Finding God Where He Wants to Be Found
**No Audio| Christmas Sermon 2010| Rev. Rolf Preus| St. Luke 2:8-12
Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” Luke 2:8-12
The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews goes to great lengths to demonstrate the superiority of Jesus Christ over the created angels. The Creator is infinitely greater than his creation. When God joined the human race to become one of us he honored the human race in such a way that the angels have never been honored. God didn’t take upon himself the nature of an angel. He took upon himself the nature of a man.
The shepherds were terrified when they saw one angel because that angel reflected the glory of God in which he lived. The reflected glory of God was enough to strike fear in those men. It’s as if you’d need sunglasses to look at the moon. God’s glory is his holiness, his majesty, his power – everything that makes him God. Sinful human beings cannot tolerate standing in the presence of this glory, even when it is merely reflected and thus dimmed as in an angel.
But these same shepherds were not afraid to see God in the flesh. They went to see Jesus lying in a manger and then went and told everybody what they had seen.
Christmas is the celebration of Christ’s birth. It is God becoming a man. But it is more. It is God becoming a man who humbled himself – from the time he was born until the time he died. It was not enough that he was made man. It was for us men and for our salvation.
Christmas is the most distorted holiday of them all. The very essence of this holiday is routinely distorted and perverted – not by the secularists who are out to make a good, old-fashioned, American dollar – but by the religious types who would locate all goodness and promise and hope within the hearts of people like themselves.
Consider Scrooge. He’s a grumpy old man who loves money more than people. When the Christmas ghosts visit him, they scare the devil out of him and make him into a good man. That’s the message of Christmas. Selfish people become generous. Grumpy people become cheerful. Sinful people become saintly. They just need a little push.
They need more than that. They need a Savior. The message of Christmas is not what you see in the movies and the television specials. It’s what the angels said: “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
It’s heartwarming to see an old grouch become kind and gentle. But Christmas does more than warm our hearts. It saves our souls. A Savior is born. This is the good news of great joy. A Savior is born to you. If he’s born to shepherds watching their fields he’s born to you.
If you have all the goodwill you need, requiring only the right catalyst to bring it to the surface, then you don’t need a Savior. A Savior is for those who, when analyzing their own hearts, find a sin too deep and too strong to purge. A Savior is for those who can’t get the devil scared out of them, can’t get the sin bribed out of them, and can’t get the goodwill forced into them. They are too deeply bound to that inherent selfishness that clings to them even when they try to do what is good.
Christmas is for sinners who need a Savior. The Savior saves. He rescues. He delivers. He saves, rescues, delivers from sin, death, and hell. If these aren’t real enemies then Christmas is just a myth like many other religious myths. Good enough for some pious sentiment during the long dark days of December, perhaps, but not for much more. But if you are a real sinner with real sins and if you are heading toward the grave and if you know that the powers of hell are right here on this earth hounding you then you need the Christ of Christmas.
He is called Christ because he is the One God promised through the prophets, chose, and anointed. He is called the Lord because he is the Lord God. He is God become man. He is true God and true man. He who made us in his image now joins us whom he made. God joins the human race. He whom the worlds cannot enclose doth in Mary’s lap repose. He who governs the wind, the waves, the rain and snow, the movement of the planets, and the rise and fall of every nation on earth lies sleeping in the arms of his teenage virgin mother.
She is the God-bearer. What a wonderful title! We do right to call her the mother of God because the Child she bore was God in the flesh. She is the mother of God because her Child is God of God, light of light, very God of very God.
Look where the God-bearer gives birth: in a stable surrounded by animals. When God joins the human race he is placed in a manger where cattle would feed. He is wrapped in strips of cloth. Note the signs! These are divine identification. Strips of cloth and a manger identify a poor child with no status or rank. There is no doctor, no midwife, nobody but a carpenter who likely knows nothing at all about birthing babies. This is how our God came into this world to save us.
Those who first saw God in the flesh were directed by the angel to the signs. Had they looked for the Savior in a hotel they would not have found him. Had they reasoned out that the Creator of heaven and earth should be honored should be sought among the wealthy and prominent they would have looked for him in vain. The signs signify where he is. Look for the signs and you will find him.
