Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Christmas Midnight of Series A (Preached 12-24-07)

Here is a bit more recent one, preached just last month:

“And she gave birth to her firstborn son.” Grace, mercy, and peace among those whom He is pleased from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Our text for our sermon this Christmas Eve comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ, have you ever noticed how little space Luke devotes to the actual birth of Jesus? One verb, really, and hardly half a verse. “And she gave birth to her firstborn son.” Luke spends so much time setting the stage, taking us from the emperor’s palace in Rome to a small town south of Jerusalem, from the very seat of power as Luke knew it to a poor virgin mother and her betrothed. But for the actual birth itself, Luke does not attempt to explain this event, to pause and wonder at this great miracle, that God had been born as man. “And she gave birth to her firstborn son.” Such a simple phrase, true of millions of others throughout history, and probably more than a few on that very night, but here we have no ordinary birth. Here God has become man, something so amazing, so unthinkable, that if we attempt to ponder how it is even possible we would be overwhelmed. But no, Luke does not linger, but he leaves the baby and its human parents and goes out to the fields, to shepherds, “keeping watch over their flock by night.”

Luke tells that “an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.” A common question we ask of Luke here is ‘why were they afraid?’ We could say that they were surprised at the sight, that they were shocked at seeing something completely out of the ordinary, but that masks the true answer. They were afraid because the glory of God is not always a good thing! These shepherds knew who they were, they knew that they were sinners, that they had fallen short of the glory of God, and now that very glory was staring them right in the face. God’s messengers were here, and whatever they had in mind, these shepherds could not escape. They were terrified because they knew that God was well within his rights to destroy them right then and there. They were terrified because they knew their flesh was corrupted by the sin of Adam, and that they did not deserve to share a hillside with the glory of God.

So if we stood with those shepherds on that dark night two thousand years ago, would we have been afraid as well? Maybe not, because our modern world has given up any thought that God might ever be angry at us, that he could ever destroy us for our sin. We think we are doing alright, that we at least try hard, that we’re in good with the big guy (and no, I don’t mean Santa Claus). But if you stood there on that hillside, suddenly illuminated with the glory of the living God, you might have a different outlook. In that flash of light, we would see our own sins brought to light, we would be totally naked before God, without any place to hide. You thought that you could hide your sins, that they would really be a secret, but as God’s battle hardened warriors descend from His throne, everything is exposed and you would learn just how much you have to fear.

You would fear because this God has proclaimed throughout the Old Testament that He detests sin, that He punishes godlessness, that His commandments will be upheld. That lustful look at a coworker, that fit of cursing at the football game, that hatred you carry against your neighbor God has promised to punish, and He is not talking about a slap on the wrist. God wanted man to dwell with Him forever, that is why He created us, and now that we have rebelled through the sin of Adam and our own sin, God will separate Himself from us- forever. That is what the glory of God shone on a hillside must mean, that is what it can only mean, right?

But then the angel speaks to these terrified people, and his words are not at all what they deserve or expect. “Do not fear.” Two words in Greek, three words in English, these words are the most wonderful words the shepherds had ever heard. All their fears can now vanish, because this angel has spoken a word of comfort, a holy Absolution from God Himself. And why do they have no need for fear? “I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Into the darkness of that night, into the darkness of our sinful word, a light appeared. This light was God Himself, born in a stable not far from there, born as a man. Isaiah writes in our Old Testament lesson, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.” That light was Jesus Christ, the Son of God, born of a virgin maiden. This makes for a great story, and a great mystery that God became man. But the fact that Jesus was born could not take away any fear. Now God was on earth among us, but it still didn’t do anything about our sin, about the punishment we deserve. If Jesus was simply born, we would still have reason to fear.
But then Jesus Christ was not just born, He was born as our Savior, He was born to die for our sins. Luke tells us that Mary “wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger.” Jesus would be wrapped in cloths again, but only after He had given His blood, His very life for us on the cross. He died the death that you deserved, took on the punishment you feared, and therefore took away your fear. You do not have to fear the glory of God, the wrath of God, because Jesus faced that for you! As Paul writes in our Epistle lesson, Jesus “gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession.” Jesus, after giving Himself for us on the cross, was wrapped in burial cloths and laid in a tomb. But on Easter morning as it was on Christmas morning, the clothing of Jesus was once again a great sign. The women and the disciples found the burial cloths of Jesus lying empty in the tomb, declaring to all the world that this child once born in a stable and wrapped in swaddling cloths had now risen from the grave. Christ had been born to die and be raised back to life again, freeing us from fear and granting forgiveness and eternal life to all.

As the angel said, this great gift, this freedom from fear, is given to all people. Luke starts his story from the halls of Rome and then takes us to Bethlehem, showing us that Christ was born for all people, in all places, in all times. He was born for you and He was born for me- he was born for all those who have reason to fear God’s wrath because of their sin. All of those who receive the message of Christ’s birth and death for all people are those of whom the angels sang: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.” God truly is pleased with them because of the birth and death of His Son. Who then needs to fear? The only ones left who have any reason for fear are those who reject Christ, who reject His miraculous birth and His death for the sins of all people. They nothing left but fear, because they have rejected the message once proclaimed by angels and then carried throughout the world- the proclamation of the One who takes away all fear.

And who carries this message? Those to whom God has revealed it to! The shepherds heard the proclamation of the angels and believed- they believed even before they saw the baby or its mother, even before they saw the miracles of Jesus, even before Jesus walked from the tomb on Easter morning. They believed and then they went to worship the child. Their faith came from hearing the word of God, just as it does to us. We do not hear it hear it directly from the heavenly host, but we hear it from Holy Scriptures, we hear it proclaimed from this pulpit, we hear it at the font, and in those ways, God creates faith in us that believes that message once proclaimed by angels.

And that message, that glorious Gospel which declares what Christ has done for us through His birth, death, and resurrection sends us out into this world to speak this message to others. Luke writes, “And when they [the shepherds] saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them…And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” Having heard such a glorious message, how could they do anything else but proclaim it to others? Following in the footsteps of the shepherds, we too go joyfully to those around us, proclaiming to them what was once proclaimed to us- “Jesus was born for you, He was born for me, He was born for ALL!”

So tonight, in a bright sanctuary in the darkness of a cold winter night, we sit as the shepherds did, in a dark world filled with sin. And once again the light of the world comes to us, much like He did on that darkened first Christmas Eve. Only this time He comes not in the form of a baby, but in His holy Body and Blood at this altar and at this rail. Here God speaks through the mouth of your pastor much as He did through the angel- “Do not fear.” “Your sins are forgiven.” As we rise and go back into a dark world, forgiven by this Supper, we will have the words of the angels ringing in our ears, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!” Amen.


Anonymous said...

Good stuff, but you post these really early in the morning.

Chris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris said...

I see what happened- for some reason, the blog thought that I was on the west coast, so posts that I did at 8 said 5 on the page...problem corrected, thanks for the heads up anonymous.