Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Christmas Eve (Luke 2:1-20)

“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of 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.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The 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: O holy night, the stars are brightly shining, and in his palace in Rome, Caesar Augustus sleeps the contented sleep of the powerful. Even now, he knows that thousands, maybe millions of people are moving, traveling in obedience to his word. “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Caesar sets out to register all the world, for, dwelling amongst the splendor of Rome, he believes that he rules all the world. And he does, except for most of Asia, most of Africa, all of North America, all of South America, and Antarctica. But who wants Antarctica anyway? To Caesar, the world lives and dies under Rome. This arrogance is typical of the powerful; I’ve seen Washington D.C., I’ve seen the monuments that we have erected to our country and its founders, monuments that look, oddly enough, like temples. The people of Rome worshipped the Caesars; we too have our own nation-worship, with its high feast days and saints, its pilgrimage sites and sacred texts.

But Mary and Joseph refuse to participate; they do not worship the Caesars, they do not look to them as the final authority. They do not pay homage to secular monuments built like Greek temples; they hold to one sacred text, and it is not the U.S. Constitution. They do not owe Caesar worship, and they knew it, but they do owe him obedience. “Honor your father and your mother,” Paul points out, is the first commandment with a promise, “that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” Joseph doesn’t take Mary to the mountains to hide, he doesn’t refuse to travel to Bethlehem, he doesn’t join the many who violently resisted the census. No, in obedience to God he was obedient to Caesar. “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David.” If anyone had a reason to rebel against Rome, it was someone from the kingly line of David. But if anyone knew that obedience to God meant obedience to the one whom God sets in authority over you, it was a descendent of the man after God’s own heart. Joseph would never offer sacrifice to Caesar, but he will obey this decree; he will go to Bethlehem.

Their journey is insignificant to the extreme; had Caesar been told of it, he would’ve considered it beyond his notice, except that it served as a magnificent example of how the world moved when he spoke a word. It almost seems to be a joke that we are even talking about Mary and Joseph two thousand years later; how many others traveled to their hometowns at the whim of Caesar, and are lost to history? Caesar knows nothing about angel visitations, or a child conceived in a virgin womb. No angel appeared to him, no messenger came from God to instruct him. Not that Caesar would’ve listened; in the halls of power, the only voice that mattered was his own. But Caesar was just a pawn. Not a king, not even a rook, but a pawn. The most powerful man in the world, who set out to register the “all the world,” was simply a small piece in a drama that he knew nothing about. The main event was not in the halls of power in Rome, it was in the womb of that virgin traveling to Bethlehem.

“And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn Son and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths and laid Him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” Your eyes couldn’t tell you the story that night; the best they could give you was a story of poverty, of displaced refugees. All your eyes see is the story of a small town overwhelmed by an unplanned family reunion; no guestroom available, only a manger. And then, finally, all your eyes see is a baby. There isn’t much you can say about this baby; a baby is a baby, adorable, loved by His parents and completely helpless. Surely there were other babies in Bethlehem that night, maybe even born that night. What was special about this baby you cannot know by looking, only by hearing. Caesar in Rome didn’t know; he wasn’t told. The people of Bethlehem didn’t know; they slept through that holy night. The priests and Pharisees didn’t know; they failed to keep watch. The only ones who knew were those who were told, and God chose to tell shepherds about the birth of His Son. “And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold 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.”

Shepherds are told about the birth of this child, for this child will grow up to be a shepherd, the Good Shepherd, who leads His flock to green pastures and quiet waters, the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep. He comes as our Savior, our Savior from sin, death, and the power of the devil. He comes as the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed One, appointed to bear your sin to the cross. And He comes as the Lord, God in the flesh, Immanuel, God with us. He comes for all people. Caesar thought with arrogance that his decree would register all the world; Christ comes to bring forgiveness, life, and salvation to all the world, to all people of every time and place. Caesar’s census could only register those living under his rule at that time; Christ’s salvation goes forth to all people, of every tribe, nation, language, and century, even to you, even to me. “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Unto you this child is born; He is yours, He is for you. This child is God’s gift to you, yes you, living thousands of years and thousands of miles away from the first Christmas. This child is for you, to take away your sins by bearing them to the cross, to give you eternal life by rising in victory over the grave. This child is for you because He will live a perfect life in your place, die under God’s wrath in your place, and rise again in victory as the firstfruits from the dead. He is for you; He is for all. No one is forgotten, no matter how insignificant; Christ died and rose again for all. He is the Good Shepherd that lays down His life for the sheep, all the sheep. His Word has a power and scope that the Caesars could only dream of; at His Word, sins are forgiven and death is destroyed.

Caesar Augustus had his glory; at his word, nations moved, by his command, armies conquered, and the architectural wonders of Rome testified to his greatness. But those magnificent buildings now lie in ruins. Impressive ruins, to be sure, but ruins just the same. And it is utter foolishness and arrogance for us to believe that our monuments will escape the same fate. The glory of this world, no matter how great, cannot escape decay and destruction. Only Christ’s glory will endure though all else pass away, and the shepherds are sent to see it, wrapped in humility. They are not told to go to Rome, they are not sent to the temple; the angels send them to a feeding trough. “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” Caesar’s glory stands out all the more next to the Christ Child’s humility, but appearances are deceiving. Through humility this Child will have glory that will last far beyond that of Caesar or any other man. The humility of the manger will lead to the humility of the cross, and a grave with sinners, but on the other side of the cross is the very glory of the right hand of the throne of God, from whence He will return on the Last Day to raise you and all the dead, giving that same glory to you and all believers in Christ. All this is hidden in a manger, wrapped in swaddling cloths; your eyes cannot tell you the truth, only your ears, listening to the voice of the angels.

This is God in the flesh come to save, as John Chrysostom preached on Christmas over sixteen hundred years ago: “For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His Spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit that He may save me. Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels. Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things arc nourished, may receive an infant’s food from His Virgin Mother.” What the shepherds see is a baby, a child, but more than that, a Savior, Christ the Lord. Heaven could not contain Him, but He located Himself in Mary’s womb, in a manger, upon a cross, in the Word and holy Sacraments, for you. This child is born unto you, He is born for you, just as He died for you, and He is risen for you. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!” Amen.

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