Sunday, December 16, 2012

Advent 3, Series C

Sermon on Luke 7:18-35
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
December 16, 2012 (Third Sunday in Advent)

If I hear one more television commentator, one more actor, one more cartoon character using the phrase, “the true meaning of Christmas,” I just might throw something at my television set.  I’ve already been tempted to throw something at the speaker system at Walmart.  No, I haven’t suddenly turned into the Grinch.  And, no, I’m not turning into Scrooge.  It’s just that most of those who talk so glibly about the true meaning of Christmas really have no idea what the true meaning of Christmas really is.  I’m sure they mean well.  After all, this time of year is even more stressful than most, what with shopping for presents, the increased congestion around the stores, the worries about family members we don’t get along with but whom we’re going to have to be nice to on Christmas Day and buy presents for now even though we’d rather stay away from them, and so on.  Those who urge us to remember the “true meaning of Christmas” are, in their own minds, trying to help us, I’m sure.  They’re trying to help us to remember that Christmas is not about all of this crass commercialism by way of guilt trips.  But once you get beyond that, there is where it breaks down.  Usually the message is to remember that Christmas is about family and warm feelings in the heart and love and joy and so on.  Which is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far.  In fact, that sort of shallow “true meaning of Christmas” often only makes the situation worse, since the ideal Christmas that is depicted by this so-called “true meaning” is seldom matched by reality.  And that only causes more guilt and depression that, even apart from crass commercialism, we can’t get Christmas right.

The message to remember the “true meaning of Christmas” is certainly a lot better when those who are urging this are doing so from some form of Christian basis.  There the reminder is to remember that Christmas is the celebration of the birth of the baby Son of God at Bethlehem.  In such messages, the real “true meaning of Christmas” at least has a chance of shining through.  But even there, appreciation of the birth of Jesus doesn’t always extend much beyond an appreciation of the drama involved in finding a place to stay, the shepherds and the angels, the wise men, and so on.  Certainly those familiar aspects of the story are, and always should be, part of the picture as we celebrate the nativity of our Lord, but they are not the main point.  After all, even these aspects can lead to a guilt-increasing law-view of the ideal Christmas everyone is allegedly supposed to have, all peaceful and serene and warm and family-oriented like the idealized manger scenes we see all over the place this time of year.  And that sort of idealism, even when it’s based on the Biblical story, is not really what Christmas is about, either.  Instead, the true meaning of Christmas can only be appreciated when you look at it together with Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  That’s why this Advent season starts out with the story of Palm Sunday.  Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem was for the sake of His crucifixion and resurrection.  And it is the forgiveness of sins and eternal life that comes from His death and resurrection, that gives Christmas its true meaning.  He’s not just a cute baby in the manger.  He’s our Savior from sin, death, and hell.

In today’s Gospel lesson, we see John the Baptizer, or at least his followers, also becoming somewhat confused about the true meaning of God coming to earth and dwelling with man.  John had been put into prison for his preaching of God’s Word to proclaim the coming of the Messiah.  Being put into prison does not sound like a suitable reward for serving the almighty God, the maker of heaven and earth.  It sounds like a punishment for having done something wrong.  And Jesus himself was not acting like most people thought he would.  He was not leading a political rebellion against the Roman imperial presence in their nation the way most Jews of the time thought the Messiah should.  Instead, He was an itinerant preacher, preaching a message of reconciliation with God through the forgiveness of sins.  And so we can understand how John or his disciples got confused and needed to ask for clarification from Jesus himself.  Jesus simply wasn’t conforming to their preconceived notions about the true meaning of Christmas, the true meaning of God becoming man and saving His people.

But when they get to Jesus, He doesn’t simply tell them flat out, “Yes, I am the Messiah.”  That would be too easy, and for that reason it wouldn’t be convincing.  Anybody can say the words, “Yes, I am the Messiah.”  Instead Jesus points to the things that they can hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them.  These are things it was predicted in the Old Testament that the Messiah would do.  And Jesus is doing them, as they can see with their own eyes.  He does the things that God does.  It’s God’s business to heal the sick, to raise the dead, and so on.  It’s God’s business to give people life in the first place, and so it is God’s business to restore that life where it has been damaged by the effects of sin in our world.  Jesus is doing what His Father does.  And this is what He tells John’s disciples to tell John: Jesus is doing the work that God the Father has given Him to do.

Jesus still does that work today.  But just as you can’t see Him with your five senses, you can’t see His miracles with your five senses either, usually.  But He is still making the blind to see, the lame to walk, the lepers to be clean, and so on even today.  You see, the greatest miracle of all happens when the Holy Spirit puts to death the old Adam in a person and raises him up to eternal life through Holy Baptism.  We who were spiritually blind have been made to see Christ with the eyes of faith.  We who were spiritually sick and dead have been healed and made alive again by the Holy Spirit’s power.  We who were deaf to God’s call have been made to hear the Word of Forgiveness.  We who are poor and nothing by nature in God’s sight have had good news preached to us.

But the miracles that God works in us by Word and Sacrament aren’t just a matter of these kinds of metaphors for spiritual things.  The result of these spiritual things that our God gives us is that we inherit eternal life.  And in eternal life there will be no blindness, no lameness or limping.  There will be no leprosy or deafness.  Nobody will die.  And we will lack nothing that we need for our bodies or souls, because Christ will be right there with us to give us everything we need.  All of these miracles happen when a person comes to faith, and when his faith is sustained and edified by the Word and Sacraments.  We won’t see their effects until the last day, but they are taking place.  Just as John couldn’t see them from his prison cell, we usually can’t see them from our vantage point here in time either, and so we become confused about the true meaning of God coming to earth.  But just as John’s disciples were sent back to him to tell him about them, Jesus sent His own apostles to preach and to write the Holy Scriptures, and He sends His messengers today to preach about what Jesus is doing for each of you through Word and Sacrament.

That is the true meaning of Christmas.  Not just feelings of warmth and joy that we’re told we’re “supposed” to have just because it happens to be December and the stores and people’s homes happen to be decorated with lights and red and green kitsch.  Not even just the birth of a baby in Bethlehem who attracted some unusual attention.  Rather, who that baby in Bethlehem was, and what He came to give us.  Salvation.  Deliverance from eternal death and from all the afflictions which plague us in this life.  He shared in our humanity, took our blindness, lameness, leprosy, deafness, and death upon Himself, so that we might have the good news preached to us that we will live forever with our God and Creator, constantly in His fellowship and presence and never experiencing any of the effects of sin or death upon the world again.  That’s what He does for us, because that’s who He is.  And He shows it by doing it, by healing those who are sick, raising the dead, and so on, and thereby giving a picture of what salvation will mean for us.  Your sins are taken away, and in their place you receive perfection and eternal life.  That’s the true meaning of Christmas.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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