Good News of Great Joy for Difficult Times

The year 2020 will be remembered throughout history as the year of the global pandemic. Who would have imagined 10 months ago that we would have 320,000 COVID deaths in America, 1.7 million deaths from this virus worldwide. And what about the economic fall out that has impacted the lives of millions and millions, from lost jobs to lost businesses to a tenuous future. Every day we watch the 24/7 news cycle and see a society filled with confusion and confused priorities. Not only disease and death. Corruption. Greed. Violence. Hatred. Divisiveness. Fear. Anxiety. The future surely seems uncertain, and yet, every generation has faced similar darkness.

In many ways, our world is not so different from the world into which Mary and Joseph welcomed the newborn Jesus. Last night Pres. Faith and I watched the movie The Nativity Story. It’s a beautiful rendition of the first Christmas which portrays the harsh reality into which Jesus was born 2000 years ago. In the opening scene, Herod’s soldiers are racing through Bethlehem with orders to kill all the children two years old or under. Unprepared villagers have no defense as soldiers go from house to house with swords drawn and mothers screaming. What horror and evil, and yet, we can look on the internet and find similar atrocities around the world.

In another scene, Herod’s soldiers enter the village of Nazareth to collect taxes for the Romans and for themselves. When one family can’t pay their taxes, the soldiers brutally take their daughter and say that she will pay their taxes by becoming a slave. There’s little the villagers can do. Yes, they could try to revolt against this injustice but the Romans mercilessly crucified rebels and quickly squelched any rebellion. 

Jesus was born in a world under oppression, where half of the Roman empire were slaves. He lived in a simple village on the edge of poverty. With an infant child, Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt as refugees. The life of a first century Jew was surely one of uncertainty, poverty, confusion, anxiety and fear, much greater than even our own today.

This may not seem like a great way to begin a Christmas sermon because too many have turned Christmas into toys and presents and children’s wonder. Too many focus Christmas on family gatherings together and shared fellowship, even if COVID will limit. Christmas, however, should be about God’s shocking intervention in a dark and hopeless world. His coming, His Incarnation changed the world for all those who choose to follow Him! Christmas is all about “Good News of Great Joy” that a newborn Savior brings into the world!

Precisely because of this, it’s OK to begin a sermon by confronting the harsh reality in which we find ourselves today. For the Christmas Story isn’t simply a cute little make-believe fairy tale about Santa and gifts, but it is the astonishing, earth-shattering event in history that has a profound and concrete message for the crisis we face today.

Within that gloomy darkness and uncertainty of this pandemic and all the injustice we see in the world, the angels come to the shepherds crying out, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good NEWS of great joy which will be for all people. For there is born for you this day a Savior, who is Christ the Lord… Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace and good will towards all!”

The Jews waited for centuries for the coming of their Messiah. They waited under great oppression and terrible injustice. They waited in poverty and hunger. They waited in confusion and extreme fear. They waited for centuries, yet they never lost hope! God promised a Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One to come and usher in the reign of a new kingdom. So, they waited in faith and with hope despite the world’s darkness.

The event of Christmas heralded good news to all who waited. As St. Paul explained in today’s Epistle reading, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under that law, that we may receive adoption as His children!” The fullness of time had come, and God decisively acted by inviting us to become His children!

In times of uncertainty and fear, like times of today, Christmas reminds us that God has not forgotten us, nor has He abandoned us. Actually, God has come to us, and even become one of us! The incomprehensible mystery of our faith is how Almighty God, the Eternal One, the Creator of heaven and earth accepted to become a defenseless little child and entered a fallen world where evil prevailed. He tasted life as a desperate refugee, as a poor villager, as a part of an oppressed people. He witnessed the suffering of the masses from the greed and vanity of a few. He faced violence, oppression, and even death itself. Our God understands the darkness and evil of our world because He experienced it, He lived it, He suffered it, yet ultimately, He overcame it!

Christmas is about “good news of great joy” – and the good news is that Jesus not only showed us the way to live under a different reign than the kingdom of this world, but He also promised to walk with us, to be in us, and to help us live a divine path in life. While others choose to live in greed, He showed us how to live in love and charity. While others choose to live under the delusion of worldly power and temporary authority, He showed us how to live in simplicity and humility. While others choose to live under hatred and vengeance and violence, He showed us how to live with mercy and grace and forgiveness. While others choose to live under the fear of death, He showed us how to live life to its fullest, never fearing death, because He defeated death for us, and we know that death is not the end!

The “good news of great joy” that Christmas brings is nothing less than a new way of living, a new way of becoming truly human in the deepest sense of the word. The Christian path means becoming human as Jesus was human – lifting humanity to a new level, the original level it was meant to be lived. St. Athanasios summed this up by saying, “God became human so that we may become godlike.” God became one of us, so that we could unite with Him and live in Him!

This is the sweeping change that Christmas brought into the world. When people ask, “What difference did the coming of Jesus have on the world? After the coming of Christ, we still have violence, abuse, corruption, greed, disease, and death. The world is still full of darkness.” Well, that’s not completely true for those who allow the newborn Messiah to be born anew in our hearts and lives. We aren’t overwhelmed by the darkness of the world. We are filled with the light of God. Our worldview is full of joy, wonder, and love. Christmas opens up for us who truly understand it a life of divine love, of mercy and forgiveness, of humility and service, of meaning and purpose, a life filled with light and hope!

Of course, this path of allowing Christ to dwell in our lives and following His path is not necessarily easy! It is a way that begins in a humble, dark cave in a simple manger, it continues in a life of sacrificial service to others throughout our lives, and ultimately ends with denying ourselves and dying on a Cross. Yet when we choose to walk this narrow and difficult path with Christ, we are choosing to live with the Christmas spirit of Good News of Great Joy! We choose to live a life of wonder and joy because we will miraculously be transformed by the truth that “God is with us.” As Archbishop Anastasios writes, “our lives will be transfigured in a joyous feast breathing and moving in the atmosphere that “God is with us.””

No matter what the internet says, and no matter what’s happening in our country or in the world around us, don’t be anxious or afraid. The feast of Christmas proclaims loudly that God has acted decisively in the world, and when we choose – and it’s up to us – when we choose to live under His reign and in His kingdom, than we can be assured that our lives will be filled with light and hope and joy regardless of any darkness in the world!

Christ is Born! Glorify Him! A blessed Christmas to you all!

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