Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas Eve

Luke 2:1-20 - Christmas Eve - December 24, 2016
This Thing Which Is Come to Pass
This evening and tomorrow, people all over are celebrating.  Families are gathered.  Presents are opened.  Children are excited.  But what are they celebrating?  Christians celebrate by investigating what all the excitement is about.  We celebrate by hearing the word of God.  That’s how the shepherds celebrated Christmas.  The angel preached that a Savior had been born.  What made it good tidings of great joy was not simply that he was born, but that he was born to you.  He is your Savior.  Added to this wonderful news was the sign that was given.  The angel said: 
“And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” 
The point of the promise was not simply to give them something to ponder.  It was to give them God to worship.  God’s glory that shone around them and frightened them would no longer be found in the glowing or thundering of the sky.  No, the angel said to fear not.  Fear not, for now the glory of God in the highest is made known where he makes peace on earth and reveals his favor and goodwill toward men.  This peace and goodwill were found where God became a man.  His birth changed the Sabaoth of God’s mighty angels into sweet choirs of singing heralds. 

The angel told the shepherds to go see the baby.  He said where the baby was, what the baby would be clothed in, and even what the baby would be lying in.  And they found it just as the angel had told them.  But what did they see?  A baby.  A man caring for his postpartum wife.  The cattle lowing, and so forth.  It wasn’t much to see, really.  And I suppose neither is this.  As the shepherds followed the sign and arrived to find something extraordinarily ordinary, so we heed God’s word and behold in this place what remains remarkably unexceptional to most people.  That is why people don’t celebrate Christmas like we do – by going to church to hear the gospel.  They make the most of the holiday in order to turn it into an extravagant affair of travel, and gift-sharing, and to celebrate that indefinable feeling of coziness this time of year.  They find peace and cheer by escaping the usual chaos of the season for a night or two of festivity.  And so the last thing they want to do is follow the sign to where they must bow and kneel and quietly listen.  They want to hear the angels singing, so they say.  But they don’t want to go to where the angel plainly tells them to go. 
But for us who, like the shepherds before us, listen to the word of God, we are content to find it with as little pomp and excitement as God said it would be found.  As the children just sang,
How glad we are to find it so,
Then with the shepherds let us go
To see what God for us has done
In sending us His own dear Son. 
Yes, it looked ordinary – for the shepherds, and for us.  But the shepherds did not judge by their eyes.  Neither should we.  They were glad to see what was ordinary because it was with their eyes that they saw what God said it was.  They believed the word that was spoken.  They did not examine the sign that the angels had given them in order to figure out the true significance of what they saw.  The significance of the sign was in the word of God.  This is Christ the Lord.  This is our Salvation.  This is what God says I need and he is right.  What do we do with this baby now that we have seen him?  Believe.  That’s what.  See what God says it is.  Acknowledge the spiritual poverty of the world he invited himself into.  See the poverty and sinfulness of your heart into which he now invites himself to dwell.  Believe that he comes to forgive, and that he who does is none other than the almighty God who became Man for you. 
The shepherds “made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this Child.”  They didn’t simply invite people to come and see a cute baby or a cozy stable scene and arrive at their own conclusions about it.  No, they reported the word they heard.  That’s the point. 
Come here, my friends, lift up your eyes,
And see what in the manger lies.
Who is this child so young and fair?
It is the Christ Child lying there. 
So this is how every Christian beholds the sign that God gives us.  We see what we see.  God says what it is.  We believe God. 
Baptism is a sign.  It isn’t much – certainly less impressive than the so-called miracle of birth.  But as surely as God was born of a virgin mother (a genuine miracle!) and made known to lowly shepherds, so just as surely the water of Baptism signifies and creates a new birth for us.  And this is a miracle too.  Yes, it looks unremarkable.  So it should.  So has it always looked that way to the naked eyes of sinful men.  It can only be embraced by faith which God’s Spirit creates.  It can only cause us to marvel — not when we look at it and examine its properties – no!  This will afford no greater insight than if the shepherds had examined the skin and hair and fingers of the Christ Child. — But no! God’s work in Baptism marvels only those who believe the word of God.  The angels said that this baby is the Savior.  Only with that word did the shepherds know that the stable was anything special.  Only with that word did they have anything to make known abroad.  So also we witness a Baptism and remember our own in the same way.  What does God say it is?  What does he say happened by water and the word?  We don’t celebrate the wetness of water – obviously not! – but the glad tidings of great joy that teach us what good is worked through the water.  Tomorrow’s Epistle lesson says it so clearly:
But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.  (Titus 3:4-7)
