Christmas Eve Service
Good evening. Welcome to Central Baptist Church, a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ. I am so glad you have joined us this Christmas Eve. You couldn’t have picked a better night to be here. We’re going to celebrate the joy of the season for about thirty minutes tonight and then we’ll all get out of here to enjoy Christmas Eve dinner with our families. In case I don’t already have the pleasure of knowing you, my name is Jonathan Waits and I’m the pastor here at Central. Let me share with you for just a minute where we’re going tonight so you know what to expect and then we’ll go there together.
For the past few weeks, during what is traditionally called the season of Advent, we have been working through a series on Sunday mornings called “God Moved into the Neighborhood.” The whole idea of this series has been that when our world was broken beyond the ability to repair itself, God moved into the neighborhood in the person of Jesus Christ in order to transform it to once again have the glory it was always designed to bear. We’ve done this in part by working through the introduction to Jesus’ close friend, John’s, memoir of his time with Him. This magnificent piece of Scripture revealed that Jesus was God, that He came to shine light on this world in order that we might see it more clearly, that if we walk in His light we will become fully ourselves, and that His ultimate gift to us is knowledge of God. In unpacking all these marvelous truths, however, I intentionally skipped over one that is perhaps most marvelous of all. It’s phrasing in the Message translation of John is actually where I got the title for the whole series. Listen to how John puts this in v. 14: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son. Generous inside and out, true from start to finish.”
This is one of the greatest summary statements out there on the incredible doctrine that theologians call the Incarnation and which we celebrate at Christmas. Christmas is actually the celebration of a theological doctrine, how about that? It is this great truth that I want to celebrate with you tonight. The fact that God didn’t abandon us to our own sinful devices but instead moved into the neighborhood, not to condemn, but to save it, should be for all people a point of great joy. As the angel declared to the shepherds, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” Tonight we are going to delight in this joy. We are going to do so with the song most appropriately named for this occasion as our guide: “Joy to the World! The Lord is Come.” We will hear each of the verses in turn and then we will sing them as we close our time here.
Let us begin, though, where the world was when this joy dawned: locked in sin. Paul declared to the Christians in ancient Rome that Christ came for us while we were still sinners. The world was mired in sin; the neighborhood was broken in every way. It was into this world that the Savior, the joy of the world, came. To help us start here, we’re going to sing a song whose words were written by the famous poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. One Christmas Eve he was home with his family doing some final decorating. While he was in the next room his wife and daughter were hanging some things around the living room. Unbeknownst to her, his wife’s dress had brushed against a candle and caught fire. By the time their daughter screamed her mother’s dress was nearly engulfed in flames. Longfellow ran into the room and threw a carpet over his wife to suffocate the flames. Unfortunately, instead of putting the fire out it acted like an accelerant, spreading the fire all over both of them. By the time he bustled them both out into the snow she had burned to death and he was badly burned himself. To make matters worse, the Civil War broke out the next year and his oldest son secretly joined the Union Army and was grievously wounded in a battle. Longfellow, a committed Christian, had all but given up on Christmas joy when the ringing of the Christmas morning church bells reminded him afresh that God had indeed moved into the neighborhood. It was out of this grief-turned-joy that he wrote what we now know as “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Let us sing with joy this great reminder that the world was broken, but God was not finished. Stand and find hymn 187 with me.
Sing: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (187)
God moved into the neighborhood, part 1: He’s here! Let’s rejoice!
When our world was broken, God moved into the neighborhood. The Light of the World began to shine. Let us rejoice together:
Joy to the world! the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
and heaven and nature sing.
Listen to how this happened:
READ LUKE 2:1-20
Prayer: Incarnate God we thank you that 2,000 years ago you “moved into the neighborhood.” Tonight as we gather here as a family ahead of our own family gatherings, we pause amid the hustle and bustle of the season to remember and give thanks for your entrance into this world. Help us take the truth and the power of the incarnation into our hearts this evening so that we can live as an incarnational people—bringing the light of Christ to our world—every day of our lives. It is in your name we ask this. Amen.
When God moved into the neighborhood He came to bring us light and life. Let’s sing of this together. Stand and find hymn 183.
Sing: Good Christian Men, Rejoice (183)
God moved into the neighborhood, part 2: Creation is singing the news!
When God moved into the neighborhood, all the heavenly hosts and even creation itself was poised to join in the song of celebration. Proclaim with me the great news:
Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns;
Let men their song employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
repeat the sounding joy.
