Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas Day

Micah 5:2-5a - Christmas Day - December 25, 2016
The Completed Puzzle

“The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).  So it has always been.  God hides his majesty and glory.  He always has.  “If God is real and so powerful – if God wants us to know him so badly and insists that everyone believe in him – why doesn’t he show himself and quit hiding?”  So says the fool.  He is a fool, though, not because such a request is necessarily unreasonable.  If aimed at our would-be rulers, this is a very legitimate question.   But no, he is a fool because he assumes that to know God is like knowing details of a celebrity politician and to scrutinize his credentials.  But God is not our equal.  He does not exist on our plain of existence.  He is not beholden to time or space, let alone scientific investigation.  And furthermore, he has no obligation to lay his cards on the table.  Nor does he want to be known by such minds that would insist that he cater to human demands of proof.  He wants to be known by faith alone.  Faith exists in humility.  To the proud he is terrifying.  So he must remain.  To the humble he is comforting.  And so it shall ever be.  God wants our knowledge of him to consist of humble faith, not impudent demands for evidence.  This is the whole point.  God wills to remain hidden to those who put God on trial.  But he chooses to reveal himself in kindness and love to those who know they’re on trial. 
The word of the cross is of course the message of the atonement. 
It is the good news that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.  But the word of the cross is also shorthand for all the promises of God that are met in Christ – including the promise of his birth.  The Word was made flesh.  Christ is the Word by whom all things were made.  He is the Word by which all divine things have ever been made known through prophets and angels to the feeble minds of men.  God’s Word is not answerable to sinful man.  Therefore, “since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the foolishness of what we preach to save those who believe.”  This foolishness culminates in the death of Jesus.  But it begins to shine forth for us in cheering light on Christmas, when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  The incarnation of the Son of God is not only intrinsic to and necessary for our salvation, it is equally offensive to the wisdom of man.  It is the beginning of that foolishness that saves us. 
Without the Word nothing was made that was made.  And without this Light, all men with their wisdom and strength and cleverness and virtue and goodness, were benighted in darkness.   This light shone in the darkness.  This morning we consider how this Light, this eternal Word, was shining throughout the ages and how his promises come to fulfillment only for those who received his Word as he in his wisdom had chosen to deliver it.  The Word has been shining not to illuminate the obstinate mind of man who demanded an answer.  No, but the Word has been shining on those who humbly acknowledge that without God’s gentle and consistent instruction, we are lost. 
As a child receives a piece of a puzzle with confident trust that it will fit into the larger picture, so God sustained the faith and fed the hope of his people by giving them clues to his grand plan of salvation one piece at a time.  But in childlike faith, they received each piece as a piece and promise of the whole. On Christmas, we celebrate the completion of the puzzle, the final connecting of the ancient promise for God to become Man.   We see the Old Testament pieces – some on the edges, others in the middle – form the New Testament image as the mystery is revealed concerning Jesus Christ and his work of human salvation. 
Our Old Testament lesson from the prophet Micah is working with many different portions of the puzzle.  He takes us to the Judean city of Bethlehem.  Out of Bethlehem came David, the ancestor of Jesus. 
Now David as a shepherd boy was chosen and appointed by God to be King of Israel.  He stands in the middle of the Old Testament.  Under his reign, many promises seemed to come to fulfillment, such as that Israel would become a glorious and great kingdom.  And it did.  Of course, even the seeming fulfillments of these prophecies were themselves prophecies of something greater than David and greater than David’s son.  Jesus is both David’s Son and David’s Lord.  As Jesus himself said, “A greater than Solomon is here.”  His kingdom is not of this world.  Even in Micah 5 we receive such clues.  Micah sets before our eyes first the double origin, second the double Office, and third the double kingdom of the Child who was born in Bethlehem. 
First, therefore, it deals with the double origin of that Child.  His origin is human as the first promise to Adam and Even made plain.  Micah refers to a woman who gives birth to a Child.  Other messianic prophecies establish his origin from the house of David.  Isaiah 9 speaks about a Son who is born and who shall rule on the throne of David forever as God himself promised to David earlier.  Isaiah 7 speaks about a virgin who will bear a Son.  According to Isaiah 11, a new branch will come out of the stem of Jesse, upon whom the Holy Spirit will rest.  Jesse was the father of David.  The stem of Jesse is therefore another expression for the royal house of David.  Jeremiah says this man will be called, “The Lord our Righteousness.” 
So the biblical prophets give voice and chime together in their testimony of the future Descendant of David, who after a long time would again reestablish the lost kingdom.  That is therefore the one, the earthly side of the origin of the Christ Child. 
The other side is his heavenly, his divine origin.  Micah says, his goings forth are from of old, from everlasting.  From the beginning of creation God intended to send his Son.  Already Adam and Eve heard the promise of him who would crush the serpent’s head.  He was the Seed, yes.  But he was the Seed of the woman who has no seed.  His Father was not made from clay, therefore, but is the eternal God.     
Also with the other prophets, the newborn Child obtains a name and a title of honor that totally prove his divine origin, and that are given to no one else in the Old Testament.  In Isaiah 9, he’s called: Wonderful, Councilor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Peace of Prince, so that his dominion will be great and there will be no end of Peace upon the throne of David and in his Kingdom, that he might strengthen and support it through justice and righteousness from now on into eternity.  And in Isaiah 7 we hear what the Virgin would call her Son – Immanuel, which means God with us.   [i]
Second: Just as the Son of David has a double origin, so he has a double Office.  Just as David was both shepherd and king in Israel, so also is his Son and Lord, Jesus Christ.  Before David was anointed by Samuel to be king, he was a shepherd.  When Samuel was supposed to choose the king from the sons of Jesse, by God’s command, David wasn’t there, and had to be fetched from his pastoral service with the flock. 
