Simeon, Luke tells us, “was waiting for the consolation of Israel.” However, most of us don’t like to wait. In fact, nearly every year at Christmastime my wife and I have a quiet debate about waiting.
It’s not about how long to wait to buy Christmas presents or put up our Christmas tree. Our annual holiday debate centers on how long we should wait to begin to sing Christmas carols. My wife Diane is an inveterate carol-singer who listens to them nearly all year around when no one else is around to harass her about it. I, on the other hand, would prefer to wait until Christmas itself to begin singing carols.
So how long should Christians wait to begin singing Christmas carols? Should we, for instance, begin on Halloween, the time at which the first Christmas advertisements sometimes come out?
Or should Jesus Christ’s friends wait to begin singing Christmas carols until after Thanksgiving, on the weekend on which Advent and the traditional Christmas shopping season begin? Or should we wait until Christmas Eve and Day?
The debate has finally ended for eleven months, at least at our house. No one will call me “Scrooge” for most of the rest of the year. After all, the wait is over – now we can all sing Christmas carols with all the joy we can muster. Unless, of course, we’re already tired of them.
Knowing just when to do things, however, is seldom any easier than waiting. When, for instance, should you arrive for a dinner party? A bit early to make sure you’re not late? Or should you perhaps arrive fashionably late, to show you’re not too eager? Or how about right when the invitation says to come?
Or think of a soccer player’s dilemma. If she gets to an opponent before the ball arrives at her foe’s feet, the referee may yellow (or even red) card her for being too aggressive. If, however, she arrives too late, after the ball has arrived, her opponent may have already trapped the ball and sailed unmarked down the field.
However, while it’s not easy to arrive anywhere at “just the right time,” Paul insists that Jesus arrived on earth at just the right time. “When the time had fully come,” the apostle tells the Galatians in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law.” In other words, when the time was just right, God sent Jesus Christ into our world.
Throughout much of his prophecy, Isaiah grieves with and for Israel. Down through the centuries, after all, Israel had waited. For millennia her faithful citizens prayed with the prophet, “God, come down and save us! Show us your glory!” And down through those dark centuries, God gave Israel glimpses, hints and promises. Yet Israelites like Simeon and Anna still waited.
Then, in the middle of a night in Palestine, a baby’s cry shattered the dark stillness. The heavens split open and shook with stirring songs. A star hung right over the place where the infant’s parents made their home. Angelic messengers talked about “good news of great joy.” Shepherds and wise men raced off to a backwater Palestinian hamlet to visit the new Baby. All “when the time had fully come.”
God’s 21st century adopted sons and daughters have spent at least parts of the past month moving from Advent’s solemn hymns toward singing Christmas’ songs of joy. We’ve moved from “O come, O come Immanuel” to “Joy to the world, the Lord is come,” and from “Come, thou long-expected Jesus” to “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.” We’ve seemed to recognize that the time has fully come to sing joyful songs.
On this Sunday, however, Christmas is already 48 hours old. Its music and advertisements have faded from our stores and media. Children have already broken or tired of some of their gifts. So although our dying Christmas trees and boxes by the curb may remind us of a Christmas past, we’re ready to race into a new year.
After all, it isn’t just that December brings holidays’ bills to our mailboxes and some of the year’s shortest days to the northern hemisphere. It’s also that we’re so ready to be “over” 2020 with its “perfect storm” of a global pandemic, struggles for racial justice and, in the United States, deep political turmoil. The “time has fully come” for vaccines and effective treatments that were so scarce in 2020.
So is it still the right time to sing songs of joy? We still don’t, after all, know when a COVID vaccine will be widely available. What’s more, some Christians face difficult Januaries. A few of us peer into uncertain medical futures that are paved with tests and procedures. Others wonder about the future of our jobs. Still others wonder about the future of our most treasured relationships.
So is it still the right time to sing songs of joy? God’s dearly beloved people sometimes fear those things sap our joy and make it hard to sing songs of joy. Even churches and their leaders sometimes deflate our joy by filling our worship services with “shoulds,” “oughts” and “musts.” We sometimes leave people with the impression that God’s beloved people shouldn’t fully rejoice until they’ve finished a long list of Christian chores.
The time before Christ was, for God’s children, a time of longing for something not yet received, hoping for something not yet fulfilled. So during Advent we repeatedly heard the prophets speak about God’s longing for renewed righteousness in Israel, as well as of the darkness, sin, desire and need, of the pain of exile and homelessness.
On this Sunday, however, we join Isaiah, as well as the elderly Simeon and Anna in finally glimpsing what their tired eyes have been squinting at the horizon to see. We’ve seen again how a Son born of a woman has redeemed us from the futility of our sins and brought us into God’s adopted family.
So this Sunday is joyful, not just because COVID vaccines are being distributed and the northern hemisphere’s days are elongating. This is a day of joy because on it Jesus’ followers celebrate a joy that we’ve not invented. Today is a day of joy because on it we celebrate prayers answered, hopes fulfilled, and dreams come true.
After all, joy comes to God’s adopted sons and daughters today as a baby who looks quite a bit like our own children and grandchildren. Joy comes to us as God with us, God come to make God’s home among us.
Such joy, however, is not necessarily the kind of happiness that bubbles from within us. After all, difficult circumstances easily sap such happiness. Nor is this day’s joy the kind of positive mental attitude some people seem to have or crave.
No, today’s joy is more like the Spirit-produced delight that comes from knowing that Christians belong to our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. Joy is the deep delight that comes from knowing that God loves us and has a plan for us.
So perhaps one of Galatians 4’s proclaimers’ chief jobs on this last Sunday of a 2020 that we’ll be all too glad to send to history’s rubbish pile is to announce that this is a day for joyful songs. After all, Christ’s birth in Bethlehem is one of God’s most vivid demonstrations of God’s love that produces that delight. In Christ, after all, God came down to stand beside and with as well as be for us. In the Christ child we see God’s utter determination to love us, not matter what.
That’s why on this last Sunday of 2020 we, as Will Willimon who gave me some ideas for this Commentary notes, gospel heralds don’t need to make and proclaim a long list of things for our hearers to do. We don’t have to set out to call our hearers to improve, or do something better.
Perhaps this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers’ most important task is to simply invite those who hear us to rejoice in God’s goodness today. We encourage each other to praise, to joyfully sing Christmas carols with all our might. The time is, after all, right. The time has fully come. God’s Son has been born among us. Rejoice!
A number of years ago even the bastion of religious orthodoxy that is The Washington Post, in an article entitled, “O Come, All Ye Advent Carols,” weighed in on the controversy over the appropriate time to begin singing Christmas carols. It pointed to the Christ Lutheran Church in Georgia whose pastor longs to sing Christmas carols before Christmas Day. During the four Sundays in Advent, however, his church sings only Advent hymns, not Christmas carols.
It sometimes seems as if the debate over when to begin singing carols is between some church musicians and other church members. So, for instance, the Post reports how members of the Christ Lutheran Church were so desperate to sing Christmas music before Christmas that they held a carol service on a Saturday night.
However, some church musicians insist it’s premature to sing songs about the birth of Christ before we actually celebrate his birth. One hymn writer compares it to sneaking into the closet and ruining the surprise by peeking at your Christmas presents. “It’s a bit of a letdown,” she opines. The music director at the National Cathedral agrees, asking, “Would you sing ‘Happy Birthday’ before someone’s birthday?”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 27, 2020
Galatians 4:4-7 Commentary