Hear a story about this:
READ LUKE 19:28-40
When God moved into the neighborhood He set about transforming it by freeing us from sin that we might be fully ourselves. Sing of this with me in hymn 188
Sing: It Came Upon a Midnight Clear (188)
God moved into the neighborhood, part 3: The transformation has begun.
When God moved into the neighborhood, His plan was to restore not only creation, but you and me to our intended glory. Let us announce this restoration together:
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
far as the curse is found.
Listen to how we got into this mess and how God’s work in the neighborhood will undo it:
READ GENESIS 3:17-19 and REVELATION 21:1-5
When God moved into the neighborhood, perhaps the most important thing He came to do, the thing that enabled us to receive the rest, was help us to know God. Let us now sing together of the angels’ announcement of this great joy in hymn 192.
Sing: Hark! the Herald Angels Sing (192)
God moved into the neighborhood, part 4: God Himself is here among us.
When God moved into the neighborhood He helped us understand that our God is a God of truth and grace. Proclaim this truth with me:
He rules the world with truth and grace
and makes the nations prove
the glories of His righteousness,
and wonders of His love.
All this month we have been working through this idea that when our world was broken, God moved into the neighborhood. Tonight I want to reflect on the magnificence of this truth with you for a few minutes. Hear again how John puts this truth: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, generous inside and out, true from start to finish.”
Have you ever started working on something only to watch it become a train wreck right in front of your eyes? I am a details guy. I really enjoy doing projects that involve a lot of careful detail work. One particular type of project that fits this mold is cross-stitching. When you cross stich you have to be really careful to count your squares just right and if you miss even the smallest detail the picture really doesn’t work. Well, when I was growing up I got into cross-stitching for a while. I did a couple of small, easy projects and had a lot of fun with them. This, however, only served to give me a little too much confidence. I talked my mom into getting me a much larger, more complex project to try. She successfully talked me out of two or three before I convinced her to get one. I started it just like the others and was doing fine. But then I hit a snag. I had missed a count somewhere along the way and the picture was off. I took a few minutes and undid the several rows I already had in place and started over again. In the process, though, I missed another spot and didn’t notice…until much later. I let it go because it was going to be way too much work to try and fix it, but the perfectionist in me couldn’t look away from the glaring mistake. Eventually, I made another mistake. Then another. Then another. And gradually it became clear that this project was not going to work out. I had a really grand vision for it, but it was not living up to that vision. It was a train wreck. I had two choices: go through the painstaking process of scrubbing the whole thing clean and starting over; or throw the thing away and buy another one. I’m not a terribly patient person now and I only had about a quarter of the patience then that I do now so, yeah, I went with the second option. But, I was working with a $15-20 piece of woven cloth, thread, and a needle. It was cheap stuff and in the long run it really didn’t matter if I threw it away. Investing the amount of myself in that project that it would have taken to get it just right would not have been a wise use of my time…or so I thought then anyway.
But what about if you are dealing with a human train wreck. I know of a couple whose son was really a model kid the whole time he was growing up. He was active in their church, polite, a great student. He went off to college and started studying nuclear engineering. He even had gotten some interest from the Navy. His path really was wide open with possibilities. But then they started getting some reports that he was engaging in some pretty self-destructive behavior. They heard stories of substance abuse. And then he disappeared for a week. Nobody knew where he was. He eventually turned up several hundred miles from where anybody expected him to be. His life was becoming a total train wreck. What do you do then? Do you throw him away like a cheap cross-stitch kit? Or do you start investing in him to help him straighten his life out again. What would you do if he were your son? This couple took the second option. They got him in a treatment program. He did okay for a while until he fell off the wagon again. Then he disappeared for a while again. He threatened suicide a few times. He attempted a time or two. They made mad dashes of hundreds of miles to get to him before he could do something he couldn’t undo. He spent some time in jail. They got him in another treatment program. He repeated the destructive steps. He loved them. He hated them. They put him in yet another program, this time all the way across the country. Then another halfway back. Then another. Today, he’s still not really that much better. He’s been stable for a while, but he’s got a lot further to go before anybody is going to trust him. There has certainly been the temptation to pitch him in the trash and forget about him. But he’s their son. They didn’t go buy him at a store for $15. They made him. They’re already invested and will do whatever it takes to recoup what they’ve put in him.
