Where Can God’s Love be Found?
Christmas Eve and Christian Day Sermon| December 24 & 25, 2012| Rev. Rolf Preus| Luke 2:1-14
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.” St. Luke 2:8-12
I once read a sermon on this text by the famous English preacher, Charles Spurgeon. Spurgeon was arguably the best preacher in the English language who has ever lived. I have always marveled at how this fellow could preach to packed halls sermons that must have lasted well over an hour. He preached doctrine. It wasn’t a lot of feel good fluff, socially popular niceties, or politically correct pieties. He preached solid doctrinal sermons and his congregations were mostly working men. They didn’t have much formal education. Nowadays, the television and the internet have turned many churchgoing folks into lazy religious consumers who don’t want to have to think when they go to church. What a shame!
But as great a preacher as Spurgeon was, he was also a Calvinist and as such he suffered from the limitations that Calvin’s false doctrine placed upon him. Calvin, as you may know, taught a limited atonement, claiming that Jesus came into the world, lived, suffered, and died only for the elect. In Spurgeon’s sermon that I recall reading, he made the exegetical point that the King James Version of the Bible had dropped the article before the word people rendering it, “I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people” when it should actually read, “I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all the people.” To all the people, not to all people. The good news, Spurgeon argued, was not for all people indiscriminately. It was for all the people, that is, all of the elect, all of the Christians who will remain steadfast, everyone who will finally be saved. Who can argue that those who reject Christ, who don’t know Christ, and who by their unbelief exclude themselves from the blessings that Christ was born to bring, are the recipients of good news of great joy? So maybe Spurgeon has a point.
No, he doesn’t. It makes no difference whether it reads “all the people” or “all people” because it couldn’t be good tidings of great joy which will be to all the people unless it were good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. There can be no good news for the elect unless that good news is for everybody in the whole wide world.
And that means you! This Savior, whose nature did he assume? Only the nature of faithful Christians who trust in him, obey him, and follow him all their days of their life? Did he not assume the nature of all humanity? He most certainly did. And that means he was born to be the Savior of Muslims who worship Allah and bow toward Mecca, of Hindus who worship many gods, of atheists who worship no god at all, and of narcissistic, self-indulgent people who worship themselves, their pleasures, their desires, their thoughts, and their feelings. He was born to be the Savior of sinners, as St. Paul wrote so clearly and simply, “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” (1 Timothy 1:15) If he came to save sinners he came to save sinners even those sinners who never come to faith in him and benefit from their salvation.
Christmas means that God’s love is universal. No one is excluded. For if he assumed our human nature that is what he redeemed. God became a man for all mankind. God wants all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. If he didn’t, he would not have become one of us to do as one of us the work of obedience his holy law required and to suffer as one of us the punishment for sin that justice demanded.
God sent his angels to announce his birth. Those whom God chose to be the first to hear of it were shepherds watching over their flocks by night. He chose common men, working men, average men, with average lives. There was nothing special in the shepherds that would have called for their formation as the first assembly to hear the good news of God’s coming in the flesh. To preach the gospel to shepherds is to preach it to the whole human race. God’s love in Christ is universal.
And it is very specific. When we use the word universal it might conjure up notions of a general, philosophic truth of transcendent hope and peace – a philosophy, if you will, of peace and goodwill. Many hold to this notion of Christmas. Their idea of Christmas is a sentimental mishmash of happy feelings and busy-body dogoodism. One size fits all. Everybody can join in, supplying whatever particulars they find meaningful.
When we lived in Racine we had an orthodontist who was from India. She was a Hindu. She thought the world of Jesus. She knew I was a Lutheran pastor and she liked to let me know how much she respected Jesus. As a Hindu she was very open minded, and I’m sure she had figured out a way to make Jesus fit into her religion.
I also knew a Muslim fellow who ran a neighborhood store. He was a Palestinian who had grown up in Jerusalem. He also had a very high opinion of Jesus. He regarded Jesus as a prophet. He believed that Jesus was born of a virgin and lived a sinless life. Like all Muslims, he looked up to Jesus and Jesus was a part of his religion, too.
But Jesus is who Jesus is. It was the pre-incarnate Christ who spoke to Moses from the burning bush, identifying himself as I AM. He will not permit himself to be fashioned according to the desires of false religions. The universality of God’s love in Christ does not accommodate the beliefs of all people. Indeed, it contradicts them, refutes them, and reveals the saving truth to those blinded by lies.
When the angel who preached the Christmas gospel to the shepherds appeared to them the glory of the Lord shone around them. This was a messenger of God and you had better listen when God speaks. If he speaks he has something to say. The shepherds were terrified because they knew they were in the presence of God and what God says goes. But what God said through the angel calmed their fears. He revealed his love for all people. He defined his love and he located his love.
