Christmas Eve Sermon 2002
The Message of the Angels
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 unto you is born this day in the city of David as Savior, who
is Christ the Lord.”
We live at a
time when the holy mysteries of God have been reduced to myths. It is a time of deep unbelief.
The insincere and obsequious words – “And there’s nothing
wrong with that!” – from Jerry Seinfeld’s hugely popular
television situation comedy summarize quite well the spirit of our day.
There’s nothing wrong with that.
Or that. Or anything
else, for that matter. And
since there’s nothing wrong with that, there’s nothing right with
this. Wrong and right change with our own minds.
If God exists he certainly has nothing to say that we need to
But this is the
mythical world. The world
of the Bible is the real world. The
word of God describes the world that God made.
It also describes how the world went wrong and how God made it
right again. The unreal
world is the world that we create.
Fallen sinners create a false world in which the glory, majesty,
holiness, and justice of God are a thing of the past.
It’s a world without sin or permanent standards of right and
wrong. It’s a world without truth.
It’s a world in which “whatever” has replaced “this is
most certainly true.” This
mythical man-made world surrounds us and we cannot escape its influence.
So, welcome to
church! Here God gathers us
together in order to clarify for us the truth.
God joins Himself to us here in this place because here we are
gathered together in Jesus’ name.
To be gathered in Jesus’ name is to be gathered together by the
Holy Spirit who gives to us the treasure of God’s grace in Christ.
He does this through the gospel and the sacraments.
Of course, the
expression “gospel and sacraments” can easily become empty cliches
that have no meaning. We
cannot understand how precious Christ’s gospel and sacraments are to
us unless and until we look at the world that God made and take to heart
that that is the world in which we are living.
The world of modern unbelief is the false, mythical, and pretend
world; a world created by sinners who cannot tolerate confronting the
truth about themselves.
The real world
is inhabited by angels. Angels
are spiritual beings. This
means that you cannot see them. Angels
take on a visible or physical form only for our benefit.
By nature, since they are spirits, they are invisible.
The word “angel” means messenger.
God sends angels as His representatives.
They do His bidding. The
first time angels appear in the Bible is in Genesis 3:24 where we read:
“So He drove out the man; and He placed cherubim at the east of the
garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the
way to the tree of life.” These angels with their fiery swords stood guard keeping us
out of Paradise. The tree
of life bore fruit that only those who bore God’s image could eat. Paradise was the place God made for us in our innocence.
Only those who remained true and holy could remain.
The angels of God stood against us.
They were God’s witnesses of our fall and every sin that
proceeded from it. The holy
angels who live in the presence of the holy God reflect upon sinful
humanity the glory to which we cannot attain. We are shut out of God’s presence. The angels teach us that.
So it was that
when Isaiah the prophet saw the vision of the holy God surrounded by
angels, he cried out in stark fear, “Woe is me!
I am undone.” Only
the holy angels can live with God as God is.
And the flaming swords turning every which way remind us of that
from which we are shut out. We
are shut out of heaven, doomed to die.
If you read
over the account of Christ’s birth in Luke’s Gospel you will find
that every time an angel makes an appearance he tells the people not to
be afraid. In Luke 1:13 the
angel Gabriel tells Zacharias not to be afraid.
In Luke 1:30 he tells Mary not to be afraid.
Again, in our text, the angel told the shepherds not to be
afraid. Even folks who’ve
never seen an angel and cannot consciously understand just what an angel
represents are nevertheless terrified by an angel’s presence.
There is within us – deep down inside of us – a knowledge of
our sin that we scarcely dare admit.
We were there with our first parents when they rejected God’s
word for the lies of the devil and stepped boldly into the first sin.
We were there with them when God pronounced the verdict on all of
sinful humanity: “From dust you are and to dust you shall return.” Deep down within the conscience of every sinner there is this
knowledge that the angels bar our way back to God. Paradise is closed to us because we have joined in the
rebellion of our first parents against the holy God.
We have fallen from the image of holiness in which God created
us. Heaven is locked. The proof is the sin within us.
The proof is the sin all around us.
The proof is the evil permeating every facet of life, leading
everything and everyone to death.
Of course this
is why we create our religious myths.
The truth is too bitter to face.
influential theologian of the 20th century was a man named
Rudolf Bultmann whose essay, “New Testament and Mythology,” captured
the imagination of nominal Lutherans around the world.
In this essay, Bultmann argued that modern man couldn’t accept
what he called the myths of the Bible.
Modern man no longer lived in a world inhabited by angels and
demons in which heaven and hell are real places and in which a cosmic
battle takes place between the powers of God and the devil.
