Video of the service is here.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“If you can awaken inside the familiar/and discover it new/you need never/leave home” (Ted Kooser, Local Wonders, 94). If you can awaken inside the familiar, and discover it new, you need never leave home. That was written by a poet named Ted Kooser about a painting that made a familiar street take on a new light. And it’s not a bad place for us to start this evening as we consider something that is very familiar to us; a street we have walked down so many times before: this account—or maybe this idea—of the Christmas story. Even the word “Christmas” brings with it all sorts of baggage: memories, and traditions, and smells and tastes, and even its own kind of feeling: the “Christmas spirit,” we call it. And so I wonder if we can—if it’s even possible—to awaken inside this familiar story and discover it new.
Well, one possibility might be through a very familiar hymn. You are all familiar with “Silent Night.” If I asked you, you could probably recite the words to me from memory. Maybe your Christmas tradition wouldn’t be Christmas without it. But if we look at the German words of that familiar carol, we find that it’s not so familiar after all. The English is very different from the original. I understand how difficult it is to translate a hymn into another language and make it fit both the meter of the music and make it rhyme, so I didn’t even try. But here’s a rough translation of the German: “Silent night! Holy night! Everyone sleeps; alone watches/only the cozy, high-holy Pair;/lovely Boy with curly hair/Sleep in heavenly peace!” [Stanza 2:] “Silent night! Holy night! Proclaimed first to the shepherds/through the Angel’s Hallelujah/It rings loud from far and near/Christ, the Savior, is here!” [Stanza 3] And my favorite: “Silent night! Holy night! Son of God, O how He laughs!/Love from Your divine Mouth/There, for us, strikes Salvation’s hour/Christ at Your birth!” Son of God, O how He laughs! Love from Your divine Mouth. There, for us, strikes Salvation’s hour. The Word from the Mouth of the Father, who was in the beginning with the Father; who was face to face with the Father, and was Himself God. In the beginning, when God spoke creation into existence, it was through this Word. When He said, “Let there be light!” it was by the Word, the source of Light. And this Word is Love from God’s Mouth, who was conceived in the womb of a virgin, took her flesh, and was born in Bethlehem. There, in that Word’s conception and birth, strikes the beginning of the hour of salvation for us.
But maybe a new translation of a familiar hymn doesn’t do it for you. You probably don’t want a new translation, anyway. What about some other hymns, so familiar to us that the tunes can carry us right over the words? Our Christmas hymns have some of the most profound theology of all the hymns in our hymnal. “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” for example. “Highest, most holy,/Light of Light eternal,/Born of a virgin, a mortal He comes;/Son of the Father, now in flesh appearing” (LSB 379:2). Or “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”: “Christ, by highest heaven adored,/Christ, the everlasting Lord,/Late in time, behold Him come,/Offspring of the virgin’s womb./Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,/Hail the incarnate Deity!/Pleased as Man with man to dwell,/Jesus, our Immanuel” (380:2). Or Luther’s second great Christmas hymn, “We Praise You, Jesus, At Your Birth”: “The virgin Mary’s lullaby/Calms the infant Lord Most High./Upon her lap content is He/Who keeps the earth and sky and sea” (382:3). The One who created and upholds all things is an infant on the lap of His mother!
But maybe none of that does it for you either. Maybe you know the story too well, and none of those familiar songs can make it new. There’s one other possibility. That is to consider how things actually were, and not our ideas about it from greeting cards and carols. There was probably no snow on the ground, and it might not have been as nice to be there as the cards picture it. Maybe there was a draft through that stable; maybe the straw in the hard manger was not as comfortable or cozy as we might think. And, if you’ve ever been in a labor-and-delivery room, you know that, at least before Jesus was born, it was not silent in there. Mary had no epidural or pain medicine; Jesus was born in exactly the same way that you and I were. It wasn’t silent, and it probably didn’t seem particularly holy, either.
