“O Holy Night” (Luke 2:1-20)

The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Eve
Saturday, December 24, 2022

“O Holy Night” (Luke 2:1-20)

It’s Christmas Eve! A night to celebrate. A holy night. For on Christmas Eve we start our annual celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Tonight we hear again the familiar Christmas Gospel. We sing the Christmas carols. We light the candles. This is a night to gather here in church with our family and to celebrate as a church family. It is a holy night indeed. And so our theme this evening: “O Holy Night.”

But imagine for a moment that instead of coming here, you went out to a place where shepherds are keeping watch over their flock by night. You can’t see any Christmas lights out there. You can’t hear any Christmas music. You walk out into the field where the shepherds are. The night is quiet and still. It’s a clear, cold night, and you can see your breath.

Now suppose one of those shepherds comes over and asks you, “What kind of a night do you see here, as you look around at these fields and hills?” Your response might be: “Well, it’s certainly a beautiful night under these stars. It’s rather quiet and still out here on this peaceful night.” But now, if you ask the shepherd what kind of a night it is, he would say, “Oh, it’s just a normal, ordinary night, a lot like last night, a night like every night out here is.”

Just an ordinary night. Not a holy night. Nothing holy or special about that night. Just a common, ordinary night, no different from a thousand before it. Shepherds are out tending their flocks. Cattle are lowing in the distance. Nothing special. Nothing holy. Or so it seemed.

But then, what is so holy about this night? Because tonight, as on all other nights of the year, the same sorts of things are going on. Old men aching with arthritis. Mothers’ hearts are breaking over the loss of a child. Parents worry about the direction their teenagers are taking in life. A man lies on his bed, alone, his mind racing, because his wife left him and has filed for divorce. An old woman struggles to get her breath. Little ones get under the covers and go to sleep. No, this night is no different.

Young women lay their babies in cradles or cribs and sing lullabies to them. One woman has to lay her baby in a make-do manger. Meanwhile, the Caesars and the Herods of this world do not sleep the sweet slumber of children. They bear the weight of power, and some of them yield to the corruption that power can bring with it. Really, what is so different or holy about this night?

In beds across the land–be it a shepherd’s bundle on a hillside, a sickbed in a hospital, or a twin bed in a hotel room–people think, as they fall asleep. For some, their thoughts are about what they have done and how they have messed up. Then they think of God, and what God must think of them, seeing as how we can’t hide anything from him.

This is the Law at work in a human conscience. And the Law of God accuses. It accuses shepherds and innkeepers, carpenters and kings. It accuses fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, grandmas and grandpas–even little children. God’s law accuses you and me and the person sitting next to you in the pew. God has written his law in human hearts to let us know that we are sinners. We need a better kind of righteousness than what we can come up with. God’s commandments are holy, but we are not. We all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. And the Lord, who does not grade on a curve, declares that the wages of sin is death.

And so death comes on this night, just as on other nights of the year. An auto accident takes a life. Cancer consumes one person here; a heart attack, another there. Like Marley’s ghost rattling his chains, death comes calling on Christmas Eve.

We are like people sitting in great darkness, as we ask the shepherd, “Is it really a holy night?” And the shepherd replies, “You know, you’re right. It doesn’t feel like such a holy night to me, either.” And as the chill deepens in this first watch of the night, there is nothing out of the ordinary.

But, oh, holy night! Back in town, in Bethlehem, a carpenter helps his bride, great with child, to a place where animals have stood and fed. There the virgin Mary, who had conceived in her womb by the Holy Spirit, now gives birth to the Son of God. This is a holy night, after all! This young woman, the handmaiden of the Lord, gives birth to the Messiah. She takes her newborn son, wraps him in swaddling cloths, and lays him in a manger. O holy night! The Christ, the Messiah promised of old, is born. Christ, who will live to fulfill the Law in our place–Jesus, the Lamb of God, who will die to take our punishment under the Law–Christ our Savior is born! What a holy night it is!

But those shepherds out in the field–they don’t know this yet. They don’t know that it’s a holy night at all. To them, this is just another common, ordinary night out in the Judean hills. Nothing special.

But now in the deep darkness of the night, the word comes to the shepherds and to you. God wants you also to hear and believe the good news. Heaven itself is filled with joy, as the Lord God Almighty sends his messenger to proclaim the gospel, to shepherds in the field and to people in the pews. “Fear not, for I bring you good news of great joy. To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Now the shepherds know, and now we know, that this is a holy night!

Suddenly there is with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!” Now heaven and nature sing for joy! Now angels and archangels and all the company of heaven laud and magnify God’s holy name. Now, by the Holy Spirit working through the Word, you and I believe that this little baby, lying in an animals’ feed trough, is the Christ, the very Son of God and the Savior of the world.

What happens next? What did the people do on this holy night? Well, let’s see. The carpenter, Joseph, beholds his Savior and wonders what raising this child will entail. The shepherds go to Bethlehem to see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to them. The innkeeper tends to a full house. Herod the Great will remain in power in Jerusalem, and Caesar Augustus in Rome. The angels return to heaven and await further orders. All who hear the shepherds’ story wonder at what they are told. And Mary keeps all these things, pondering them in her heart.

This gospel of God comforts shepherds and virgins and innkeepers, all who receive God’s gifts of repentance and faith in Christ, whether they are carpenters or kings. This good news brings comfort and joy to you and me and the person sitting next to you in the pew. The gospel brings healing and love and forgiveness to grandmas and grandpas, moms and dads, little girls and boys. God’s gift to all of us is his holy Son, our Savior. He is the best Christmas present of all, for the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. And that is what makes this night so holy.

So what are people doing on this holy night? Let’s see. Old men with arthritis still ache, but they know that the sufferings of this present age are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed. The mother grieving the loss of a child, amid her pain, trusts in the one who has promised, “I will turn your mourning into joy, I will comfort you and give you gladness in place of sorrow.” Parents pray for their teenagers, confident that the Lord will hear their prayer and answer as he sees best. The lonely man lying in bed remembers that the Lord will never forsake him and will help him to forgive. The old woman uses her last breath to say, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.” Little children snuggle in their beds, with visions of sugar plums and presents under the tree dancing in their heads, but they also know that baby Jesus is the greatest gift of all.

And on this holy night, we and the shepherds will return, glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen, just as it has been told us. Oh, Holy Night!

Published in: on December 24, 2022 at 11:34 am  Leave a Comment  
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