Texts: Luke 2:1-20;
Tit 2:11-14; Isa 9:2-7
LET HEAVEN AND NATURE SING
Christmas is a time for joyful singing, and I thought I’d begin our reflections on the Christmas Gospel with a look at one of our beloved carols, “Joy to the World.” Think of those words we almost know by heart.
Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive its King;
Let ev’ry heart prepare him room, and heav’n and nature sing.
What I’d like us to notice is the scope of the joy for this day. In our Gospel reading itself, the angel says it will be joy to all people. Now, notice that the words of this hymn go far beyond that: Joy to the world, joy to the earth. Let heav’n and nature sing — fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy. And when it talks about sin and sorrow ceasing, it includes the thorns. In other words, the joy of this day takes in the whole universe.
The Christmas story is somewhat radical in this way. Its magnitude goes beyond the world of people and heaven to include the realm of nature. Jesus was born in a stable and laid in a manger, a feeding trough for animals. So we generally assume that animals were present at his birth. Angels appear to the shepherds and their flocks of sheep, and the heavenly host sounds like it takes in the stars themselves. Those shepherds then run to see the holy child. Did they carry the smallest and most vulnerable lambs with them? Did the wise men bring their camels? When we dramatize the nativity scene these days, many churches bring the animals right into church, a “live nativity.” Yes, this king of all creation brings joyful glad tidings to the whole earth. Let heav’n and nature sing!
Now, the thing I want us to notice here is the possible contrast to our most common hopes as Christians today. Does the following sound familiar? That our ultimate hope and faith is for when we die, that we’ll go to heaven. If pressed a bit further: when we say “we,” we are often talking about our souls, right? So our most typical hope is that when we die, our souls will go to a place called heaven where God dwells, and where we can then dwell forever.
But then the crucial question is: why are all the animals, why are the “fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains” so joyful on this day? Do you see? If Jesus comes only to take the souls of certain people to heaven some day, then why is the whole universe joyful at his coming. If he’s the savior just of human souls, then why do heav’n and nature sing?
What I want us to consider this evening, if you haven’t thought about it much lately, is that our most ultimate hopes of the Christian faith might need some expansion. The hope of our Jewish brothers and sisters — which we graciously inherit through Jesus and the apostles since they are Jews and we are gentiles — is for the whole creation. Their faith in God, which is so unique, is in one true God who lovingly created the entire universe, and created it good. So would our ultimate hope be only for human souls? To be honest, that comes more from the Greek philosopher Plato than it does from a good Jew like Jesus. No! A Jewish-Christian hope must be for the whole creation which our God takes great care in bringing about. In fact, God is still working on it. It isn’t finished yet. You and I aren’t finished yet. So that’s what a good Jewish-Christian hope for the world is about: namely, that the creation would finally be finished. That it would at last come to fulfillment and perfection. That the wolf would lie down with the lamb. That even the thorns would cease infesting the ground. Heav’n and nature sing today because the Savior of the whole world came into the flesh to bring salvation.
That’s why Jesus was born in the first place. Jesus, the Word who was with God at the beginning of Creation, became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth. His light was the life of the world. Why would he have come into this human flesh if it didn’t matter? It does matter. And this is a joyful day because Jesus came into this world to show us how and why it matters. It matters because of love, because of God’s infinite love for each one of us, and because through Jesus Christ, and the love of the cross, we can truly begin to share that infinite supply of love and life not only with one another but with this precious earth and all its creatures.
If the Christmas Good News takes in the entire creation, then it is surely Good News for you and me as we gather tonight – even those of us who may be hurting because we suffered a loss this year. When the baby of Bethlehem grew up, one of the chief elements of his ministry was healing. God’s power of life dwelt in him and he was able to continue the work of creating by reaching out and healing so many. It is a power of healing we can continue to count on tonight. And when the infant lowly of that manger grew to confront our sin and to take it upon himself on the cross, he did so trusting in that same power of life which gives us breath in the first place. He trusted in his heavenly Father to raise him on the third day. Tonight, you and I can continue to count on that power of life, even if in the face of a loss this past year. That tiny child grew to take on our most bitter enemy death, and his resurrection is the first fruits of a day when God’s power of life will be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28).
Let’s finish with that widest embrace of salvation, the whole of creation. On Christmas Eve the heavenly host is singing, seemingly taking in the stars and galaxies themselves. Of course, we have a different way of looking at the world today than those shepherds in the fields outlying Bethlehem of long ago. We have the worldview of science, and it even goes against some of what we’ve been saying. The ‘story’ of the universe according to science is of ever expanding galaxies flying away from each other towards two differing versions of an ‘end.’ Either it will be according to the law of thermo-dynamics of ever greater dispersion toward equilibrium, with the final result of entropy. Or gravity will eventually cause the galaxies to begin to contract again into what is called the “big crunch,” resulting in another “big bang” — and everything starts over. In short, the universe is heading towards either fizzling out or imploding. And, either way, life doesn’t fair too well — a direct contrast to the story of faith that puts stock in God’s power of life.
But even science itself tells the contrasting story of life, because life itself seemingly develops in the opposite direction of entropy by organizing itself in ever greater complexity — finally yielding in the human creature whose free will exhibits a mega-leap in adaptability. I’m not trying to oppose creationism and evolution. I prefer evolution as a scientific theory. What I’m trying to suggest is that even evolution itself tells a ‘story’ that runs in a different vector to the laws of thermo-dynamics and entropy. The story of life in this universe suggests the possibility of a different kind of ending. I’m not even trying to make room for something called “Intelligent Design.” I’m pointing to the fact that even the scientific picture of things has competing stories that leave plenty of room for the mystery of faith to guide us in learning more about this miraculous universe. It leaves room for the bottom line of the Christian faith that the end of things will be God’s power of life as all in all.
More importantly, it leaves room for our calling as Christians to be wholly and completely about life, and never about death. Even in the face of the powers of death, we stand for life. You and I are forgiven for so often being mesmerized by those powers of death, and so we are able to find ourselves more and more often as Easter people, completely on the side of life. We are finally able to begin being the stewards of life we are created to be.
As St. Paul says in Romans 8, the whole creation has been groaning and waiting for us children of God to get our acts together and to get more fully into the story of life being written in this universe. And this final act of the drama, where God’s children work for life, begins with the Son of God born on a silent night so long ago, who came to live that life so full of life in our midst. He let himself succumb to our fascination with the powers of death, only to have his heavenly Father show forth the power of life as the real power moving this universe. That’s why heav’n and nature sing! That’s why the heavenly host rings out glory to God in the highest heaven. That’s why you and I join in a celebration feast once again this Christ-mass. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, December 24, 2006