretty dark resolutions. Joseph was someone who found himself in darkness. Engaged to be married to Mary, he probably had a light in his eyes as he thought about it. Then suddenly he discovers that Mary is pregnant, and not by him.

Joseph begins to deliberate. He cares about Mary. He doesn’t want to expose her to public disgrace. But he has to keep his righteous reputation intact. He can’t go through with it. So out of this dark turn of events, after prayerful consideration, he resolves to “dismiss Mary quietly.”

Walking in darkness can lead to some pretty dark resolutions. Maybe you’ve been walking in darkness lately. Darkness descends upon our lives in lots of ways. I hear about them as a pastor:

  • The workplace that suddenly doesn’t need you anymore
  • The job you once loved but now is just a routine chore
  • The relationship that ends, leaving a gaping wound in your chest
  • The death of a loved one, leaving a vacancy in your future
  • The betrayal of a friend that makes you question your judgment
  • The loss of faith that disorients your life
  • A change in your health that makes mortality all too real

Yes, darkness can descend in a life in many ways. And it can last a long time.

The passages of scripture and carols we sing on Christmas Eve are realistic about this darkness. (See below for a list.) The words may be culturally or historically specific, but the metaphor of the darkness is the same. We don’t “carry yokes” anymore, for example, but we do sense a heaviness about us. We still need relief from our responsibilities. We sing with unwelcome familiarity about our longing for the “Dayspring to disperse the gloomy clouds of night.”

We’d love to see a fresh, new sprout appear in the dead stump of our national politics. We long for the broken to be healed, for the dry desert to blossom, for the long dark night to be broken by dawn.

To put it in less metaphorical terms, but every bit as biblical, we all yearn for the “offness” of the world to be set right. Or for what the Bible calls, with a great deal of gravity, the “deliverance from sin.”

This longing is actually what Christmas is all about. But we’ve been walking in darkness so long, things have become so confusing and so confounding that maybe we’ve made resolutions. Or perhaps we find ourselves in a state of resignation.

We don’t know Mary’s state of soul when the Angel Gabriel appeared to her. But as a 14 year old arranged to marry Joseph—an arrangement resolved at a level of negotiation much higher than she—she might have felt some resignation.

We do know that as a Jew in 1st century Palestine she would have felt the darkness of being in an occupied state. (Not much has change for those living in 21st century Palestine.)

Perhaps she made a resolution: To live as normal a life as possible, just be good wife in the ancient world—supportive of her husband, bearing children, and managing the home.

Then Christmas came and challenged all that. Luke tells us she was “perplexed” by the angel’s greeting. Mary exhibits fear. She is forced to ask questions. Beware of Resolutions.

The Shepherds might have had resolutions. They were a marginalized segment of society—nobodies, really. Like Mary, they may have resolved just to live their lives.

Then Christmas came and challenged all that. They were terrified when the angels appear. But they explore the good news they had heard, and in faith, they found it to be true! Sure, they returned to shepherding, but the story says they shared their amazement with everyone, glorifying and praising God. I bet shepherding wasn’t quite the same after that. Beware of resolutions.

And then there’s Joseph, a righteous and compassionate man. A man of deliberation and discernment. “Just when he had resolved” to dismiss Mary, Christmas came and challenged all that.

“Do not be afraid,” the angel says. Fear is the first and common response of everyone when Christmas challenges our resolutions. One of the reasons we make resolutions is to try to control situations outside our control. When Christmas challenges our resolutions, fear resurfaces. But the good and challenging news of Christmas is exactly about those fears.

“Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. The unexpected challenge, the child conceived in her, is of the Holy Spirit. Give him the name Jesus which means ‘savior,’ for he will save the people from their sin—from the worlds ‘offness,’ from the darkness, from the fear.”

And then Matthew tells us that this has been God’s plan all along! He interprets the prophet Isaiah’s promise of hope, “The virgin will conceive and bear a son and they will call him Emmanuel which means ‘God is with us.’”

And there it is—the challenge of Christmas: Jesus is the Savior, and he is God with us. Salvation is not evacuation from the darkness—it is companionship through the darkness. This is how we know God loves us, not that he removes us from darkness but that he enters it. God comes to us in unexpected places like Bethlehem, to unexpected people like Mary, Joseph, and the Shepherds, in unexpected times, like when we’ve made our resolutions. That’s how we know it is God. That’s how we know God loves us. That’s how we know salvation, because a loving God is with us.

Sin and sorrow and thorns grow no more. Heaven and earth can sing. Fields, floods, rocks, hills, and plains join in. The curse of darkness has been answered with the blessing of light.

Beware of resolutions. Christmas has come and challenged all that.

God of Creation, who ordained the dawn of the sun to break earlier and earlier this week, that your people in the earth’s northern hemisphere would not despair of darkness but remember the light, we thank you for the wisdom of the church in placing the celebration of Christ’s birth at this time also. We praise you that we also may pause and reflect upon his advent, especially at a time in our world where darkness seems so prevalent. We hear of wars and rumors of wars. We witness natural destruction through fire and water. We watch as your name is taken in vain to bless consumerism, oppression, and nationalism. We come to you in prayer, confident that such darkness cannot overcome your light. We come to you in the name of Jesus Christ.

We need the hope of your light, just as you promised the people of Ancient Israel. As did they, so we also need your deliverance. From enslavement to our work and the perfectionism of our culture, deliver us. From the hurts and injuries in our past, deliver us. From the fear of death and the anxiety over our future, deliver us. Through the grief accompanying loss, deliver us. In the tears of our afflictions, deliver us. From the hands of our oppressors, whether physical, spiritual, mental, or emotional, deliver us.

For those who suffer this night, from ill health or poverty or war, we pray the blessing of your presence. For those who are alone or lonely, we pray the blessing of your presence. For those who labor this night for the good of others, we pray the blessing of your presence. For those who are serving in harm’s way, we pray the blessing of your presence. For those whose faith is waning, we pray the blessing of your presence. For all who, in the limits and weakness of their humanity, do not know to reach out to you, and for those who do, we pray the blessing of your presence.

Scripture passages and carols from the Glory to God hymnal: O Come, All Ye Faithful GTG 133; Isaiah 9:2-7; O Come, O Come, Emmanuel GTG 88, vs. 1, 6, 7; Isaiah 11:1-5; Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus GTG 82; Isaiah 35:1-6; Awake! Awake, and Greet the New Morn GTG 107, vs. 1, 3, 4; Haggai 2:6-9; Matthew 1:18-25; On Christmas Night All Christians Sing GTG 112; Luke 1:26-35, 38; Luke 2:1-15; Love Has Come GTG 110; Silent Night; Joy to the World GTG 134.

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