Saturday, December 24, 2016
The Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord - Christmas Eve
Luke 2:1-20; Titus 2:11-14; Isaiah 9:2-7
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
We exchange gifts at Christmas in remembrance of God’s Gift to us and the whole world in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true meaning of Christmas, lest we be overcome by worldly pursuits and fleshly desires and passions and forget. Jesus is God’s gift at Christmas, and it is not cliché to say that Jesus is the gift that keeps on giving. What I mean to say is that Jesus is the gift that has forever changed who we are, why we are, and where we are going in our lives. To understand this truth rightly, however, we must understand a word that has sadly fallen out of common use in the Christian Church and faith, the word incarnation. Incarnation literally means to take up flesh as in John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.” That God became a man, one of His own creation, “Perfect God and perfect man, composed of a rational soul and human flesh,” as we confess in The Athanasian Creed, has literally, really, truly, and forever, changed everything!
The people of the first century world were, as the Prophet declares, a people “who dwelt in a land of deep darkness.” They had experienced a repetitious cycle of faithfulness, complacency, rebellion, unbelief, and apostasy, judgment, repentance, redemption and restoration – now, rinse and repeat. A sign for hope was offered to King Ahaz, but was spurned by him: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” – God with us. Still, most did not believe, but only a promised remnant. And, after hundreds of years, the kingdom of Israel was barren and lifeless. The great olive tree that the LORD had planted, into which the Gentiles were to be grafted and redeemed, had been cut down so that only a barren, lifeless, and fruitless stump remained. The land and the people were spiritually scorched and dead. The Word of the LORD had been silent for four hundred years. The people spent their days and years eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, living mostly in fear of their enemies, without any real hope for rescue or redemption, making the best of a hopeless situation, having forgotten or forsaken their God and His covenant promises made to their forefathers. Sound familiar? That was the people and the world upon whom a Light was about to shine. Sadly, most had grown so accustomed to dwelling in darkness that they either failed to recognize the Light, or they were afraid of the Light and fled from it, or they recognized it and hated it and sought to destroy it.
But, not all. A young Jewish woman named Mary, a descendant of the House of David, was watching and waiting. So too was a faithful Jewish man named Joseph, also a descendant of the House of David, to whom Mary was betrothed. When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and proclaimed that she would conceive and bear the Son of God, she was fearful at the angel’s greeting, as a sinful man or woman should be, but she did not doubt the Word the angel proclaimed. She did ask a practical question, however, concerning how this would happen, since she was a virgin. Thus, Mary conceived the Christ Child in the same way that Abraham and all his children, including you and I, came to faith, by the Word of the LORD. Mary heard and believed the Word of the LORD that Gabriel proclaimed, and that Word took up residence within her virgin womb: “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.” The Word of God, by whom all things have been made, condescended to become a man, conceived as all men are, in the womb of a human woman, a virgin womb from whence no life could possibly be expected to arise. In many respects, the Virgin Mary was like that barren, lifeless, and fruitless stump of Jesse from which no one could have anticipated hope and life to arise. And yet, it was prophesied, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” If the branch is the Christ, which it most certainly is, then it makes sense to think of the stump as Mary, the Mother of Our Lord. Of course, what is Mary, but the New Eve. As our First Mother introduced sin and death into the world, so Mary is made to be the mother of the world’s Savior, Jesus, the New Adam.
Even the announcement of Jesus’ birth to lowly shepherds was unexpected. Would not such news be proclaimed first to powerful Kings and the religious leaders of Israel? But then, who were those shepherds, and what did they represent? “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” Are not shepherds pastors, and flocks their congregations? Those shepherds were found by the angel watching over the flocks entrusted to their care while the official shepherds of Israel, the Pharisees, Priests, and Levites, had long ago forsaken the hope of Messiah and taught the people they were given to care for to do the same. And they were given a message to proclaim to all the world, “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. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” Truly, the Lord’s undershepherds continue to point all the world to their Savior wrapped in lowly bread and wine that all who believe may receive the forgiveness of their sins and live.
This Promised Son of woman’s seed, this fresh and lively shoot from Jesse’s stump, this flowering rose of the Virgin’s womb, this swaddled Babe of Bethlehem, the host of angels proclaimed. He is Peace between God and men in whom alone God is well pleased. The shepherds went with haste to behold this great and mighty wonder that the LORD had made known to them. And, there they beheld Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in a manger, a feeding trough for animals. When they saw it, they went and told all who would receive them this Good News. Everyone who heard them wondered at their words. Perhaps they had a faint recollection of a promise long ago forgotten. But, Mary, His mother, “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.”
It was a mystery, a great and holy wonder and mystery. Even the faithful remnant, those like Mary and Joseph and the shepherds, who clung to hope and faith in the LORD’s promise, could not fully understand what was happening. Yet, still they believed. Faith is not understanding or knowledge, but faith is trust. May we, like the Holy Family and the shepherds and the Magi, watch and wait for our Lord’s reappearing in faith and hope and trust like the faithful remnant who watched and waited so long ago. And, may we place our faith and trust in the mysterious gifts He has given us now as we watch and wait, His Holy Word, Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and Holy Supper, that our sins may be forgiven, our faith strengthened, and our hope encouraged.
“For to us a child is born, to us a Son is given; and the government shall be upon His shoulder, and His Name shall be called Wonder Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Jesus is the fulfillment of the Davidic kingdom. He reigns and rules even now at the right hand of God the Father in heaven, even as the kings of men go to war and rob and oppress the people. He counsels and guides His people in the Truth by His Holy Spirit through His Word. He is God, and He is man, united in one person forevermore, and we are one with God in and through Him now, even as what we will be has yet to be revealed. He is our true spiritual Father and Great High Priest, interceding on our behalf before our God and Father. He is Peace with God, and the only possible peace between men. He is the Peace that comforts us when the terrors of the dark night of this world threaten to overcome us. And, He is the Peace that we show and share with others to the glory of His Name.
In the incarnation and birth of Jesus, “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession who are zealous for good works.” Jesus is God’s gift at Christmas, the gift that keeps on giving, because that gift has forever changed who we are, why we are, and where we are going in our lives. We are God’s children now, His own sons and daughters through baptism and faith in His only-begotten Son Jesus Christ. We are subjects of the King of the Universe and of all creation, and not subjects only, but kings and queens of heaven and earth with Him. Therefore, let us not live our lives pursuing ungodliness and worldly passion, but let us live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age as we watch and wait for our Lord’s return, treasuring and pondering all these things daily in our hearts. “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.” “O, come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.