This is what God says both about the little Baby in Bethlehem and about our own new birth in Holy Baptism.  It’s the perfect Christmas text, because here he is speaking of both!   Jesus’ birth and ours!  Christ’s first birth was in eternity as he was begotten from the Father.  Our first birth was in sin, as we were born from sinful parents.  But here where the kindness and love of God our Savior appears, God is speaking of both the second birth of His eternally born Son in becoming a Man, and the second birth of us, his rebellious creation, in becoming sons of God.  He is speaking of both Christ’s second birth in becoming heir of our misery and sin, and our second birth in becoming heirs of his glory and righteousness.  What a beautiful exchange!  All found as we celebrate the birth of God become flesh.  Both Christ’s earthly birth and our new heavenly birth are nothing less than the appearance of God our Savior’s kindness and love toward us poor sinners.  As this kindness and love appeared in Bethlehem, so it appears to us in Baptism and in the preaching of the gospel. 
God became a Man in order to satisfy his thirst for my salvation and yours.  He binds himself to time and space and all the limitations of human existence in order to bind himself to us in both life and death.  He places himself under the law as a man in order that he might redeem men who stood condemned by the law.  And yet because he is innocent, he sets us free from sin and hell and from all the shadows of death by joining us to his own eternal life.  He joins us to his birth, to his obedience, to his death, and to his resurrection.  He does so not by appealing to our strength or resolve or to some spark of goodwill within us.  No.  He does so in love alone with nothing in us that would compel him to come.  Only his ancient and eternal love and desire to rescue us from our own selfishness compelled him.  He finds us in our helplessness.  And as helpless as we were to request it as babies, so helpless we must remain today.  But our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth … by his Word … and this Word has become flesh, himself a helpless baby by whom all things are created and sustained.  So with the same word by which we were baptized as babies (or at least just as spiritually helpless) he rescues us still today. 
God came as a child to know your woes and troubles – to know them better than you do.  And as a child who himself needed to be nursed to still his crying, so for you his children he quiets your fears and sorrows by coming to you still – your God and Maker becomes your Brother to serve you and crown you with honor that you were born without.  He leads you away from yourself.  He leads you away from some reason you might find within for why or whether God could have mercy on you or count you among his saints.  He leads you away from your unworthiness just as he lead the shepherds away from their low estate.  For the shepherds he leads them to the throne that God had made for himself in a manger.  For you he leads you to the throne God makes for himself in the proclamation that your sins are forgiven for Jesus’ sake who paid for them on the cross.   
Jesus humbled himself to meet you where you are.  Where you are!  This is not some sociological category.  He does not pander to us.  He does not entertain our self-delusions.  When in Rome he does not do as the Romans do.  He does what God does.  He meets you where you are by teaching you where you are.  He teaches you what your true situation and crisis is.  He shines as a light in your darkness.  And he does so in love and true concern as only God can have.  He meets you where you are by humbling the mountains and insisting that all the proud meet him in the valleys.  He comes where only the lowly are notified of salvation, where angels sing and teach our children to sing those things that are out of reach for the high and mighty.  And yet that which angels desire to look into angels are sent to announce for you to ponder with Mary, the mother of God, what has been planned for eternity for you.  The mercy and wisdom of God stand plain before our eyes who on our knees bow lowly before the King of kings. 
So as we ponder, we also worship.  We ponder not what is too high above us this Christmas.  We ponder what has come down to join us.  He joins us not where the world would expect him, but where God says he will be.  The angel gave the shepherds a sign.  He did not tell them to go to a crowded center of the city.  He did not tell them to look for where the people were most excited to be.  He did not tell them to find where the most felt needs were being met or where the most vibrant worship was taking place.  He told them to find the word of God fulfilled where God said it was fulfilled.  And so do we.  The warmth of Christmas is found in the clear light of God’s word.   
As the shepherds made no distinction between the word of the angel and the truth of God’s word, neither do we.  We approach the Bible as it is.  Though it be scrapped and mocked and poked through with sneering objections, so was also the Word made flesh.  But by his wounds we are healed.  We worship the Lord Jesus who lay in a manger and hung on the cross and who now reigns in heaven.  We do so by keeping his word, following his signs, and finding our salvation in the message of the gospel.  This is how we celebrate Christmas.  Therefore, as we share the physical presence of our loved ones this evening and give material tokens of our love, let these festivities compel us to remember God’s word and promise.  He who assumed a physical nature for your salvation continues to save you through material tokens of his forgiveness and peace and eternal life.  Amen. 

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