Christmas Eve Sermon 2004| Rev. Rolf Preus| Luke 2:1-14
“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 Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2:8-11
Every once in a while I run across someone who thinks that there’s no such thing as reindeer. I saw hundreds of reindeer when I was a boy traveling through Norway with my family. But it’s not surprising that some people think reindeer are mythical when you consider the fact that they are often pictured as flying through the air with Santa, bringing presents to good little boys and girls around the world. Similarly, many people think that angels are mythical creatures because the popular culture has so thoroughly changed their character from the way they are portrayed in God’s word.
Do people believe in angels today? I wonder. If you were to gather together all the pieces of angelic art that all of us have in our homes, what kind of being would we see? Would we see the angels with fiery swords keeping Adam and Eve out of Paradise? Would we see the avenging angel of death who struck down the firstborn of the Egyptians to force Pharaoh to let Israel go? Would we see the angel who in one night killed one hundred and eighty five thousand Assyrians in order to keep Jerusalem from being destroyed? No, this isn’t how angels are portrayed today. Nowadays angels are mild, gentle, harmless, and feminine. They are sweet and childlike. They are mythical creatures, like Santa and his flying reindeer.
In the Bible, angels are messengers of God who live in the presence of God and witness the glory of God. Angels are spiritual beings. They don’t have bodies. They are depicted in the Bible as taking on the appearance of men. In Isaiah’s vision they are described as having wings. The Bible makes it clear that God created angels as angels. They are not human. They cannot marry or reproduce. Human beings cannot become angels and angels cannot become human beings. Angels aren’t the gentle and harmless creatures of myth. They are powerful messengers of God who evoke fear in the hearts of those to whom they appear.
The first words of the angel to Zacharias were: “Do not be afraid.” The first words of the angel to Mary were: “Do not be afraid.” The first words of the angel to the shepherds were: “Do not be afraid.” Why do the angels always begin by saying, “Do not be afraid”? Because Zacharias, Mary, and the shepherds were all afraid! They saw real angels, not the angels of sentimental myth. They saw messengers of God who lived in the presence of the holy God and reflected that divine glory when they made their appearances to sinful and mortal men.
What do you feel on the inside when you consider that you are in the presence of God? How confident are you that you can live with God, commune with Him, talk to Him, and listen to Him talk to you? Or does the prospect of being with God make you a bit nervous, anxious, or even fearful? What do nervous, anxious, and fearful people do? They try to calm themselves and establish some sort of peace within themselves. This is the goal of every form of self-help religion that is sold throughout our very religious country. Here: follow these seven steps for securing spiritual peace and wellbeing. But spiritual self-help schemes are really no more than spiritual self-deception. The modern myth of sweet and harmless and irrelevant angels bolsters up a modern myth about a kindly but distracted and irrelevant God. The angelic myths of our day may serve to cloud certain sobering facts about God. Isn’t God Himself often seen as that good-natured Santa who says he’ll bring gifts only to the good little boys and girls but ends up making no distinction between bad and good because he know which is which or he doesn’t really care?
When the glory of the Lord shone on the shepherds they were terrified. They knew that they were weak, small, and guilty. They knew that the glory reflected in the angel who stood before them was God’s glory, and they wanted to run and hide but they could not. Who were they to stand before the glory of God?
“Fear not!” Don’t be afraid. The angel doesn’t talk just to soothe as we so often do. We try to offer comfort to people who are afraid without knowing for sure that what we are saying is so. We just want to calm them down and so we talk. But talk is often just talk. God’s talk is never just talk. God’s talk always brings what it says. When the angel says to the shepherds, “I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people,” those words bring the joy of which they speak. A messenger of God delivers God’s message. And while it is true that God is holy and His glory cannot be faced by sinful and mortal people like us, it is also true that this holy and glorious God makes Himself known in such a way that we can face Him. We can know Him. We can confide in Him, trust in Him, run to Him, depend on Him, and take refuge from all our troubles in Him. Why? Let the angel answer why: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”
Take note of the word, Savior. If a Savior is born to you then you need to be saved. But if you don’t need to be saved then surely you don’t need a Savior. Do you need to be saved? Do you need to be rescued? If so, from what do you need to be saved, rescued, delivered?
