What Brings Glory to God
Christmas Sermon 2009| Rev. Rolf Preus| St. Luke 2: 1-14
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. St. Luke 2, 8-14
We need to learn to find God where God tells us to find him. This is what Christmas teaches us.
God took up residence in the womb of the Virgin Mary. We should not hesitate to refer to Mary as the mother of God. The Child she bore on Christmas was God in the flesh. As St. John says, “The Word was God . . . and the Word became flesh.”
The Lord God himself chose such a birth. In order to carry out his eternal will, he submitted to the government of man. Caesar Augustus wanted more money. When doesn’t the government want more money? So Joseph and Mary both traveled to their ancestral home of Bethlehem. Both of them were descendents of King David and Bethlehem was David’s home town.
Caesar was no Christian, but God was in control of Caesar’s decision. God had spoken through Micah the prophet:
But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting.
The Scriptures had to be fulfilled. Joseph and Mary had to travel to Bethlehem. There the eternal God would be born of a humble virgin.
The virgin birth of Christ was a biological miracle. Mary had never known a man. She was a virgin. There is nothing in the Bible to support the fanciful notion that Mary herself was conceived without sin or kept free from original sin. Mary’s immaculate conception is not taught in the Bible. But her conception of Jesus was immaculate. No taint of sin was transmitted from her virgin womb to the Son of God. When the Lord Jesus received from Mary his human nature, he received no sin. He was born innocent and pure. God was born as a man. It was a holy birth.
The world did not care. He came to his own. Israel’s God assumed Jewish flesh and blood. His people didn’t recognize him. Undoubtedly the visitors in Bethlehem prayed to the God of Israel on the night that Jesus was born. They prayed to him but made no room for him. He was born in a stable. His first bed was a manger where cattle fed. Martin Luther marvels at the circumstances of his birth:
Ah, Lord, who hast created all,
How weak art Thou, how poor and small,
That Thou dost choose Thine infant bed
Where humble cattle lately fed!
The Good Shepherd, who gave his life for his sheep, chose to announce his birth among us to shepherds. An angel is a messenger from God. He lives in the presence of God. He speaks on behalf of God. When the angel appeared to the shepherds they were terrified. This was no fear of surprise that would subside once the shock wore off. This fear was not inspired by ignorance of what the bright light might be – as if they had seen a UFO – but by the knowledge of who and what God is. He is a consuming fire. His angels reflect his glory and no sinner can stand before God in his glory and live.
The angel preaches. Fear not. Don’t be afraid. It’s not that God’s glory is nothing to be feared. It’s not that sinners can stand in their naked sin before God after all because God will wink at sin and permit it to flourish. No, God’s nature cannot abide sin and God cannot change.
Fear not because I bring you good tidings of great joy. To you. No matter who you may be, it is to you that I am talking. It shall be to all people. Therefore it is to you. So listen to the angel, he’s talking to you.
He says, “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” Unto you. He is born for you. He assumed human nature. You are a human being. He assumed your nature. He became your brother. The message is for you. The birth is for you.
The words “for you” require faith. They require faith and they elicit faith. I cannot understand it. Faith is as great a miracle as is God becoming flesh and blood. The birth of the one brings about the birth of the other. Martin Luther wrote in one of his many Christmas sermons:
We see here how Christ, as it were, takes our birth from us and absorbs it in his birth and grants us his, that in it we might become pure and holy, as if it were our own, so that every Christian may rejoice and glory in Christ’s birth as much as if he had himself been born of Mary as was Christ. (Lenker, Vol. 1, page 144)
This happens by faith. We believe the words “unto you” and “for you.” We take those words to be from God. They are. Angels of God speak for God. We take them to apply to us. They do. God speaks to us and we take him at his Word and Jesus is born in us and we join him at his manger and share in every treasure he brings to earth from heaven.
The signs are swaddling clothes and a manger. The shepherds follow the signs and find Jesus. God identifies himself with signs. God chooses the sign. We don’t. God commands Holy Baptism. So we baptize. Jesus commands that we eat and drink his body and blood with the sacramental bread and wine. So we eat and drink. In these sacraments we find the Lord Jesus just as surely as the shepherds found the Lord Jesus wrapped in strips of cloth lying in a manger.
What does it mean that a Savior has been born to us? What are the good tidings of great joy? What is this gospel, this good news?
Consider the familiar words: Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill, toward men. They go together. The glory to God in heaven goes together with the peace and goodwill toward men here on earth. God is glorified in heaven. The angels sing his praises. The Church in heaven glorifies his name. Why? For what? What, specifically, is it for which they glorify God? It is the peace and the goodwill toward men here on earth. That’s what brings glory to God in heaven.
The peace comes from God. The goodwill comes from God. The Prince of Peace is lying in a manger. There is God’s goodwill. There God is gracious. There God looks at us favorably. The peace and the goodwill of Christmas are not the peace and goodwill of humanity. It is the peace and goodwill of God in Christ toward humanity.
Some have twisted the meaning of this portion of God’s Word to mean, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to men of goodwill.” They change the meaning of Christmas to be that God is at peace with men who are kindly disposed toward him. The peace of Christmas then depends on man’s goodwill. People who misinterpret the text to mean this will search in vain for sufficient goodwill among men to bring about God’s peace. So for them, Christmas is a promise that is never fulfilled. If only there was enough goodwill among us to bring about true peace!
We will not despise the sincere efforts to make peace and not war. Jesus blesses the peacemakers. He says that they shall be called children of God. To turn aside an insult with a word of kindness is to behave as a child of God. When Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek he was teaching us how to make peace and how to live at peace with one another. Self-vindication is no Christian quest. It’s the way of the unregenerate. It’s the road to conflict. It brings about war.
But there is no true peace for those who are not at peace with God. This is why we must know the true peace of Christmas. It is a blessed reality right now. But only those who seek a Savior from their sin will find it. Those who think that their own goodwill will make God peaceful toward them despise the true Christ and the true meaning of Christmas.
God did not become one of us as an illustration of divine love. He didn’t become one of us merely to show us how to live and love. God became one of us to do as one of us what none of us could do. “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” A Savior saves. He rescues you from what would hurt you and condemn you. The birth of a Savior brings God’s peace down to earth. The birth of a Savior brings God’s goodwill to us all. The birth of Jesus is God becoming a man to establish peace between God and men, that is, between God and us, between God and you.
We have waged war. We’ve even sought God’s approval for our score settling. Surely, we have claimed, God will side with me against the one who has done me wrong. We have taken our neighbor’s name and damaged it. We have rejoiced in the sin of others so that we would look better by comparison. We have sinned against God. We have done those things that war against peace.
Christmas is for us. It is for us who confess our sins of pride. It is for us who have failed to live in imitation of our Savior, Jesus. Christmas is God coming to us and bringing the peace of sin forgiven. He sees all the sin we have committed this past year. He sees what we’ve hidden. He sees it all. Then he watches as his dear Son takes on holy flesh and blood in the Virgin’s womb. He watches as this holy Child grows to be a man, never failing to love, never failing to do that which peace requires done. He watches as the holy Child become holy Man walks to the cross in his innocence and willingly bears the blame of all the sin of all humanity. He watches as he takes away all sin, all guilt, and the cause of the breach between God and man. He sees all this before it happens. In the birth of his holy Son he declares this peace and goodwill toward men. This is no unfulfilled Christmas wish. This is the abiding truth of Christmas gospel declared by God himself: peace on earth, goodwill toward men. This is what brings glory to God in heaven. Amen