Download or listen to The Nativity of Our Lord, “Who Knew?” (John 1:1-18)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Who knew? Who, in all the whole, wide world knew about that baby born that day in the little town of Bethlehem? Who knew what really did come upon that midnight clear, that the eternal Son of God was born in time from the flesh of the virgin? Who knew? We sing “Mary, Did You Know?” but, ironically, she was one of the few who actually did. The angel told her. Joseph knew; the angel told him. The shepherds knew; the angels told them. And then they apparently told some other people. The Magi knew; they heard it from the Scriptures through the mouths of the scribes in Jerusalem. Later, Simeon and Anna in the Temple, they knew. But beyond those few people, who knew what was happening in Bethlehem that day?
And we might ask the same question today. Who knows? Even though this Word has come down to us, almost as miraculously as that baby’s survival. Even though the Word has avoided all the distractions and dangers of the ages, and somehow, in spite of it all, this Word still gets spoken and people still hear it. And yet, who knows about the Mass of Christ? That we celebrate not only Jesus’ birth, but what Christians have long called “the Mass”: the giving and receiving, the eating and drinking, of Jesus’ own body and blood. Who knows, underneath all the wrapping, and trees, and lights, and cookies and candy, and family, and traditions? Who knows the God who comes to us? Well, some apparently have an inkling of it, at least. Those who get a little nervous and uncomfortable when Christ comes interfering with the holiday season; the way Christmas seems to consume everything in its path. So they call it “the holidays,” a “holiday tree,” “holiday traditions.” But even the word “holiday” has “holy” in it. And some call it “X-mas,” maybe not even realizing that the letter that looks like “X” is the first letter of “Christ” in Greek. And the scholars don’t want to say “A.D.,” the Year of Our Lord, so they say “Common Era” and “Before the Common Era,” but they can’t escape the fact that our years are still reckoned from when someone calculated the birth of Christ to be. No matter what we do, we can’t get away from Him! He refuses to let us be! He refuses to let you go. And so you are here this morning.
But we shouldn’t be surprised. We shouldn’t be surprised that people will do anything to avoid the implications of Christ’s birth in this world. We shouldn’t be surprised that businesses, which exist for the sake of making money, will say “Happy Holidays” to avoid offending, while others make a point of saying “Merry Christmas” so that they can get you to shop in their stores! We shouldn’t be surprised that people will hide the birth of Jesus under any number of things: on a card filled with snow and glitter, prettying up that holy night, making it almost mythical; under the traditions of childhood, even going to church, because that’s just what you do on Christmas; trying to recover the magic of that holiday spirit. We find all sorts of ways to make Christmas hide the stark and startling fact of a God who was born a man. But we should not be surprised. It has been this way from the very beginning. Not only did people not know about His birth, but when He came preaching and teaching, they refused the knowledge that He was God in the flesh. This is the Word by which all things were spoken into existence, and there is not a single thing that was not made through Him. He made the world, and then He was in the world, but the world did not know its creator. And He came to His own, but His own people, whom He chose simply because He loved them, they did not receive Him. His own did not welcome Him. It was the fulfillment of Isaiah 1: “The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, My people do not understand” (1:3). Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how I have longed to gather you together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you would not! O that you had known the time of your gracious Visitation! And all the way to the end: “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.” No one knows, no one seeks God, no one is righteous, not even one.
They did not know what they were doing because they did not know the Man whom they crucified. And therefore they did not know God. Because no one has ever seen God except that uniquely begotten Son. He alone was with God in the beginning; He was with God and He is God. And He alone makes known who the real God is. He interprets God for those who do not know what they are doing, let alone what God is doing. No one knows, no one seeks God; no one is righteous, not even one. So God must be revealed by someone who does know Him. Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the Magi, Simeon and Anna, all of us—we have to be told. We must have the Word, or we will never believe. And it must be this Word, wrapped up in flesh, coming to us. Nothing in us can know, or understand, or comprehend such a thing. It is literally beyond our understanding.
Not that we don’t know any gods. Oh, we’ve got more gods than we know what to do with. We make them out of our reasonable understandings, our emotions, our opinions. Everyone talks about “God” on Facebook and Twitter and in various media, on talk shows. People say things about “what Jesus would do” and “I don’t think God would do this”; “my God would never do that”; “I feel that God is like this.” But no one agrees, like a bunch of people in the dark, describing an elephant of which they can feel only a single leg or tail or ear. But what good is a god that we have constructed out of whatever we happen to find in ourselves? It’s pointless to ask people to describe the sun, when they refuse to open their blinds or go outside. Only one who has seen God, who has been with Him from eternity, can adequately interpret Him to us. And blessedly, this one has been born among us. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. Not in a mythical or fantasy world, but in this world, the same in which we live. And He makes God known, beyond and above anything we could ever think or imagine. We can easily imagine the Law of Moses; we could never begin to conceive of the grace and truth of Jesus Christ. Nor does He reveal Himself in the ways we would choose. He is conceived in the womb of a virgin. He is born in Bethlehem, in obscurity. He lived in Judea and Galilee two thousand years ago. He died. And then He rose from the dead and ascended to His Father, with whom He was from all eternity. But that’s not all. We do not celebrate simply an historical event, like our birthdays. The life who is the light of men still shines in our darkness. And He doesn’t just tug your heart-strings or give you warm, fluttery feelings. He splashes some cold water on your head and says you belong to Him. He gives other sinners to announce forgiveness to you. He puts bread and wine in your mouth and says “Take, eat, and drink My Body and My Blood for your life and forgiveness.” Isn’t this a strange and wonderful revelation of God? Who would have invented such a thing? As silly as a baby; as shameful as a cross; as hidden today from unbelief as He was wrapped in those swaddling cloths. But some know. Some have heard. Though we cannot by our own reason or strength believe in such a God or come to Him, He has come to us and His Holy Spirit opens blind eyes and deaf ears. The light shines in the darkness and not even the darkness of sinful hearts can overcome it or snuff it out. If you have this Word, you need nothing else. Because if you have the Word, you have the whole Deity. In this Man the fullness of God is glad to dwell bodily. Come all you faithful and worship! What else can we do, to whom all this has been given? This is the Mass of Christ! Let us rejoice and be glad!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/24/13