This was the sermon preached at the Christmas Eve services, held later in the day on Sunday December 24.
It’s about getting born. The Christmas Eve First Reading, from Isaiah. It is likely originally about the birth of a future king. It moves along with phrases familiar to us from a succession of Christmas Eves, and fitting for any hoity toity birth announcement. There’s this weird spot, though, in verse four, “the rod of their oppressors you have smashed as on the Day of Midian.” It seems like a random reference, but it is probably crucial to understanding the passage. Why would Isaiah mention this in a birth announcement?
What is the Day of Midian? It is a story from the book of Judges. The Midianites rule over Israel. Gideon, the Israelite, serves God as a judge, and is doing a good job, so God tells Gideon, “I’m going to use you to defeat Midian. Get an army.” Gideon raises an army of 32,000. God says, “That’s too big. This is supposed to be about God winning, not Gideon’s big army. We need to reduce our numbers. Tell the frightened they can go home.” Gideon says, “Anyone frightened can go home.” Twenty-two thousand men leave. Gideon says, “Okay, that worked disturbingly well.” God says, “Still too many. Take them down to the water, and separate the ones who cup their hands to drink from those who lap the water like dogs.” Gideon says, “These are weird criteria, but whatever.” Three hundred guys lap water like dogs. God says, “Use them. Everybody else: get lost!”
“What do we do?” asks Gideon. God lays out the plan. “Give each guy a jar, a torch, and a trumpet.” Gideon says, “Are you sure you’re the Lord of the Heavenly Armies?” God says, “Yes! Do it!” Clay jar. Torch (think big candle). Trumpet (not the contemporary brass instrument with three keys, no, this is maybe an animal horn, its sound…think big kazoo.) Okay. Three hundred guys with jars, big candles, and big kazoos, go down to the Midianite camp in the dark, and on Gideon’s signal they smash the jars, light the candles, and blow on the kazoos. Judges tells us that God “set every man’s sword against his fellow and against all the army.” The Midianites slaughtered themselves. I know as a child I was told this story, and the storybook said the Israelites confused the Midianites by being so close, or scared them into thinking that there were 300 companies rather than 300 men. No. God defeated the Midianites. The Israelites smashed jars, lit candles, and blew kazoos. That’s the Day of Midian.
The prophet Isaiah writes that the birth of the royal child is like the day God hilariously defeated Midian by candlelight to the strains of kazoo music. Just as easily as God won over Midian, God won over evil by being born. The Gospel—the birth story from Luke—narrates this again. It’s a birth. God expends minimal effort. Getting born takes nothing. I’m not talking about giving birth. My mother took every opportunity to tell me about the pain and difficulty of giving birth to me. I’m talking about getting born. What do you do? Roll over onto your back. Maybe. I basically did nothing. God in the Christmas Eve Gospel is the baby Jesus. God maybe rolls onto his back before delivery. That is how crazily and effortlessly God wins. The gospel narrates God’s victory as God’s birth.
It’s a plain old birth. Luke describes it economically, “And she gave birth.” It’s a simple birth, to unwed parents away from home. We always read details into it, either borrowing from Matthew’s birth narrative, or clues from Jesus’ adult life in Mark and John, or two thousand years of artwork and children’s books that bafflingly insist that Mary rode a donkey and that salvation hangs on that article of faith. But in Luke, tonight, all we know is that Mary and Joseph are engaged, not yet married, and we have no idea what Joseph knows or thinks he knows about the father of the baby. We know Joseph and Mary are making a go of it, despite not being married. We know they’re stuck in Bethlehem because the Romans said Joseph had to “register”—whatever that is—in his ancestral town, which hasn’t been home for a long time. Two young people, Jo and Mary, in this together, far from home, have a baby. And the birth merits an angel choir and a shepherd work stoppage because it is how crazily and effortlessly God wins. Just as on the Day of Midian.
Of course, there is more to it. It’s not just about God’s minimal effort. The baby stays. It is hard for us to believe that God is human. There are a lot of reasons for this. It means we have to take other humans seriously. It means God isn’t some imaginary friend who does as I say, but rather is another person with their own ideas and feelings. And it means that God who is infinite and everywhere in the universe all at once, is also finite and right here and talking to me as though I am anything. It is hard to believe that God is human. Christmas Eve proclaims that for God, being human is easy, effortless, and that everything depends on it. Because this isn’t some little one time thing God does for kicks. The Day of Midian—effortless for God—frees Israel from foreign domination. The child born to the royal family of Judah—effortless for God—brings hope to Isaiah and his contemporaries in the face of a foreign superpower. The baby born in Bethlehem doesn’t disappear immediately, but hangs around, and grows up, and tears down the walls we build and welcomes the sinner and heals the sick and makes the broken whole and feeds the hungry and dies to destroy sin and rises to destroy death and lives forever with us as God.
The birth, the candlelight, the music: they’re signs of God’s presence. We’ve got our candles. We’ll light more of them in a while. Our music is several steps up from big kazoos. Anyone breaks a jar, you’re cleaning it up, okay? And we’ve got a gospel where God does practically nothing. And these are signs to us, of God’s crazy and effortless victory over evil, over sin and death and the power of the devil. They are signs to us in the dark of this winter night that no matter what evil is thrown at us or grown in us, God’s victory is as effortless as lighting a candle, making a little noise, or getting born.