Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“A Son Given to Us” (Isaiah 9:6)
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
As you know, one of the primary ways we celebrate Christmas is exchanging presents. Often families and loved ones will gather in the family room and in the brief moments between staring at their cell phones, take turns unwrapping presents—and, occasionally something unexpected happens.
A good friend of mine recently told me about what occurred one Christmas when her daughter was a little girl. Her daughter loved playing with Hot Wheels cars, and so for Christmas her grandmother bought her some Hot Wheels cars along with an amazing track complete with loops and curves. But when she opened her present she grew furious and angrily declared, “This is a present for a boy!” and she stomped out of the room. Her mother was horrified and followed her into the other room and told in no uncertain terms that she was always to say “thank you” to anyone who gave her a present, regardless of whether she liked it or not, and that she needed to apologize to her grandmother. So her daughter returned and walked up to her grandmother and said, “I’m sorry I hate my Christmas present” ☺.
Several years ago my family and I were taking turns unwrapping presents on Christmas Day when my daughter Becky picked up a present and read the tag aloud, “To: Becky; From: Becky.” We all just looked at each other, wondering if we heard that correctly. She grinned, “Hmm, I wonder what this could be?” Then she opened her present to herself—it was a beautiful purse, “Yay!” she cried, “just what I wanted!” It was hysterical, and we were all so glad that Becky bought herself what she wanted for Christmas.
On Christmas we celebrate the ultimate present God gave each and every one of us, the world over, on the first Christmas: none other than his Son Jesus Christ. Several centuries before Jesus’ birth the Old Testament prophet Isaiah prophesied about this: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).
Jesus Christ, “God incarnate, man divine” was “born for us,” Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the “Son given to us.” Why would God Almighty, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, give us his Son? In what may be the best-known verse in all of scripture Jesus himself answered this question: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).
A metaphor that Isaiah uses for this is light shining in darkness: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” he writes, “those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined” (Isaiah 9:2). The birth of Jesus, the Light of the World, has shined on our dark world, and has shined on you.
Because I grew up with the radio on nearly all the time, I have a soft spot in my heart for schmaltzy love songs from the 70’s. Some of you may remember Debby Boone’s major 1977 hit “You Light up My Life,” which topped the Billboard charts for ten weeks in a row. It is as schmaltzy and sappy as can be, but the reason it stayed atop the charts for so long was that it resonated with people:
So many nights I’d sit by my window
Waiting for someone to sing me his song
So many dreams I kept deep inside me
Alone in the dark but now you’ve come along
And you light up my life
You give me hope to carry on
You light up my days
And fill my nights with song
A second metaphor for God giving us his Son is the idea of God smiling on us. A smile is an instant sign of grace. When someone smiles at you it means you have their favor, you can be at ease, you can breathe easy. A smile communicates welcome, acceptance, and affection. In their song, “Wooden Ships” from their eponymous 1969 debut album Crosby, Still and Nash put it this way:
If you smile at me I will understand ‘
Cause that is something everybody everywhere
Does in the same language
In today’s reading from his Letter to Titus the Apostle Paul tells us that in the birth of Jesus Christ “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all” (Titus 2:11). In giving us his Son, God smiled at the world, and smiled at you.
And a smile can change your life. When I was a twenty-year old college student I spent ten weeks on a summer mission trip to Brazil. As part of a twelve-member team doing a combination of evangelism and service projects, I was there to serve Jesus but I also experienced something unexpected, a smile that changed my life.
There was a stunning blonde from North Carolina on our team with amazing eyes and a hilarious sense of humor. One evening I was playing soccer with some Brazilians—or rather they were playing soccer and I was running around in circles. I caught a glimpse of her sitting on the ground, arms around her knees, wearing a red shirt, white shorts, and white Keds, her hair pulled back in a ponytail…and she smiled at me. And when she did, my life changed that very moment—and twenty-six years later my wife Steph still smiles at me…well, most of the time.
In giving us his Son, God smiled at the world—to light up our lives, to give us hope to carry on. In giving us his Son, God came alongside all those “alone in the dark.” In short, in giving us his Son, God gave us grace—unconditional love with no exceptions, no strings attached, no ulterior motives, no catch.
But the world hated God’s Christmas present, and the world was not sorry. In his prologue to his account of the gospel John tells us Jesus “came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:11). In fact, the world hated God’s Christmas present so much they nailed him to a cross.
But that did not stop God’s gift of love, that did not stop God’s light from shining in the darkness, that did not stop God from smiling on the world—for something else very unexpected happened— God raised his Son from the dead.
One of William Blake’s poems from his 1789 book Songs of Innocence is called “A Cradle Song.” It is written from the perspective of a mother holding her newborn child and thinking about the baby Jesus:
Sweet babe in thy face,
Holy image I can trace.
Sweet babe once like thee.
Thy maker lay and wept for me
Wept for me for thee for all,
When he was an infant small.
Thou his image ever see.
Heavenly face that smiles on thee,
Smiles on thee on me on all,
Who became an infant small,
Infant smiles are His own smiles,
Heaven and earth to peace beguiles.
(The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake 11)
The good news of the gospel this Christmas is that Jesus is still smiling “on thee on me on all.”
Moreover, John tells us that not everyone hated God’s Christmas present—that “to all who received (Jesus), who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God (John 1:12). And that is how we can respond to God’s gift of his Son at Christmas—as we prayed in the collect, we can “joyfully receive him as our Redeemer” (The Book of Common Prayer 212).
A Christmas sermon in the Second Book of Homilies from 1571 puts it this way:
Let us receive Christ, not for a time, but forever; let us believe his word, not for a time, but forever; let us become his servants, not for a time, but forever; in consideration that he hath redeemed and saved us, not for a time, but forever; and will receive us into his heavenly kingdom, there to reign with him, not for a time, but forever (Book of Homilies 410).
So this Christmas may the Holy Spirit enable you to receive anew Jesus Christ, the “Son given to us,” to light up your life, to change your life with His smile.
“Joy to the world! The Lord is come. Let earth receive her King” (Hymn 100 in The Hymnal 1982).