Christmas Day Sermon, 2001| Rev Rolf Preus| Luke 2:1-14|
If you have ever thought that God gives no thought to the affairs of this world, you need look no further than the account of Christ’s birth in St. Luke’s Gospel to see otherwise. Not only is God aware of what is going on among us, he is in charge of everything. Caesar Augustus cared nothing about the true God. He blasphemously laid claim to deity for himself. But, as is the case with Caesars, kings, governors, and other rulers, the man wanted more money in the hands of the government. So it was his idea to take a census of the entire Roman world, including even the Jews living in Palestine. In this way he could gain more money in taxes. This is what sent Joseph and Mary to their ancestral home in Bethlehem and this is why the inn had no vacancies. The holy family had to sleep in a stable. All of this was in God’s eternal plan. The Son of David promised for so long was to be born in David’s town, and God directed the affairs of state to see to it that it happened, just as the prophets had foretold.
You see a young girl, probably no more than sixteen years old, with nowhere else to lay her infant child than in a manger. You see weary travelers subjected to inhospitable circumstances. You don’t see the hand of God when you look at the history of that first Christmas. But away from the stable, away in the fields where shepherds were watching their sheep, you hear God speak through his angel. There is no glory revealed in the manger. Yet on the hay lay the eternal God. The glory is reflected in the face of an angel. In heaven is God in all of God’s glory. Just the dim reflection of that glory is enough nearly to scare the shepherds to death. But God has descended from his glory in heaven and now lies in a manger, in a stable, because there was no room for Him in the inn.
Note this fact. You see fear in the shepherds when they are confronted with an angel of the Lord. But there is no fear in the stable where the Lord Himself lies on the hay where the cattle lately fed. The messenger of God reflects God’s glory. God Himself hides his glory. This is why the angel can say, “Do not be afraid!” This is why the angel can talk of good news that brings great joy. Don’t be afraid because God has clothed his glory in the humble dress of an infant. Don’t be afraid because God has joined you where you live. He has come to you in such a wonderful way that you don’t need to run from him. He is born a baby. He is born for you. He has come to be your Savior. He has come to save the world from its sin. He is wrapped in strips of cloth, lying in a manger. Glory belongs to the God who is in the highest heavens. Why? Because this same God has joined his people here below. He has brought peace and goodwill to the whole world. He has done so by becoming flesh and blood.
The God who directed the census and the taxation and the travels of Mary and Joseph is the God who became a baby in the Virgin’s womb. The God who directs the orbit of the world and the falling of the snow is the God who cried out for his mother’s milk while lying on hay, the food of animals. All the glory of man retreats in the face of God’s glory! Yet, he hides it. He chooses to come to us almost in a disguise. In fact, had the shepherds not been given the signs of swaddling cloths and the manger they would have looked in vain and never found the Child. Looking for God by seeking out God’s glory is to find yourself lost in the looking. The only way to find God is to look to where he has covered his glory and that is in the Person of His Son who assumed our flesh and blood and became our brother.
The theological term is the incarnation. This simply means that God became flesh. He became a human being. This mystery goes beyond anyone’s ability to fathom. How can it be? Who can understand? As Luther put it, “He whom the worlds cannot enclose doth in Mary’s lap repose.” Christian hymnists have penned quite a few memorable lines expressing the wonder of God becoming a baby boy. Here are just a few of them.
The Word becomes incarnate and yet remains on high.
And cherubim sing anthems to shepherds from the sky.
God is man, man to deliver.
His dear Son now is one with our blood forever.
Ah, Lord, who hast created all,
How weak art Thou, how poor and small.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail th’incarnate Deity!
O see the miracle of love;
That God Himself, from heaven above,
Come down to be our Brother!
Now we call the incarnation of the Son of God a mystery, but it isn’t a “whodunit” type of mystery, as if we are kept in the dark by hearing of it and then we need to figure it out. In fact, it is precisely the opposite. God reveals to us this holy mystery and in so doing he enlightens us. We can now see and understand everything even though we cannot understand the mystery itself. Who can figure out how the infinite God can become a seven-pound baby boy? And how could it be that the almighty God could now be dependent upon a maiden to care for him, to feed him, to be his mother? What mind can explain how it is that the eternal and immutable God can and did become a baby boy who grows into manhood like every other baby boy? No, this mystery is far beyond our minds’ ability to explain. Yet we believe it. We rely upon it. We trust in it. And when we do, everything that was dark for us is now pure light.
Before we knew God as the baby lying on the hay we tried to find him by speculating on his nature, by examining his universe, by trying to follow his law and so find our way to his heart. And all of this was futile and got us nowhere but mired in confusion and ignorance. We couldn’t find God. We could only run from him as from the source of glory that frightens sinners to death. If we do not know God as God lies helpless in the manger we cannot know him at all. Because in order for you and me to know God we must first know that he has peace and goodwill in his heart toward us and we cannot know that until we see God lying in the manger.
No, I cannot understand how he who created all could come to be so small. I cannot understand how the Lord of the nations can be the infant nursing at his mother’s breast. But I do not need to understand this. I need to believe it. And that faith, that simple trust as of a child, is the personal miracle of Christmas for us Christians.
It was all for you. “Unto you,” the angel said to the shepherds. That angel was God’s messenger also to you. What do you feel inside of yourself this morning? Do you feel God’s goodwill? Do you feel peace? Or do you feel your own sin? Do you remember how you showed anger and judgment against your neighbor? Does your heart feel the failure for which you are personally responsible because you haven’t shown Christ’s love, you haven’t lived at peace, you haven’t treated others as you have thought they should treat you? Do you look inside your heart and life today and see the exact opposite of goodwill? Do you see a judgmental spirit? A willingness to condemn? Do you remember acts and words that cause hurt and that make for bitterness? Do you harbor resentment toward those who have wronged you? Are you feeling guilt for your doubts about God’s love and his desire to care for you? Do you remember your wrongs of thought, word and deed, committed against the divine majesty of your God? Are you afraid of what God could do and would do to you should he give you what you deserve?
Look at your God! See him for who he is! He is lying in humility to be your Savior. There is God’s goodwill toward you. There is God’s peaceful intention for you. Look at the Christ Child and see your God! Don’t look at your own efforts to please God, but look instead at Christ’s life of perfect obedience rendered for you. Don’t look at your own failures to stand up to evil, but see this innocent Child defeat evil for you. Don’t look inside your heart to find the assurance that God really and truly loves you as you are and receives you as his dear child. Look instead inside God’s heart. It is revealed to you in his incarnate Son. The God become flesh who once laid in a manger is given to us. The same body that Mary held in her arms and the same blood that flowed through his veins and was shed on the cross are given to us in the sacramental bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. The God who once humbled himself still comes to us in humble means that won’t frighten us away. How else could we receive him? How else could we trust in him? How else could we love and serve him? He means us no harm. And so we run to him and embrace him in faith. Next to the incarnation itself, the faith that God has gently planted in our hearts is the greatest miracle of Christmas!