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The First Congregational Church, Columbus
December 24, 2004 - Christmas Eve, 7:30 p.m.
A sermon delivered by Rev. Timothy Ahrens and Rev. Ronald Botts

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V of VI in the Advent/Christmas Sermon Series: "Road Signs on Life's Journey"

Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:1-20

Bells don't serve much of a purpose in today's mobile world. The use of bells was to call people together, whether it was to come in from the fields for dinner, to start for school in the morning, or to gather for worship on Sunday.

Church bells were also used to acknowledge special times of the year such as Easter and Christmas. On these occasions they were rung more vigorously and over extended periods. So it wouldn't have been unusual if you had lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Christmas Day in 1863 to hear the bells of the town churches peal out the joyous news of Jesus' birth. The sounds would have come from all directions as a dozen or more bells rang in all quarters the city. Instead of their being discordant, as you might imagine, different bells fill the skies with an interlacing of melody.

One of those who heard the bells on that Christmas Day in Cambridge was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. As he sat at his desk he was moved by the jubilant sound, but the ringing of the bells also stirred feelings within him of a more somber kind. He thought about a divided country, now two years into a bloody civil war. He thought about the great toll of life exacted at the Battle of Gettysburg just a few months before and of his own son who was wounded there. These thoughts, too, came to his mind as he heard the bells on that Christmas morning 141 years ago. It was a world different from today, yet strikingly similar with war and the casualties of war intermixed with the glad tidings of the season.

The Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, also knew what it was to live in troubled times. The Hebrew people had lost sight of God. They had forgotten their compassion and rightful obligations to others. Now their land had been devastated by the armies of Sennacherib and most of the cities of Judah were occupied by foreign troops. Jerusalem alone had been spared, and that as an act of mercy.

Isaiah lamented over the fall of his country even as he knew that Judah had fallen morally and spiritually long ago. Yet, it is out of that most troubled time, that Isaiah had been chosen to bring a word of hope, to tell of a day of restoration and renewal:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of great darkness—on them light has shined. For the yoke of their burden and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken.

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace… with justice and righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.

Here was a great promise and one his people needed to hear. Certainly they were a people who "walked in darkness." Then maybe that could fit us as well, for there are occasions when life does feel gloomy and dark. In the midst of celebration, everything can seem all wrong.

Importantly, Isaiah's message was one directed to his people in their real needs and situation. "Those who lived in great darkness," says the prophet, "on them light has shined." Something has happened and is happening, he says, that changes everything. It comes as if out of nowhere. It turns despair into hope; the lost find their way again. The old moves aside for the new; yesterday is replaced by today. And it most often happens unexpectedly.

Isaiah's words echo in the angelic announcement we hear in Luke's familiar passage about Christ's birth: "I am bringing you good news of great joy."

The words of this Christmas text are so familiar that we may no longer hear them for their life-changing message. They tell of someone else's experience. Maybe we need to hear them addressed to us personally tonight.

To you, Tom, to you Sarah, to you, Jon, to you Jackie, to you, Geoff, to you, Diana—to you and to all others is "born this day in the City of David, a savior who is Christ the Lord." In his coming is the healing for your heart and the basis for true celebration.

On Christmas Day Longfellow heard the bells outside his study window. They seemed strangely out of place for all the pain and grief he was feeling. Then suddenly as he listened, he heard a song in their pealing. He heard a reassuring message coming out of their sounding. He picked up a pen and wrote these words:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day

Their old, familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet

The words Repeat

Of peace on earth, good will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along

The unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;

"There is no peace on earth," I said.

"For hate is strong

And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men!

The pealed the bells more loud and deep,

God is not dead, nor doth he sleep.

The wrong shall fail

The right prevail,

Of peace on earth, good will to men!

In troubled days we need to look up, to listen up, for the heavenly announcement. Christ will take away our darkness and lead us into the light.

Glory to God. Peace on earth. Good will to all.

Copyright 2004, The First Congregational Church