The Word took flesh and dwelt among us. God “tabernacled” in our flesh; that baby was the precise place of God’s gracious presence, where God Himself chose to dwell in order to forgive the sins of His people. That’s why His Name is Jesus. And we have seen His glory, the glory of the only-begotten of the Father. Glory? The Glory of pain and blood, shame and suffering? Yes. As it was at the beginning of His life, so it was at the end. The cross is made of wood, just as the manger. Behold, this is your God. In the manger and on the cross. And all of that—all the pain and blood and shame and suffering—that is the Glory of your God in this world. It is the glory of God doing the work of His Salvation.
Maybe you came here looking for a new story. Or maybe you came here hoping to hear the same old story, safely in the distant past. For my part, I still have my doubts about the whole enterprise. You get to listen; the pressure’s on me to say something new. But it’s so familiar; and “familiar” does not equal “new” for me. Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt. This is not what I want. It’s not what I think I need. I need fast-paced images, that I can change with the click of a mouse, or a click of the remote. I need new, not familiar, and not old. And I want everything to be right. But it’s not. And it will never be, not in this life. Because this whole world is wrong; it was wrong when Jesus was born, and it’s wrong today.
I saw a Christmas card a couple years ago where the artist had superimposed the Holy Family in the middle of a bombed-out street in Syria. That’s closer to the truth. John says that Jesus was the Life who brought Light to the whole world. He says, “I am the Light of the world” (John 8:12). But the darkness tried to snuff out the light. “This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19). The creator of all that exists came to His own creation, and His own did not receive Him!
But it gets worse: when Jesus was still a toddler, the babies in Bethlehem were slaughtered by Herod, simply for being in close proximity to Jesus. Those babies were killed, simply because they were in the place where Jesus was. That’s about as wrong as it gets. And on December 26, we will remember St. Stephen, the first martyr after Jesus’ ascension into heaven. He was stoned to death just for following Jesus.
Maybe, in order to see whether this familiar story can be new, we have to take the story out of the Church; take it out of our pious practices and traditions and even our preparation and put it out there, in the cold and the dark; put it right in the middle of people’s day-to-day lives, and tell them: God was born as a baby in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. He was born a particular Jew in a particular place at a particular time. He was conceived in and born from a virgin, all for you. You’ll very quickly see that this familiar story is just as strange, just as shocking, just as offensive, just as new, as it was in the time of Herod, and Mary and Joseph, and shepherds being visited by angels. This world is still all wrong, and if Jesus were born today, we would still kill Him, because He is God and we want to be our own gods.
As much as we might not want it to be true, as much as we might not like it, this world is much more Advent and Lent than it is Christmas and Easter. Christmas, Easter, Epiphany, Ascension: these are all feasts of the world to come. It’s true that the new world has already come in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. It is already true for you who are in Christ. But as we look around, at the world as we see it now, it’s all Advent; it’s all waiting, and hoping, and longing; it’s all Lent; it’s all mourning over sin, it’s all grieving, it’s all death. And that’s why Christmas and Easter have to be proclaimed, declared, preached. Because we see Advent and Lent; we can only believe Christmas and Easter.
So tonight we have come here, to this familiar place on this familiar day. We are here in the midst of a world that wants everything new, nothing familiar, nothing old: new computer, new car, new house, new spouse, new job, new church. But we are here to rejoice. To rejoice, in the middle of a world gone wrong, that Christ was born to set things right. So “Let us, then, rejoice and be happy today. Let our mouths be full of [the] laughter [of the Son of God] and our tongues full of [praise for Him]. For the holy message of Christmas is that heaven’s gates are open for us” (C.F.W. Walther [adapted]). Bethlehem has opened Eden! Salvation is created! Wide open stand the gates adorned with pearl, not only because Christ descended to be born of Mary, but because He descends to us still, in Word and Supper.
And so you need never leave home, because your King and Lord descends to you, bringing His Home to you here in this house. You awoke in this familiar story, but tonight it is new—not because you or I can manufacture a new feeling, and certainly not because we can manufacture joy, but because tonight is the night when God struck the chime beginning salvation’s hour. His familiar salvation will always be new in mercy, until there is no more Advent and Lent, only Christmas and Easter, only life. “Come, Jesus, come, Messiah Lord,/Lost paradise restore;/Lead past the angel’s flaming sword—/Come, open heaven’s door” (342:4). The angels’ Hallelujah rings out again, far and near: Christ, the Savior, is here!
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, 12/20/17