In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“My heart for very joy must leap; My lips no more can silence keep. I, too, must sing with joyful tongue That sweetest ancient cradlesong: ‘Glory to God in highest heav’n, Who unto us His Son has giv’n!” (LSB 358:14). “All this for us our God has done Granting love through His own Son. Therefore, all Christendom, rejoice And sing His praise with endless voice. Alleluia!” (LSB 382:7). Pastor Luther gives us the words to sing today, in his two great Christmas hymns. Because God has given His Son to us, we rejoice and sing His praise with endless voice, endless into all eternity. Today we hear again the angels’ song for the Baby in the manger: Glory in the highest, and peace for sinners to whom Jesus, the favor of God, has come. The birth of Jesus, second only to the cross and resurrection, has inspired some of the most profound meditation in the Church. So Augustine writes in a sermon on the Nativity of Jesus: “He is my glory, the one who lifts up my head. For what greater grace could God have made to dawn on us than to make his only Son become the son of man, so that a son of man might in his turn become son of God?” On that day, in the lower part of an anonymous house in Bethlehem, because there was no room for them in the normal guest quarters of the upper room, the love of God was found on earth in one place and one place only: a baby, wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger. And this same love, in that same Body, though now grown, crucified, resurrected, and ascended—that same love is in our presence today.
Love is always sacrificial, always humble. What could be more humble than a newborn, helpless and totally dependent, content upon His mother’s lap? And yet, that same child, at the same time, “keeps the earth and sky and sea” (382:3). What could be more sacrificial than the Trinitarian decision for the Son to take on flesh and die? Yet, He “entered earthly time To lead us from this world of cares To heaven’s courts as blessed heirs” (382:5). The Word by whom all things have been made, apart from whom nothing is made—this Word was spoken into the world as a Man. “Now in the manger we may see God’s Son from eternity, The gift from God’s eternal throne Here clothed in our poor flesh and bone” (382:2). Jesus says that the greatest love is a man who lays down His life for His friends, and so He does: laid down in the womb of Mary; laid down in the manger; laid down upon the cross; laid down in the grave.
We thirsted in the wilderness of sin and death. And we began to believe that the world could offer us a respite from our dehydration and exhaustion. That if we have enough money, if we have the perfect family, the perfect faith, a perfect Christmas, then everything will be okay. Somehow, in spite of the fact that our idols always fail us and let us down, we keep believing that the world can help us reach our selfish goals; but it is all a mirage. It is exactly because we can’t free ourselves from our illusions and mirages that God has stepped into the world to make a more excellent way: His own love. From His Son, the living waters burst forth for all who are thirsty, that they may come and drink without money and without price. And, in the houses of the holy today, throughout the world the words of Luther echo, even beyond the walls of the church slurred with his name: “’He will on you the gifts bestow Prepared by God for all below, That in His kingdom, bright and fair, You may with us His glory share” (358:4). All God’s gifts are found wrapped in those cloths in that manger; in the flesh of that Child. Many were awaiting the coming of a great King, but what they received was an ordinary infant in a filthy feed trough. But that King, clothed in the flesh of His mother, would soon reign in that same flesh at the almighty Hand of His Father. And in this great elevation, He brings you along to share in the radiant glory of the risen Christ.
All of this is repeated in the sounding joy of this day! This is our God, for whom we have waited. We have waited for the Lord, and here He is, our salvation. In that little town of Bethlehem, Christ the King built His palace in the straw; but He would rise from there and, footstep after footstep, walk unwavering toward your salvation. That warm manger would soon become the darkness of a new tomb. It is an absolute promise from the mouth of God: as certainly as Jesus was the firstborn Son of God, who opened the womb, so He would also become the firstborn from the dead. In that—in Him—we have everything. Into these things, into His life, we have been baptized. At the font, before the whole cloud of witnesses, of saints and angels, you were drowned in the water and joined forever to the justifying death of the Savior. But neither did you remain dead in your sins; you were raised up from the baptismal water and spit out onto dry land while Christ drowns your sins. The water left is murky and murderous; stale and stagnant. But you, dear Christian, are alive and vibrant. Now, with the revelation of Christ granted you by the Spirit, you are fully awake; now you can see all things in Him.
On this Christmas Day, all the awakened sleepers, those who were dead, but now live in Christ—today the baptized believers gather to laud and magnify their Lord at His Nativity. The gracious Lord of the manger, cross, and empty tomb places on our lips again today the confession: “And thus, dear Lord, it pleaseth Thee, To make this truth quite plain to me, That all the world’s wealth, honor, might, Are naught and worthless in Thy sight.” Today, again, we hear the truth, who is Christ. We eat and drink a truth beyond what we can see. St. Augustine proclaimed this same truth. “Truth, then, has arisen from the earth: Christ who said, I am the Truth, was born of the Virgin. And justice looked down from heaven: because believing in this new-born child, man is justified not by himself, but by God.” That justice is laid upon Jesus’ crucified shoulders, and what comes from His mouth is not condemnation, but mercy. Justice has been served. Though you and I stood guilty before God, the great High Priest placed His blood upon us, and the verdict was read out and echoing through eternity: innocent.
Again, Augustine said of all this: “Ask if this were merited; ask for its reason, for its justification, and see whether you will find any other answer but sheer grace.” Sheer grace, given to you and to me. What more shall we say than this, “If Christ be with us, what ever could we want?” Had Christ not come, we would certainly be lost. But Christ has come, and He has found us. Today Gabriel and the whole army of God’s angels sing. Today all Christ’s faithful feast with happy hearts around His altar. Today creation shouts for joy. Today heaven and earth rejoice, love and faithfulness meet, and righteousness and peace kiss each other. “Awake, you who sleep; rise from the dead and Christ will enlighten you. I tell you again: for your sake God became man.” O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!
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, 12/18/15
*The theme for this Advent (and Christmas) series, much of the outline, and some of the material is taken by permission from Pr. Gaven Mize, of Augustana Lutheran Church, Hickory, NC.