A Thrill of Hope ~ December 24, 2018 ~ Christmas Eve ~ Luke 2:1-20[In reference to The Night Before Christmas]
No matter how many times I heard that story, it never got old. As a child, I knew that when I heard those words, “’Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house…” it meant it was close! The night was finally here! I remember in 1976, we were living in Byfield, Massachusetts. I was 13 years old, but if you have seen the film the Polar Express, you can understand when I say I could still hear the bell. I was thirteen, and I still believed!
When I went to bed that night, that Christmas Eve, I so filled with excitement, with such anticipation. I awoke the next morning, I leapt out of bed, I ran upstairs (because I was the only one with a bedroom on the bottom floor) to wake everyone else up, only to be told that I had only been sleeping for four hours. It was like two in the morning. So, I had to go back downstairs to my room, and wait there until no earlier than 7 am. That was the longest five hours of my life, lying there, head on the pillow, eyes wide open, watching the hands on the clock go ‘round and ‘round and ‘round for five hours.
Can you imagine waiting thousands of years? Moses, Psalmists, the prophets Isaiah, Zechariah, Micah all told of the coming of a Messiah. In fact, there are over 300 Messianic prophesies in the Old Testament. And so, the people waited and waited and waited. And then finally, Luke 2:
At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken through the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. And because Joseph was a descendent of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who was now expecting a child.
And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them.
That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior – yes, the Messiah, the Lord – has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”
Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others – the armies of heaven – praising God and saying, “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”
When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them.
I’ll tell you, similarly, no matter how many times I hear Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, it never gets old either. And every year, we count down the days until we can celebrate that Christ has come. Many families mark the time with an advent calendar. You know, we get the tradition of the advent calendar from Germany. In fact, we get a lot of Christmas traditions from Germany. Martin Luther, the fifteenth century Protestant Reformer was the first to popularize trees, and to add lights. The story goes one night he was walking towards his home, it was a beautiful winter’s night. He was composing a sermon in his head, and he just stopped and looked around and was awed at the brilliance of the stars twinkling amidst evergreens, and it struck him that the only tree in the forest that still had life were the evergreen trees. All the rest died. The evergreen tree lived on, and it reminded him of the gift of eternal life that we are all offered through Christ Jesus. With the twinkling of the stars and the beauty of the evergreen trees in his head, he wanted to show to his family, to recapture that scene that so moved him, so he put up a tree in the main room of his home and wired the branches with lighted candles.
This new tradition quickly spread throughout Europe, and then to these shores. In 1777, during the American Revolution, British forces made up of primarily German mercenaries were defeated at the Battle of Bennington in Bennington, VT. Many of the prisoners were taken to Boston; but one, by the name of Hendrick Rottimore, ended up in custody of Samuel Denslow. Samuel Denslow owned a 100-acre farm in Windsor Locks, CT. And in the cabin where Rottimore was held, Rottimore, being German, set up the first Christmas tree in New England – perhaps the first in the country. There is a marker placed there by the Windsor Locks Historical Society noting that achievement.
So, we get the Christmas tree from Germans, we get the lighted Christmas tree from the Germans, but back to the advent calendar. The word advent comes from the Latin adventus, which means coming, and since the 16th century, the church has celebrated the advent season as a season when we prepare for the coming of God’s Son into the world and into our lives. The tradition of the advent calendar began when German families in the mid-19th century started counting down the days by tallying chalk marks on a wall or door. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… counting down the days towards Christmas. Variations of the countdown included lighting candles each day or hanging a religious picture for each day leading up to Christmas Eve. By the early 1900s a few publishing companies and newspapers were also printing calendars of their own, marking the days until this night. The advent candle, or advent wreath that we have lighted each Sunday since the beginning of December originated among – guess who? – 16th century German Lutherans. The wreath, as you know, is made of evergreen branches. It is circular in design, it has no beginning, it has no end, symbolizing that there is no beginning or end to God’s love for each one of us. It has four candles on it representing the four weeks of advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas. The primary advent color is royal blue, the color of royalty, symbolizing the coming of the Messiah as well as the night sky in which the stars appeared to proclaim the birth of Christ. Pink is a secondary advent color. Why pink? If you’ve heard me explain before, if you think of a candy cane, which has red and white stripes upon it – if you mix red and white you get pink – red symbolizing the blood of Christ’s sacrifice, white symbolizing His purity. And because of his purity and His sacrifice, we are offered forgiveness and eternal life. So, the pink candle represents the joy we have in knowing that Jesus has come. And as we light the candles each week, it symbolizes the expectation, and a thrill of hope surrounding our Lord’s first coming into the world, and ultimately, why. Because we cannot forget that the Christ child was born for the cross. That was His purpose, because God wants to see His children forever.
You know, for the life of me, I cannot remember what I got that Christmas that I stared at the clock for five hours, waiting for a jolly old elf and eight tiny reindeer. I must confess, I have trouble remembering what I got last Christmas! However, none of us should forget what God gave us on that first Christmas. I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. Salvation was born. God gave us peace that passes all understanding. God gave us a thrill of hope for the future. God gave us joy in knowing that He loved the world so much that He gave His one and only Son that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. This is the true gift of Christmas, the only gift that matters, and all we have to do is open it.
Now, when we do, we need to realize it doesn’t mean that our lives become all rainbows and unicorns. That’s not the reality of coming to a relationship with Jesus. But the apostle Peter did say to us in his first letter:
Be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a little while.
We are only here on the earth for 80, 90 years. That is but a pittance in compared to eternity.
… even though you must endure many trials for a little while. These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold – though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world.
You love him even though you have never seen him. Though you do not see him now, you trust him; and you rejoice with a glorious, inexpressible joy. The reward for trusting him will be the salvation of your souls.
(1 Peter 1:6-9)
The salvation of your souls. Now that is certainly something worth getting excited about, perhaps even losing some sleep over.
So now, we have counted down the days until we can celebrate. It is Christmas. We can now join our voices with the angels as they sang, as they proclaimed, “Glory in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.” Merry Christmas, my friends. Would you pray with me?