Bultmann argued that these are all mythical features of a world
long gone and we must learn in our day how to preach the gospel to
people without expecting them to accept myths in which folks today can
no longer believe. Bultmann
was widely read and quoted by theologians all over Europe and in America
and was touted as a brilliant theologian.
But he was a
fool. When he noticed that
modern man no longer believed in angels and demons he should have asked
the obvious question. Did
modern man still believe in God? It
wasn’t the alleged “myths” of the Bible that the 20th
century had a hard time swallowing.
It was the holy and immutable God.
Bultmann was probably right when he said that his generation no
longer believed in angels. What he failed to understand was what that really meant.
It meant that modern man no longer believed in God.
believing in God doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist.
Covering up our sins and our mortality with all sorts of cheesy
expressions of religious sentimentality or humanistic love won’t undo
the brutal fact that the doors of Paradise are locked tight and God’s
angels won’t let any sinners back in.
And denying the existence of angels and demons didn’t end the
battle between good and evil that during that most sophisticated of
centuries yielded the torture and murder of more people than in any
previous century in history. While
modern man was busy denying what he called a myth he could hardly deny
the evidence of evil all around him.
The fear we
have is the fear of facing the sin that God already sees.
The fear of the shepherds in the presence of God’s glory is the
fear of our hearts, too. We
are afraid of God. We are
afraid of what God can do to us. We
know that the angels bar the door to heaven and we know they do so at
God’s own righteous command.
Listen to the angelic message.
It has changed. The door is no longer barred.
Heaven is no longer closed.
God is no longer the enemy of sinners.
He has become their friend.
How? How can this
be? Is it that evil is no longer evil and good no longer good?
No. It is rather
that God has now joined the human race and He lies in a manger an
innocent baby boy. The
fiery swords of the holy angels have been stopped.
The judgment against sinful humanity has been lifted.
The breach between God and sinners has been overcome.
The holy God has become one with His fallen creation.
These are the
good tidings of great joy that will be for all people everywhere.
This is the gospel. It
is not a message of what you must do to bring God back to you as your
friend. It is the message
of what God has done to become your friend.
He became your brother. He
chose to embrace everything about you that you were afraid even to
admit. He chose in his love
to confront your hatred. He
chose in his purity to overcome your lust. He chose in his humility to overpower your pride.
He chose to take upon Himself everything about you that you
couldn’t bear to face. He
chose to take away everything about you that kept you away from God.
God refused to stay away from you.
He came to you. That’s
what the angels have said.
doesn’t wait to be invited in. The
shepherds didn’t invite him to the hills where they were watching
their sheep. Bethlehem
didn’t invite him into its inn. The
world that shut Him out never did invite Him in.
But He needs no invitation.
His grace alone moves Him. That’s
all the reason He needs to come to sinners.
His love is enough. It
is more than enough.
And He loves
you. Don’t be afraid of
Him. How could He have
designs to do you harm when He comes as a little baby?
Could God make it any clearer to your guilty heart that He comes
to you on a mission of mercy and peace? He
doesn’t come with flaming swords and the sound of a trumpet calling
for your judgment. He comes
as a little baby. He is
your brother. Your brother
is your God. Your God is
your brother. Paradise has
come down to earth and wherever Christ rules over us we have already
been made heirs of heaven.
He rules from
the manger and from the cross. He
rules in his incarnation and atonement.
His incarnation is where He takes on Himself our very nature and
become a human being like we are except without sin.
His atonement is where He suffers for our sins and removes them
from us as far as the East is from the West.
He joins us in our sinful weakness and He doesn’t turn away
from us. Instead, He loves
us. He sees within us what
we were afraid to face and He faces it for us.
He bears in His own divine body all of the sin, the guilt, and
anger, and the damnation that belonged to all of us.
The manger is no sentimental prop by which we may avoid looking
to the cross. To the
contrary, the Savior born in Bethlehem was born of a woman in order to
fulfill His own law, the law that condemned all sinners.
He became our Savior by bearing that very condemnation.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in
Christ Jesus. There is
rather peace with the God who has opened heaven to us.
swords of the fierce cherubim have given way to the gospel sermon of the
angels to the shepherd. We
have found our heaven in the incarnate and crucified God: our brother,
Jesus. And it is only by trusting in Him that we find the peace of
sins forgiven and fellowship with the holy God who created us in His
image. By finding our
refuge in the God lying in the manger, we are ready to live in eternal
joy with God in all His heavenly glory.
Rev. Rolf D. Preus