Christmas Eve Sermon 2002| Rev. Rolf Preus| St. Luke 2:8-11
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 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 know.
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.
A very 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.
But not 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.
But listen. 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.
This Savior 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.
The flaming 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. Amen.