Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve, Series B

Sermon on Luke 2:1-20
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
December 24, 2011 (The Nativity of Our Lord – Christmas Eve, Series B)

“Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”  These words are very familiar to us, both as part of the liturgy, and because the King James Version of this Gospel lesson is probably engraved in our memories, although for the younger generation at least, our memory has it associated with the voice of the Peanuts character Linus.  In any case, these words are so familiar to us that we hardly blink when we hear them.  But when the shepherds first heard it, now that was an extraordinary experience.  Think of it.  These words were first said by the angels, not in a synagogue or in the temple, but in the sky above the fields outside the small town of Bethlehem.  They were said, not to the very religious people of the day, the Pharisees, but to ordinary shepherds who were spending yet another night out in their fields making sure their sheep didn’t wander off and get themselves into trouble, or get attacked or stolen as they grazed upon the hillside.  And while the message that the angel had given those shepherds was pretty extraordinary, His birth didn’t look like anything to make a big deal about.  A woman from out of town had given birth in an animal stall, because, not surprisingly given the crowding caused by Caesar’s census, there was no place else for her and her husband to stay.  The whole Christmas story is one paradox right after another, where the extraordinary and the incredible meets the ordinary and the commonplace.

Mary and her husband were pious believers in the promises of the Old Testament, but there were a fair number of Jews who expected the Messiah at the time, as we can see when we look at how many people often came to hear Jesus preach later in the Gospels.  There was nothing special about the Holy Family that made them especially worthy for Christ to come and dwell with them.  And even the Child who was born that night didn’t look all that extraordinary; He looked like an ordinary baby.  More than that, He was really beneath the notice of many people, having been born in the lowliest of places at a highly awkward time for His mother and her husband.  There didn’t seem to be anything special about what happened in that stable that night.

While we all know the story, the paradox that we see in the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ defies comprehension and drives the mind to awe and wonder at what is taking place here.  The Almighty, while He governs heaven and earth, must be breast-fed and have His diaper changed, He is that helpless.  The Light of the World relies on strips of cloth and on His mother’s care to keep Him warm and comfortable in the cold night.  The King of Kings has as His throne a feed-trough for animals.  When you meditate upon what really happened that night in Bethlehem, the mind cannot comprehend it all.  Human words cannot describe the incredible wonder that is shown to us when Christ becomes incarnate and is now born of the Virgin Mary.

And the sense of awe and wonder becomes even deeper when we consider that it was for us that all of this happened.  God the Son became man so that mankind might be restored to fellowship with God.  He was born, grew as a normal human being, bore our sins to the cross, suffered and died, rose again, and ascended to God’s right hand so that humankind, whose nature He now has, might go with Him through it all and be restored to fellowship with our Creator.  All of this He did for us, poor sinful beings.

Even the announcement of His birth is full of paradoxes.  As I mentioned before, the angels come, not to Caesar or Herod or to the High Priest but to simple shepherds outside Bethlehem.  The angels whose song fills the highest heaven with music and praise of the Creator of heaven and earth,  sing for the benefit of the poor, miserable shepherds who have to pull an all-nighter to make sure their flocks stay safe.  The fact that it was the shepherds and not the rulers of the world at that time who heard the angels’ song should be a great comfort to us.  The angels came to those who were best able to receive the message.  It was the common people of that day who were ready for Messiah to come.  The rulers were only upset by the birth of Christ.  The massacre of babies that Herod commanded when he found out about the birth of Christ was only a foretaste of what would happen to Christ throughout His life, leading ultimately to His death on the cross.  The leaders of those times did not want Messiah to come and upset their comfortable lives.  But the common people were ready, and those shepherds were their representatives on this night, as were Mary and Joseph themselves.

Likewise it is to us that the Messiah comes today.  It is not to those who are comfortable in their lives on this earth, who are secure in their sins and think only about life in this world, that Christ comes today.  Rather, He comes to those who know that they are sinners and that they need the forgiveness and salvation that He can bring.  He comes to the common people whose lives aren’t wonderful or perfect, who experience all sorts of trouble and problems.  The reason, of course, is that the forgiveness of sins is only possible where there are sins to forgive.  It is precisely when we confess our sinfulness that we are ready to receive God’s forgiveness.  Absolution, preaching, and especially the Holy Supper are not for people who feel especially good about themselves or who feel especially holy; rather they are for people who know that they are sinners and that they need the forgiveness and healing that only Christ can bring.  It is to the poor in spirit, the meek, the humble, and those who know their true unworthiness to receive Him that Jesus comes.  They are the ones who will welcome Him and let Him be their life and their light.

We can see this by the reactions of the characters in this story.  Mary, evidently a quiet, meditative person, treasured up everything that had happened to her in her heart.  We can imagine that she sang the Magnificat to herself many, many times over the years as she considered how God had blessed her.  The shepherds were bursting at the seams.  They told everyone they could about the tiny Messiah whom they had just bowed down and worshiped.  It is the same way with us today.  We who receive Christ for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith today cannot help but meditate upon His blessings, as Mary did, and declare to all the world what He has done for us, as the shepherds did.  It is to us that Christ has now come through Word and Sacrament.  Come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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