A Brief Sermon For Christmas Eve Midnight Communion: The Christmas Covenant
Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. (Verse 11)
On Friday, Debbie and I took the children to the Wintershall Estate to see their annual nativity play. We began outside, witnessing Joseph accompanying Mary on a donkey, walking from a distance, picked out by a spotlight in the darkness of late afternoon December. Having then followed them to the inn, we found ourselves witnessing the shepherds. And while it rather stretched the imagination to behold a female shepherd singing ‘In the bleak midwinter’, one effective part of the play had those shepherds debating Israel’s history and hopes before they were shocked by the sudden appearance of the angel. It was a fitting context for what was to come in the angel’s message.
Why? When the angel says, “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord,” this is about the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes. It’s why we sing in the carol,
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
The angel uses covenant language in announcing the birth of Jesus. Israel was well used to this. They had known it from the time they were on the borders of the Promised Land as described in the book of Deuteronomy. When Moses preaches back to them there their recent history, he does so in the format of an ancient covenant.
It was like this: a great king would make a covenant with a weaker group of people. The powerful king would bless the weaker party or nation by delivering them or protecting them in some way. In return, those he had saved would promise obedience to him in certain ways prescribed in the covenant. So, on the borders of the Promised Land, the covenant recalls that God, the great king, has provided a miraculous deliverance for the children of Israel from Egypt. Now, in return for his salvation, he asks them to follow his laws.
It’s similar here: the baby is called ‘the Messiah’. He is to be the great king who will deliver Israel, and hence he is also ‘Saviour’. Certainly, Israel was looking out for such a figure. The shepherds in the play at Wintershall recounted how their nation had been exiled in Babylon, but even after returning to their own land they had been invaded by Greece and now by Rome. They were like exiles in their own land.
Of course, with hindsight we know that the Messiah who was born, Jesus, would save his people in a different way from that which they expected. Deliverance from their sins was not to mean an army raised up against the Romans but a Saviour nailed to a Roman cross.
Furthermore, the Messiah’s coming to bring salvation is not just for the Jews, it is ‘good news that will bring great joy for all the people’ (verse 10, italics mine). What begins with the people of God will extend to the world.
The basic truth is clear: the long-awaited Messiah has finally come, and he is bringing salvation. We celebrate this at Christmas. Christmas will make complete sense with Easter: the One who came in poverty and weakness, ‘wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger’ (verse 12) will die in poverty and weakness, hanging on a Cross while soldiers gamble for his clothes. But in doing so, he will absorb all that the darkness will throw at him, and he will conquer evil. The first half of the covenant is clear: God’s king will save his people.
But what of the second half? The king saves a helpless people: what does he demand in return? Again, it is all clear in the angel’s announcement: ‘a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord’ (italics mine). Just as God saved his people from Egypt and then called them to obey his Law, so now Jesus the Messiah comes. He will save his people, and in response he calls them to recognise who he truly is – Lord.
In other words: salvation is freely given. God in Jesus brings it of his own initiative. It is not our doing. But while the gift is free, the appropriate response costs us everything. As Lord, he has the right to direct our ways. What is more, in the life of the Messiah he will show us that explicitly himself. He will not demand of us what he does not demand of himself.
However, it will be costly. In a world ruled by the Romans, to call someone Lord is to imply that the person who usually claimed the title of Lord is not. Caesar claimed to be Lord. To enter into covenant with God’s Messiah involves declaring that Jesus is Lord and the powers of the world are not. Jesus claims our ultimate allegiance, not the world.
Some Christians think that Christmas is just the prelude to the real message, that of Easter. But really they are of a piece. Both announce that the king has come. He is proclaimed at Christmas, and enthroned at Easter, on the Cross. Christmas proclaims Jesus as the Saviour, and Easter delivers on that proclamation. Christmas also says that the Saviour is the Lord, and Easter says he is declared as Lord in the Resurrection.
At Christmas, then, we see that Jesus is the fulfilment of God’s covenant with people. He is the King who comes to save his people. He is the Lord who calls all who receive that salvation to follow him as their Master.
This Christmas, may we come to worship the baby king who was given for our salvation and who commands our allegiance, not our tinsel.