God defines his love. His love is defined as a Savior who is Christ the Lord. You may think that you know what God’s love should give you. God knows better than you. You may think that if God really loved you as he should love you he would take away from you a particular problem that besets you. He would get you a better job, change the circumstances of your life, take away an illness, or improve a relationship. But he is the expert on love. He is love. He knows what his love requires. It is that you have a Savior from sin. This is the good tidings of great joy that God tells you through his messenger.
Your biggest problem is your sin against God. It isn’t the wrong done against you by others. It’s the wrong you’ve done to others. It’s not that folks don’t give you the respect or attention you deserve. It’s that you don’t care about your neighbor’s needs as much as you care about yours. His problems and his suffering and the unfairness he must face are not as important to you as your own problems and your own suffering and the unfairness you must face. You don’t love your neighbor as yourself. That’s sin and that’s your problem.
Neither do you love God above all things. Instead of desiring God’s will above your own will because God is God and you want to honor him as God you want God to conform his will to yours and thus you put yourself above God. That’s sin and that’s your problem.
If God is going to love you, he must define how that love actually works. And he has. It is a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. The Lord. Not just a holy baby boy. Not just a prophet. Not just a unique human being, even the most holy, pious, and wise human being who has ever lived. But the Lord. Islam is excluded. Hinduism is excluded. All other religions are excluded. There is no room for any other religion, any other philosophy, any other interpretation of this little baby Jesus than that given by God’s infallible messenger. He is the Lord. He is God of God. He is the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
God defines his love. It is your salvation from sin. It is God rescuing you from the punishment you have deserved because of your sin. It is deliverance from death and hell, which is the bitter fruit of sin. God’s love for you is defined as your salvation in Christ, the God-man. And there is salvation in no one else. The Christian faith is the only true faith because Christ alone is the Savior of sinners. God defines his love in Christ.
And God locates his love. God’s messenger gave them the town: Bethlehem. He gave them the specific location within that town: a baby wrapped in strips of cloth, lying in a manger. Naturally, it would be Bethlehem because that was David’s home town and Jesus was the heir to David’s throne. Perhaps they could have figured that out if they knew their Bible and were familiar with the prophecy of Micah. But they would not have been able to locate the Christ Child without the specific detail of a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. They wouldn’t have looked for him there. It wouldn’t have occurred to them. The universal love of God for sinners is located where God says it is located and if you look elsewhere you won’t find it.
The universal love of God in Christ means that God loves all people. His love is universal. It encompasses everyone everywhere. But it is located specifically and only where God says it is located. Those shepherds could have searched all over Bethlehem and never found their Savior if they didn’t look in the manger. The manger was the only place where he could be found.
Who would look for God where the animals eat their food? Who would think that God would even become a man? This precious truth is simply beyond any mortal’s ability to fathom. But that when God became a human being he would choose such a lowly bed for himself, that he would assume such a humble demeanor – this is what we would call counterintuitive. It’s not what you would assume. But that’s where he was.
God locates his love. We don’t tell God where he is to reveal himself and how. He tells us. Jesus continued to live a humble life of obedience, assuming the role of a servant, submitting to abuse and injustice, finally suffering and dying as a criminal on a cross. The holy Child remained holy. He thought, spoke, and did only holy things. And God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us as he laid on him the sin of the whole human race. And he died. From the manger to the cross God’s love was located in Jesus.
And so it is today. Where is he? He is with us, his holy Christian Church. The sign of swaddling cloths and a manger have long gone. Today Christ directs us to the sign of Holy Baptism where he washed away our sins and became our God. He gives us the signs of bread and wine, which are his body and blood. The same body that was laid in the manger and nailed to the cross is given to us to eat in the sacramental bread. The same blood that Jesus shed when he was named Jesus at the age of eight days and later shed when he suffered and died for our sins is given to us to drink in the sacramental wine. God locates our salvation in his holy sacraments, so that wherever we have these signs we have the Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
God locates our salvation in the good news of great joy was and is for all people, not just for all the people, as Charles Spurgeon supposed. But it is only the people, that is, the Holy Christian Church, who receive the good tidings of great joy. It is for all. It is received only through faith. This is why we gather together in Jesus’ name as his holy Church. On that first Christmas, God could not be found except in the manger. On this Christmas, God cannot be found except in his holy Christian Church. Here his love is defined. Here his love is located. Here, where the gospel is proclaimed purely and the sacraments are administered according to God’s word is where Christ chooses to save us sinners from our sins. So here we are. We listen to the good tidings of great joy and we know with the certainty of faith that it is for us, all of us. Amen