by the Rev. Dr. Leander Harding
Preached on Christmas Eve, 1999
Like a lot of young people, I drifted away from the church for a while, but there came a time when I was working hard at sorting out what I believed. Though I hadn’t been to church in a long time, I decided to go to Midnight Mass at Christmas. I had thought about going to the National Cathedral, but by the time I made up my mind it was too late and I ended up going to a small, nondescript suburban church. The church was packed. I was barely able to find a seat. I remember the press of people, the candlelight, the Christmas greens, the sense of holiness in the church, the palpable sense of faith and hope in the congregation, and two words from the priest’s homily—New Life. “New Life, New Life,” he kept saying over and over. “The Saviour has come to give us New Life.” I came away from that service with a sense of the holy, of the reality of something larger and more powerful than myself, and I pondered these two words, New Life.
If someone were to say to me, summarize the Christian religion in two words, I would say “New Life.” If they were to say to me, “What does it promise?” I would say New Life. If they were to say to me, “What does it demand?” New Life. “What does it offer in this world?” New Life. “What does it promise in the next?” New Life. “What does it teach?” New Life. “What does it practice?” New Life. “What does it offer with God?” New Life. “What does it offer with each other?” New Life. If you take only two words away with you tonight, take these two: New Life.
It would make a great story if I had a dramatic conversion on the spot. I didn’t. I went into that service with a lot of questions and came out with more than I had going in. But in retrospect it was a conversion—a turn in a different direction. Something came into focus and I knew what I was looking for—New Life. I wasn’t sure that it was possible for me. At that time I felt pretty disconnected from the religion of my childhood, but the possibility of a new vitality, a new connection with God, and a new connection with people was tantalizing—that there might be a different, a more satisfying, a more deeply purposeful and fulfilling way of life. That preacher made it so plausible just by the conviction with which he uttered those two words. He was clearly convinced that New Life was on offer and that it could be had for the asking. Here it is many years later and I can say to you with deep conviction, the Saviour has come and He brings New Life—a new vitality, a new way of living toward God and toward each other, a new connection, a new purpose, a second chance, a new start, a new satisfaction, a new power of living. New Life is God’s gift to you at Christmas.
Sometimes I am tempted to disbelieve in the power of this New Life. Sometimes people tell me that they find it hard to believe the message of the Bible because the world of the Bible is so unlike our world. I have the opposite problem. What tempts me to sometimes doubt is the feeling that steals over me that the world has not changed at all—that our world is only too much like the world of the Bible. The streets are still full of the sick and the poor. It is not hard to identify Pilate and Judas and the corrupt Temple authorities. One turns to the newspapers and finds that Herod still plots the murder of the innocents. Looked at in one way, the world seems not to have changed enough to make the proclamation that “New Life has come” a believable word.
What really tempts me to doubt is the feeling which comes over me that I, myself, have changed so little for the better. After so many years of church and sacraments, Bible reading and prayer, I sometimes feel that I am asking God to heal the same hurts and forgive the same sins, year after year. If there is New Life, why am I rehearsing this old, old story?
Martin Luther says the old man, the old Adam, dies hard. You have to drown him every day in the Baptismal font, the fount of New Life. Yes, the world is still full of sin, greed, hatred, and violence. Yes, most of us fall victim to the same hurts and temptations that we have been struggling with for years. But, yes, also New Life has truly appeared. The Saviour has come and is at work in the hearts of His own and in His world. For we are His and so is this world. How different the world would be had those twelve never come in witness to the One who sent them. Think of the art and architecture, the music and literature, the holy lives of the saints in every generation pouring out in witness to that New Life.
C.S. Lewis in his book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe describes a land which lies under a curse and in which it is always winter and never Christmas. Winter is real enough but so is Christmas. When we look at the history of the world there is plenty of winter. There is also bravery, kindness, and holiness. There is a St. Francis, a Martin Luther King, Jr., a Mother Teresa. There is also Christmas, also New Life. The old story is there but there is also a new story at work.
I can be tempted to despair about the world and about myself. Despair is just that, a temptation. It is a piece of the truth masquerading as the whole. The truth is that the world would be a very different place had it been ever winter and never Christmas. The truth is that I have a life with God and with you brothers and sisters very different from the life I might have had if I had not taken those two words away with me that night thirty years ago. Healing and holiness have touched my life. For all the struggle, what different hopes for further healing and holiness I have now than I would have ever had.
The promise of Christmas is not instant or even easy victory, but New Life in the midst of the old struggle and victory in the end. The world at large and we ourselves are bound to struggle with old and too familiar adversaries. But persevere. God is for you and God is with you, Jesus our Emmanuel. The promise of Christmas is that New Life has really appeared in the flesh, and it is really possible that He can live in us and we in Him. Tonight as you come to receive your Christmas communion, receive this gift the Saviour has come to give you. He has come at great cost to give you this gift of great price, New Life. Amen.
This sermon is taken from Flying Saucers and Christmas, a collection of Christmas sermons by the Rev. Dr. Leander Harding (iUniverse, Inc., New York, 2006).
Leander Harding is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Trinity School for Ministry. He lives in Sewickley, PA with his wife Claudia.