Christmas Eve 2015 Psalm 96 Luke 2: 1-14
Rev. Catherine Purves
Singing a new song is hard, isn’t it? Why would I make you do that on Christmas Eve? We’ve been waiting all through Advent to sing our favorite Christmas carols, songs that we know, old songs that remind us of Christmases past spent with family and the people we love. Why can’t we just sing our old songs? I know that’s what some of you are thinking. I watched you struggling with that new song. In fact, I will probably hear all about it myself later tonight when I get home. Why on earth should we sing a new song on Christmas Eve?
I’m actually quite sympathetic with your reluctance to tackle a new song tonight. Learning new songs is hard for me too, with my one-fingered piano playing and my limited melody-memory. I was even feeling apologetic about asking the choir to learn a new song for tonight. But sometimes the Bible makes demands of all of us, and this is one of those times. There’s just no getting around the words of Psalm 96. “O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.” Sing! Sing a new song.
Most of us came tonight prepared to sing. But why does it have to be a new song? It’s because everything about this night is new! We easily forget that simple fact, because it doesn’t seem new to us. When it comes to Christmas Eve services, we’ve been there, done that. You’re probably even sitting in the same pew you sat in last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. One of the things we most associate with Christmas is the nostalgia we feel for things that are old and familiar. You know that if you’ve ever tried to change the menu for Christmas dinner, or decided to switch from a live tree to an artificial one, or wanted to open presents at a different time of day. No matter how many logical reasons you can come up with for the change, these are traditions! And when it comes to our traditions, we are not inclined to welcome anything that is new.
But here’s a news flash for you. Christmas is not about our sacrosanct traditions. Christmas is not something that is forever the same, or that exists outside of time, like some fossil trapped in amber. It is not a date on the calendar that is celebrated every year with predictable regularity and unchangeable traditions. The fact that, for so many people, Christmas has turned into something like that is biblically inconceivable! This is the absolute opposite of what the first Christmas was and what Christmas should be for us. The problem is that the story is just too familiar, and our carols are too well known, and our traditions are pretty much set in stone. We had to sing a new song today to remind ourselves that what we are celebrating is the fact that God was and is doing a new thing in Jesus Christ.
Do you know where I found our new Christmas song? It was in a small book of worship music that is aptly entitled, Sing a New Creation. Sing a new creation! On the night of Jesus’ birth, the angel and all of the heavenly hosts were singing about something unbelievably new, something that changed everything, something that signaled the beginning of a whole new creation. The angels were not just serenading the birth of Jesus; they were singing a new creation, because nothing less than a new creation was what was happening.
It’s important that we recognize what Luke’s agenda was here in writing the Christmas story in the way that he did. He was not simply preserving a heartwarming tale that could be told to children and grandchildren forever and ever, Amen. He was recording a world-changing event that was unique in all history. He was proclaiming the newness and the power of what God had done. God had acted in the most unexpected way possible, and nothing would ever be the same again. Luke was setting the story of Jesus’ birth in a cosmic context and in a specific historical context so that we would recognize that it was actually the hinge of all history. There was a B.C. before it and an A.D. after it.
Obviously, this isn’t a timeless story for Luke; it occurred at a particular, pivotal point in history. Luke carefully records that the birth of Jesus happened when Augustus was the emperor of Rome and Quirinius was governor of Syria; it happened at the time of a census; it happened where no one would have expectedly it, in a little backwater town a few miles from Jerusalem; it happened in a place reserved for livestock; it happened in the dead of night; it happened under a sky filled with singing angels; and the place was marked by a brilliantly shining star. Unlike our repeated annual celebrations of Christmas, there was nothing ‘same old, same old’ about the actual birth of Jesus. And the song that the angels sang was all about the newness of what God had done. It was, and it had to be, a new song that they sang, because this was the beginning, this was the start, of a new future for all people.
Christmas should always be a forward-looking celebration for us. The emotions that Luke wrote into his account of the birth should project us into the future, not drag us backward in nostalgic recollection. Awe, fear, wonder, curiosity, joy – these are emotions that open up new possibilities and that promise a surprising future. Who could know what God would do through this miraculous birth? This was only the beginning, and the principal characters in the story would have to wait and see how it would unfold in a way that would change them and change all of history. But that night they could sense the newness of it, and so with awe and fear, wonder and curiosity, and with joy and a new song they welcomed God’s future as the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
We can’t let our Christmas traditions and celebrations function like an anchor when they were meant to serve as a catapult. The old, old story was supposed to open us up to a new, new future. We can’t do that if we’re only looking backward at a tiny manger scene, hazy and dim in the distant past. The manger scene that Luke so carefully described for us should entice us to ask, “And what is that God doing now?” “What surprising thing will God do next?” “How can we be part of that?” The new future that began in Bethlehem is still unfolding today, and we are called to be part of that future. But we have to be willing to sing a new song, to move forward, and to welcome what God has in store for us.
Some of you probably know the story of Coventry Cathedral in England. Andrew and I visited it several years ago when I was on a sabbatical. There have been three cathedrals in Coventry in the past 1,000 years. The second, a vast medieval church, was destroyed by incendiary bombs during World War II, along with most of the city. But rather than looking backward in regret and despair, memorializing what they remembered of their lost cathedral, the members of the Coventry community looked forward and decided to build a new, modern cathedral next to the ruins of the old. As a symbol of their future hope, they commissioned a huge tapestry to be made depicting Christ in Glory as the ruler of the universe. The tapestry hangs over the altar and it measures 75 feet by 38 feet, the size of a tennis court. It is the largest tapestry ever woven in one piece. It took ten years to make, and it weighs just over a ton.
Standing before this magnificent tapestry of Christ in Glory, with the ruins of the old cathedral behind you, it is impossible not to be drawn into God’s victorious future. The ruins of the past are not an anchor. The tapestry is a catapult into God’s future. It is so glorious, so powerful, so full of promise. And it is SO big. At the very bottom of the tapestry, in between the massive feet of Jesus, a small man is depicted looking up at the magnificent reigning Christ. It puts everything in a new, different perspective. And standing there yourself, looking up, with the victorious Christ towering over you, the future suddenly looks so big and bright and new. This is why that baby was born in Bethlehem, not so that we could commemorate the event year after year after year, but so that the world could be thrust into that future. Seeing the Christ of Glory, you are forced to ask, “What is this God doing now?” “What surprising thing will God do next?” and “How can I be part of that?”
This Christmas, let’s not look backward, singing our familiar old songs, and clinging to the past. Let us instead look to God’s future, and sing a new song. It is the bright, big, glorious future of Christ’s reign that we must sing about now, a new creation that began with the surprising and world-changing birth of the Son of God. Sing that new song!
Glory to God
whose power, working in us,
can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine:
Glory to him
from generation to generation in the Church,
and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.