In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is giv’n!” (LSB 361). So silently that hardly anyone knew that it had been given. So silently that the only sign given by the angels to the shepherds is that they would find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger. So silently that there were fewer than a half dozen people in the entire world who knew that Mary was carrying the Son of God in her womb. So silently that it must have seemed like a dream.
“When Yahweh restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed.” It must have seemed like a dream for the Babylonian exiles to return to Jerusalem. They had been in Babylon for forty years, away from their homes, away from their city, away from the Temple, and away perhaps even from their God. And then, for God to return them to Zion, to return to rebuild the city and the Temple. It must have seemed like a dream, too good to be true. But then they saw and knew that it was real, and their mouths were filled with laughter and their tongues with shouts of joy. And the people around them, the nations said, “Yahweh, their God, has done great things for them.” Yahweh, our God, has done great things for us, and we were glad.
It must have seemed like a dream to Mary, when that angel spoke those words to her: “You will conceive and give birth to a son and you will call His Name Jesus; He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and God will give Him the throne of His father David, and His Kingdom will have no end.” Unlike the unfulfilled longing of that return to Jerusalem from Babylon, the promise here is that, finally, God will bring all their hopes and dreams and longings to completion and fulfillment. And it must have seemed like a dream to Joseph—actually, it was a dream—when the angel came to him and told him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, because what was conceived in her was from the Holy Spirit, and Joseph should call His Name Jesus—Yahshua—because He would save His people from their sins. Yahweh’s salvation, that is His Name. It must have seemed like a dream: too good to be true.
There are two kinds of experiences that we compare with dreams: you can go through something so horrible and surreal that you hope and pray that it is a dream, that you’re going to wake up, and it will not be real. And you can also go through something so wonderful, so amazing, so profound, that you hope and pray that it is not a dream, but real. For Judah, for Mary, for Joseph, for the shepherds, it is clearly the latter: something so good, so incredible, that they could hardly believe that it was not a dream. What about us? What about you, here, tonight? What kind of thing is the birth of Jesus? When you wake up on Saturday, or next Monday, or after the first of January, will all this seem sort of like a dream? Sort of like walking out of a darkened movie theater into the cold, hard light of what we call “real life”? And will you be glad to say that it was only a dream? Glad that Christmas is only for a day or two, glad it’s over, glad it stays in its place? Will you be happy to go back to your “real life” after a vacation, a holiday, an extended weekend? Will you be satisfied that Jesus will stay in His place until next year? That Jesus is just part of the trappings of the season, and like the tree and the tinsel, the ornaments and the wrapping paper, He can be put away, or kept where He belongs, out of your daily and weekly routine? Who has time for Christmas year-round, anyway?
Or will you dare to hope that this dream is true? Dare to pray that in the middle of your “real life” there is life beyond it all? That Jesus didn’t stay in Bethlehem, but that He grew up and lived; that He went on to Jerusalem, suffered and died there; that He didn’t stay in that grave, but actually rose from the dead; that He didn’t stay there with only His disciples, but that He ascended to the right hand of God’s almighty power so He could be present with all His people, as He promised: “Look, I am with you all the days, until the completion of this age.” I am with you, My own baptized believers, not on one day a year, or two, or even once a week, but I am your very life every single day, until this age is brought to its completion. What seemed like a dream, like something too good to be true, is the only real life there is.
Because sometimes this life is like a bad dream that won’t end; yes, even at Christmas. Families and individuals face the consequences of sin in their lives, and they face the wages of sin, which is death. That’s why the psalmist doesn’t stop with rejoicing in the good things God did for Judah, bringing them back from exile in Babylon. No, he appeals to God’s action in the past, and hopes for its fulfillment: God, you restored the captivity to Zion; restore the captivity to Zion! You ransomed captive Israel; come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel! You came in flesh to die and rise; come in glory to restore us! Because the real hope is not that we will leave this place and go someplace else, a place with clouds and gold streets and harps and wings, not that we would die and go to heaven, but that heaven would come down, that earth would be restored, that Yahweh would return to Zion. That’s what Isaiah prays for in chapter 52: that the promise of peace proclaimed by the messengers would be fulfilled when the watchmen see their King return to Zion. Because the promise is not that there will be peace on earth, but that Peace has come on earth. As Micah said so long ago, a child, a ruler would come whose origin was of old, from the ancient of days, and that He would be our peace. Not a means to peace, not a way for us to accomplish peace, but our Peace itself—the only peace there is. When we see Him, the same man born in Bethlehem, the same God who took our flesh for His own—when we see Him, then we will see peace.
There is weeping now, while the seed is sown. Jesus said that unless a seed dies and is buried, it remains a single seed; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. In tears and mourning and suffering, Jesus was buried in the ground. But He rose with laughter and a shout of joy, beginning the harvest of the last day. We are still sowing bodies in the ground with tears and sorrow, but the harvest is coming. You will be sown in the ground, but the harvest is coming, and the angels are the reapers, gathering the sheaves into the storehouse of God. So it is, that the one who ransomed captive Israel with His own blood and death, will return at the completion of this age and restore all the captives to His own dwelling place in a new earth, under a new heavens.
Rejoice, our Lord is born! Rejoice, a savior has been given to the whole earth, who is Christ the Lord. He has put a song of praise in our mouths that will remain until the harvest at the end of the age. Then we will go forth from our graves, our mouths filled with laughter and our tongues with shouts of joy that cannot end. Christ is born! The dream is reality. O come, let us adore Him!
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, 12/23/15