Therefore also, God sets a sign in the middle of the history of Israel.   For the kings of Israel would indeed, on his behalf, lead his chosen people to pasture.  Very few freely did it as faithfully and reliably as David.   Most kings on his throne proved themselves to be evil shepherds who led the people committed to them into error.  
God took this as an occasion to punish the false shepherds and to promise a good shepherd in the distant future.  And so we see in the many Old Testament prophesies of the Good Shepherd the double Goings forth of the Christ Child.  This Shepherd will be David’s Son – and he will be God himself, who now comes to lead his sheep to pasture.  
Just consider what David himself wrote: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”  And this should always call to mind the fact that Jesus designates himself as the one good Shepherd who has come in order to give his life for the salvation of his sheep.  
And now consider again what Micah wrote: “And He shall stand and feed His flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord His God; and they shall safely abide.” 
Jesus came as the good shepherd in order to mercifully receive the scattered flock, in order to call to himself the weary and heavy-laden, in order to pursue those lost in the desert of their lives and to lead them to his Father’s house.  So he came also to confront the enemy of God with authority, to conquer Satan, sin and death.  [ii]
Through Micah, God says, “Therefore He shall give them up, until the time that she who is in labor has given birth.”  By this we see that God sent his Son to a people who were given over to their own foolish desires, their own notions of wisdom.  God himself permitted them to be blinded in darkness.  This was the punishment they deserved for their sins.  This darkness covered the whole world like a veil when Jesus was born.  It was the darkness of unbelief – of trying to earn our way to God by fulfilling the law and atoning for our own sins. 
But Jesus came as a Light – a Light hidden by the darkness that surrounded him – the darkness of sin which he himself took into himself as he willingly suffered the judgment of his own holy law in our place.  His entire mission consisted of this.  He is the center and purpose of the puzzle, which without the Light of his grace cannot begin to be assembled.  And yet at the center of the puzzle is the Light who shines forth in the dim beams of a lowly birth and a gruesome death.  But dear Christians who hold the pieces of the puzzle in your hands and who with Mary ponder them in your heart, you hear and know that the darkness cannot overcome the Light.  So from the complete puzzle we see how our Shepherd King both leads and rules by taking all our sin away and granting us the light of faith through the forgiveness of sins. 
The propitiation for the sin of the world, which the sacrifices in the temple in Jerusalem could never finally accomplish –(these were pieces on the edge)– God himself accomplished in his Son whom he sent and gave up so that all who believe in him would not perish but gain eternal life.  And that, dear congregation, is why this birth of Jesus is also for you and for me the most important birth in the history of the world. 
The peace that the Christ Child brings is a peace of forgiveness, a peace of reconciliation.  In him God unilaterally ends the war between himself and humanity.  God’s Son becomes one of us and establishes such a peace from above and from below alike, by extending the forgiving hand of God from the manger and from the cross.  [iii]
The kingdom of this Prince of Peace is no longer limited to the borders of Israel.  It still stands, as he says: “Salvation is from the Jews.”  The Savior has not come to every people of the world, but solely and only to Israel, in Bethlehem, when he became a man.  But from there he indeed draws all people to himself. 
And so the third double feature of our Christ also applies to his Kingly Reign: As the King of Israel he is likewise the Lord of the whole world. 
Therefore, he is praised by his lost and found sheep alike for his service as a Shepherd not only in Israel, but for the whole world.  That’s why Micah can say of him: “For now He shall be great to the ends of the earth.”  We find here another piece of the puzzle. 
The Child born in Bethlehem is therefore always and ever at work as Shepherd and King even for you and me.  As the resurrected, exalted Lord and King, he has authority over all the world.  And so also, as the exalted Lamb of God, he performs his service as Shepherd still today for all his lambs.  He does so by sending out undershepherds who lead his flock to pasture with his gospel and his sacraments. 
The same Spirit who once overshadowed the mother of God when she was to conceive accomplishes to this very day a no less precious Wonder, that people from Judah and heathen folk alike follow suit with the shepherds of Bethlehem and receive with the Child in the manger their Savior and Lord. 
Where this happens, there we become a piece of that great puzzle that is set before our eyes in the lively and multifaceted biblical message.  We don’t figure it out.  It remains a mystery.  But we are invited into it – to know and believe when, where, and to what end God became one of us.  We therefore belong in the great picture of God’s salvation history.  What shone forth in the City of David to make it not the least of the cities of Judah, as St. Matthew takes divinely sanctioned liberty to translate it, still shines forth for us.  And here we find the significance our place too.  Though Gentiles so far on the edges of this prophecy, we are precious pieces of God’s scope of love and kindness.  For here the incarnate God abides with us.  His glory does not stop illuminating our hearts until we are finally there where so many elect have gone: to the place of his heavenly origin, where we see the Son of the Virgin and Son of God as our eternal Shepherd and King, and will rest secure in his peace.  Amen. 

[i] Our hymns also fix the individual pieces together into a complete image when they clearly paint before our eyes the double divine and human origin of Christ according to the promises of the Old Testament.  During Advent we sang: 
Let the earth now praise the Lord. / Who has truly kept His word
And at last to us did send / Christ,  the sinners’ Help and Friend.
What the fathers most desired, / What the prophets’ heart inspired,
What they longed for many a year, / Stands fulfilled in glory here.
Abram’s promised great Reward, / Zion’s Helper, Jacob’s Lord,
Him of twofold race behold,  / Truly came, as long foretold.

[ii] He becomes the Lamb that taketh / Sin away / And for aye / Full atonement maketh.

[iii] Softly from his lowly manger, / Jesus calls / One and all, / “You are safe from danger.
Children, from the sins that grieve you / You are feed; All you need / I will surely give you.”

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