When God created the world He declared over and over and over again how good it was. Then He made you and me and said, “Whoa! I’ve outdone myself now. These new creatures who are bearers of my very image are very good.” And then there was that thing with the snake in the Garden. And the first murder. And then things got bad enough that He just nearly did start over. But that didn’t really work. Eventually the whole thing became a train wreck that’s been rolling along in super slow motion ever since. We call this train wreck sin and it has pretty well made a mess of, well, everything. And it’s getting worse. The 20th century was the most violent and destructive century in the whole history of humanity by several orders of magnitude. Terrorists are constantly coming up with creative new ways to kill people in order to convince us to worship their god. Every single day it seems we hear about someone else who’s been diagnosed with cancer. Families agonize over the destructive, heart-wrenching impact of Alzheimer’s all the time. Parents lose their jobs, then their power, then their houses. Kids go hungry all over the world. Our world is broken. What more, in spite of our best efforts, we don’t have the ability to repair it. Otherwise, you kind of think we would have by now. Around the turn of the 20th century many people thought we did indeed possess such power…until a Serbian nationalist assassinated Archduke Ferdinand, Hitler’s Third Reich overran Europe and murdered 6 million Jews, and the combined power of Stalin and Mao ended the lives of around 100 million people who didn’t agree with them. After that we pretty much gave up on the idea that we could fix the problems. Now, at least in this country, we have mostly given ourselves over to Mammon and living life however we please in hopes of deadening the pain of the brokenness. And we are more and more quick to silence the voices of those who remind us that there may be a cost to living however we please and we may not want to pay it when it comes due.
This is the world God created to be a perfect reflection of Himself. What is He to do? Scrap the whole thing and start over? Throw it all away and forget about it? That might be true, but it’s not grace. Should He just let us go our own way and generally work to keep the consequences at a minimum? That might be grace, but it’s not true. And as we talked about this past Sunday, we serve the God who is full of grace and truth. So what is God to do? Well friends, that’s not quite the right question. The right question is this: what has God already done? I read it to you before, but hear it again: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” When our world was broken beyond the ability to repair itself, God moved into the neighborhood. He did this in the person of Jesus Christ.
When this world was broken, God didn’t abandon it. He invested Himself even more fully in it than He had already done by coming into it Himself in order to save it from the inside out. The God who is full of grace and truth came in order to make a definitive statement: the brokenness is not and will not be the final state of things. We’ve heard this great truth already this evening. A day is coming when he will wipe every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. This is the hope we have because God moved into the neighborhood. The God who is full of grace and truth, who is Savior and Lord, entered this world as a helpless baby in order to transform it fully into what He designed it to be from the beginning. This is the hope of Christmas: God moved into the neighborhood. He came once to start the transformation and He will come again to complete it. The only question remaining is whether or not you will be a part of His work. Will you receive the knowledge of God He brought with Him and step into eternal life? Will you celebrate the birth of the Savior and Lord or merely the giving of trinkets whose worth and last are small? Will you walk in the light that He came to shine when He arrived in order to become more fully yourself, or will you keep walking the path of ease in hopes of deadening the pain of the brokenness you just can’t escape? Friends, God moved into the neighborhood. He’s here and He’s not leaving. God moved into the neighborhood. Let us celebrate this together with thanksgiving and joy! Stand with me and find hymn 181 as we sing “Joy to the World.”
SING: Joy to the World! The Lord is Come (181)
Are we not able to sing those words with even a bit more joy than before understanding the weight of what they proclaim? Yet there are two major expressions of joyfulness. One is loud and exuberant. We just did that. The other is just as powerful, but quieter. This is the joy that comes when we silently allow the great truths of our God to penetrate deeply into our hearts and minds and begin to transform us. I want to close our time together this evening with this second experience of joy. I’m going to read a call in the Psalms to this kind of quiet reflection and then, as the choir sings Silent Night for us, we are going to light our candles, letting them shine in the darkness as a reminder of the fact that when our world was broken and drowning in darkness, God moved into the neighborhood, the light of the world began to shine, and things have never been the same. Then, when the choir finishes singing, as your hearts are prepared, blow out your candles and depart in peace and joy. May you know this light this Christmas. If you will, then, close your eyes while I read and then the choir will sing for us as the light expands.
READ: PSALM 46
1 God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, 3 though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells.
5 God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day.
6 Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts.
7 The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.
8Come and see the works of the LORD, the desolations he has brought on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shields with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”
11 The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.
Sing: Silent Night