You need to be delivered from yourself. There’s a reason why the shepherds were terrified at the sight of the angel of the Lord. There’s a reason Zacharias and Mary were both afraid when the angel, Gabriel, appeared to them. The reason is the source of religious mythmaking that redefines God into the image of men. The reason is our own sin and unbelief. We are afraid of the real God because the real God demands what we have failed to deliver. He has every right to expect us to live before Him as He has commanded us to live. He is our Creator and the Creator has the right to govern His creation according to His righteous standards of right and wrong.
Or do we want to argue with God? Do we want to question Him when He speaks to us His holy law? Is God not right to demand that we honor Him above all created things? That we revere His name and worship Him alone? That we take to heart His teaching and neither ignore it nor falsify it? That we honor and respect those who are placed in authority over us? That we help and not hurt our neighbor in every material need he has? That we respect marriage and keep ourselves chaste and pure in what we say and do? That we be satisfied with what we have and not take from others what belongs to them? That we speak the truth to honor and help our neighbor and not repeat unkind and harmful things about him? That we help others keep what belongs to them instead of trying to take advantage of their foolishness for our own benefit? Does not God have the right to give us these commandments and require us to obey them? And haven’t we all disobeyed them and does not our disobedience call for a just God to punish us? This is all true and we know it is true just as the shepherds who were quaking with fear knew it was true.
Sinners in the presence of a holy God can try to turn reality into myth. But it won’t work. Reality wins out over myth every time. And this is why we can rejoice this evening. The good tidings of great joy that will be to all people is no myth. It is the literal truth, and it is to you that God speaks this truth. Jesus is born unto you. Unto you who are burdened by anxiety and fear. Unto you who must confess that you have sinned against God and deserve His punishment and anger. Unto you who have tried and failed and tried and failed and would think of running away from God because you know He knows that you really didn’t try hard enough. Unto all of you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
The modern mythmakers who sentimentalize Christmas beyond recognition so as to market this holy season to people who want to face neither their sin nor their need for a Savior will never succeed in changing Christmas. Here’s why. Christmas is God’s promise to us and God’s promise cannot fail. When God joined the human race as an innocent baby born of the Virgin Mary, God came to us in the only way we could possibly receive Him. He joined us where we live. He did not adopt a human body. He became a human being, body and soul. God in His fullness became a tiny little baby without diminishing His deity in any way. Without limiting Himself or becoming less than God He became one of us. Miracle of miracles! The glorious and almighty God is now one of us! He feels the pain we feel. He faces the temptations we face, but He faces them with an impenetrable purity that overcomes them. His holiness cannot be challenged. He is the only perfectly pure and sinless man who was ever born into this world.
And He is our Savior. He joined the human race for us. He lived His holy life for us. He died the death of all sinners for us. This is how He saved us from our sins. Our sins cannot condemn us because that holy Child of Mary chose to be condemned for our sins in our place. More than that, He lived the life of perfect obedience to God’s law that we failed to live. God, for Christ’s sake, gives us the credit for Jesus’ holy life, even as He laid the blame for all our sins on this same Jesus. As our God and our brother our Lord Jesus has rescued us from sin and death.
Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid, dear Christian. Don’t be afraid of your sins. They cannot claim you or condemn you. Don’t be afraid of failing. Don’t be afraid of suffering. Don’t be afraid of losing. Don’t be afraid of dying. Don’t be afraid of anything in all creation. For Jesus is born for you. He is your Lord. He means you no harm. If God were your enemy, He wouldn’t come to you in such a humble way. If Jesus were only for folks more important than you, then why did the angel announce His birth to shepherds? God comes to you in humility to take your burden away from you. And it is only in humility that you can receive Him. That’s the reality of Christmas, stripped of all myth. Bow down before the Child of Bethlehem. See in Him your God. Finding God clothed in human flesh and blood, don’t look for Him anywhere else. For when you find God in Christ, you have found your Savior. Amen.