He is no longer wrapped in strips of cloth. But he is wrapped in the Holy Scriptures. There is no other Jesus than the Jesus of the Bible. We cannot separate the true Jesus from what the Holy Scriptures say about him.
He is no longer lying in a manger. But he is with his Church and will be found nowhere else but where his gospel is purely proclaimed and where his sacraments are rightly administered. There is no other Jesus than the Jesus who binds himself in loyal love to his holy Christian Church. We look to the signs to see the Savior. The marks of the Church identify where we will find the Church’s head. So we seek out the gospel and sacraments of Christ and kneel before our Savior where he chooses to reveal himself to us.
God doesn’t belong in a manger. So they say. That’s why the shepherds needed the authoritative word of God’s messenger – his angel – to know to look for him there. Folks don’t want to see the almighty God lying in a manger. It is unsettling. So they twist Christmas into the opposite of what it is. They make the message of Christmas what we do for that little baby (whoever he may be!) rather than who that baby truly is and what he does for us.
But the message of human goodwill, human potential, human goodness, niceness, generosity, and justice is a message of what is not even though it ought to be. We don’t celebrate today what is not but what ought to be. We celebrate what is and remains and stands for us as our salvation.
There is no God but the God who lay in the manger wrapped in swaddling clothes. Woe unto that would be worshipper of God who decides for himself the many by which to identify his god. He has no right. God decides. We may not choose the manner by which to identify our God. God does.
It’s for our own good that God be the one to identify himself and that we rely on the signs he has provided. Otherwise, we’ll end up making God in our own image. We’ll try to reason our way to God and we’ll end up finding anything but God. It’s only when God is in charge of identifying himself that we can be sure that we will have the true God. And the reason we rely on the Holy Scriptures, the reason we rely on the pure gospel, the reason we rely on the holy sacraments of Christ is because in these means of grace we find the true, the authentic, the real Christ of Christmas.
He doesn’t come looking for goodwill so that he may deign to remain where he finds it. He comes looking for sinners who have offended the divine majesty. He comes looking for thieves, liars, adulterers, and children who defy their parents. He comes looking for them, not to punish them or to judge them or to condemn them, but to deliver them from the sins that hurt them. That’s what a Savior does.
The great joy of this holy season is not that a grumpy old skinflint got the devil scared out of him. It is that the God who fills all things and by whom all things were made chooses to join us sinners and take upon himself our sin in order to take it away from us and set us free. The great joy of Christmas is that God chooses to reveal his glory, not in punishing those who deserve it, but in joining his fallen children. He becomes one of us. He becomes a man to do as a man what all of humanity needed doing.
We didn’t know how. That’s a feature of sin, you know. It’s not just a willful selfishness that places us above others and our interests as more important than theirs. It is a spiritual obtuseness – a density of mind – that simply can’t recognize true glory, true virtue, and true human decency.
Our God and brother does the deeds that were our debt to him. He pays our debt. This is how he redeems us or sets us free from our sins. He takes our place and replaces our sin with his own obedience. It is ours now, even as our sin became his. Not only are we set free from guilt and punishment by his payment, we are enlightened. We learn what is precious. The density of mind, the spiritual obtuseness is cleared away and we understand what is truly valuable and what is not. Being rich and powerful and prominent and respected are nothing. They amount to nothing. If they were something God would have honored wealth, power, prominence, and status. But he didn’t. He chose a young, unknown, and insignificant virgin girl who couldn’t afford a servant or a maid. He chose shepherds with little money, no power, and no status.
God chooses those the world despises. So go ahead. Despise yourself this Christmas. Confess your selfishness and sin. Admit that the stuff and the status and the popularity are all nothing. But to have God as your brother, your champion, that is everything. To have the One who lives your life for you and reckons to you his holy obedience so that it covers you in impeccable righteousness – that is wealth beyond all measure. That is the meaning of Christmas. And that’s what brings joy to our hearts. Amen