Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Christmas Playlist

In Nomine Iesu
St. Luke 2:1-20
December 24, 2011
Christmas Eve

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus~

Do you have an i-pod? I-pods (and other such devices) have revolutionized the way people listen to music. With i-pods, you pick the songs, you create the playlist, and (because i-pods are so small) you can listen to your favorite tunes almost anywhere at anytime.

The most extensive playlist on my i-pod is my Christmas playlist—nearly seventy songs. I’ve been listening to it a lot lately. But it’s more than just a bunch of songs that I like. These songs have meaning for me. They connect me with my past, reminding me of people, places and stories drawn from a lifetime of Christmases. The voice of Nat King Cole takes me back to an old 8-track tape my parents played when I was little. The piano artistry of George Winston takes me back to college days and still defines the sound of December for me. I first heard the Christmas music of Chanticleer while driving sixty miles one Christmas Day to serve a vacancy on the frozen tundra of South Dakota. The glories of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio connect me with the best of all things German and Lutheran. The Christmas improvisations of Paul Manz taught me to treasure our hymnody. And the stylings of Benjamin Culli are a recent addition to the Christmas playlist, reminding me of blessings we enjoy here and now at Our Savior.

That Christmas playlist grounds me. It connects me with my past, inspires my present efforts, and propels me into the future with hope. That Christmas playlist orients me and sets me straight. Those familiar sounds somehow seem to put all of life in the proper perspective.

God’s Word in Luke chapter two does all of that and more. The familiar sounds of the Christmas Gospel in Luke chapter two are something like a playlist inspired by God. And just like your favorite musical playlist, Luke chapter 2 contains no surprises. You know these lyrics by heart—the people, the places, the story of Jesus’ birth. You didn’t come here tonight expecting to hear anything new, novel or surprising. But don’t underestimate the power of this Christmas playlist from Luke chapter two. For it’s been designed by God to ground you, to connect you with your past, to inspire your present efforts, and send you into the future with hope. This Christmas playlist orients you. It sets you straight. It never fails to put your life in the proper perspective.

God’s Christmas playlist actually begins on a rather secular note: It seems that the government wanted more taxes. And there’s nothing new about that, is there? The government—whether in Rome or Washington or Madison—is always glad to help themselves to more of your money. Nothing is as sure, they say, as death and taxes. But before taxes could be assessed, people and property had to be counted up by means of a census. Thus Caesar Augustus, the most powerful man in the world, was instrumental in fulfilling Micah’s prophecy about the Savior’s birth in Bethlehem—which was the ancestral town of a poor carpenter named Joseph. Behind the politics and partisanship—despite the powerplays of the powerful—God was at work to save you. God’s Christmas playlist reminds me of that—even as the powerful and the partisan continue to plot and plan.

From there, this playlist gets personal. Imagine the heart-breaking plight of Mary and Joseph. Imagine journeying the 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem while Mary was great with child. Imagine the loneliness and fear they must have felt. There was no one to empathize—no one to sympathize—not even a distant relative of Joseph’s would offer them a place to stay in Bethlehem. Only the angels knew what a burden Mary and Joseph were bearing. I suspect you also are bearing a few burdens this Christmas. Sometimes loneliness is felt most acutely at this time of year. For all of us there are times when it seems like we are laboring all alone with no one to empathize—no one to sympathize.

But God’s Christmas playlist reminds us that our feelings of loneliness aren’t quite accurate. The reality is that you don’t bear your burdens alone. Though your friends may desert you and your family may disown you, [and people may mock you because you confess that Jesus Christ is Lord], your God sent His Son to stand shoulder to shoulder with you so that you might cast all of your burdens on Him—because He cares for you. Mary and Joseph no doubt felt all alone, but they weren’t. And neither are you. You have a Savior who knows you, and loves you. God’s Christmas playlist reminds me of that.

That playlist takes an ominous turn with those terrible two words: “no room.” There was no room for them in the inn. Those two words are ominous and terrible because they also describe our hearts—cold, calloused, loveless and stony—with no room for Jesus. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Each of us, in a multitude of ways, by what we have done and by what we have left undone—we have all lived as if we have no room for Jesus in our lives. No room for His Word. No room for His commands. No room for His promises. No room for the people He gives us to comfort and love. With Grinch-like efficiency—like the notorious inn-keeper of Bethlehem—we have refused to make room for the Savior in our busy, complicated lives. We need to admit that sin. We need to repent of that sin. For we can’t properly celebrate the birth of a Savior from sin if we are unwilling to see ourselves as poor, miserable sinners. God’s Christmas playlist reminds me of that.

At the heart of this playlist are these angelic words: “A Savior has been born to you.” This gets us right to the heart of Christmas. The baby in the manger is your Savior. He came to save His people from their sins. He came to destroy death, and bring life and immortality to light. He was born to die for our sins, and rise again to bring us resurrection life. He is your Savior from death. Christmas is a time when we feel the sting of death most acutely—a time when we deeply miss those who have departed this life in peace. Sometimes those tears and that sadness are seen as an intrusion on what’s supposed to be the hap-happiest season of all. But I say, blessed are those who mourn at Christmas, for behind those tears you truly know and recognize the reason for the season—the meaning of the manger: Light and life to all He brings, ris’n with healing in His wings. Mild He lays His glory by, Born that man no more may die. Life that lasts forever is the Savior’s Christmas gift to you. And it IS a gift. There’s no one good enough to deserve it. And no one is so bad as to be ineligible. Whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. “A Savior has been born to you.” God’s Christmas playlist reminds me of that.

If God’s Christmas playlist has a bit of a honky-tonk twang sound to it, well, that’s because of the shepherds. Although we’ve got some rather romanticized notions about these shepherds, the truth is that the trailer park was probably too good for them. Their church attendance was notoriously bad. They were probably into things like drinking and swearing and carousing—which is information we generally don’t share with first-grade boys when we dress them up at Christmas and say, “Here, be a shepherd.”

But the shepherds from this Christmas playlist have three things going for them: They heard the good news. They believed the good news. And they went to see and hear for themselves their newly mangered Savior. “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this,” they exclaimed. Wouldn’t it be great to retrace the shepherd’s steps from that night as they made their way to the manger? You can, you know. Only you don’t have to go as far as Bethlehem. You can just show up here. Here we’ve got something better than the manger and the swaddling clothes. Here we have the power of God in the preaching of His promises. Here we have the Savior’s real presence, under bread and wine, giving you the faith and forgiveness you need all year long. Be like a shepherd, and let your feet carry you here and see these things which will come to pass in this place. God’s Christmas playlist reminds me of that.

I’ll play my personal Christmas playlist for the next twelve days. But right about Epiphany the music of this playlist will fade away. Then it’s back to real life again—anticipation gone, replaced with the daily grind of vocational responsibilities. But God’s Christmas playlist is preparing you for January too—and for February, March, and April. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. The shepherds returned. To what did they return? They returned to being shepherds—returned to the unglamorous daily grind of stinky, dumb sheep. You too will return to your unglamorous daily grind.

It will be the same daily grind, but you won’t be the same at all. For God’s Christmas playlist will have had its way with you. You’ll be more grounded in the grace of God, more connected with your past, more inspired for your present efforts, and propelled toward the future with hope in your Savior. With God’s Christmas playlist echoing in your heart, you will be rightly oriented, set straight, with a perspective of praise for just how much God loves you. He is so pleased with you for the sake of His dear Son. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men. Amen.

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