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In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I don’t know how you feel about unexpected visits or unexpected visitors, whether at this time of the year or at other times. Probably some of you enjoy having unexpected visitors, and others of you would rather have a little more notice. There are a lot of unexpected visitors in the Scripture readings around this time of year, although time-wise they’re spread out a little more. There are a lot of unexpected visitors and many of them are angels, which just means “messenger.” One of these messengers comes to Zechariah and tells him that his wife, Elizabeth, who’s far past child-bearing age, is going to have a son, they’re going to call him John, and he’s going to prepare the way for the Messiah. Zechariah doesn’t believe the message or the messenger, and so he’s struck mute until John is born. When John is born, Zechariah breaks into song: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who has visited His people and made redemption for them. … Through the compassionate mercy of our God, by which the sunrise will visit us from the highest place and shine upon those in darkness and those sitting in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:68, 78).
An angel visits Mary, the young virgin in Nazareth, and tells her something even more improbable: that she is going to conceive and give birth to a son, who is the Son of God. She says, “Let it be to me as you have said.” Then an angel visits Joseph and tells him not to be afraid to take Mary his wife, because what is conceived in her is by the power of the Holy Spirit. Call His name Jesus, Yahweh’s salvation, because He will save His people from their sins. He will be Immanuel: God with us. An angel, and then a whole bunch of them, visit some surprised shepherds outside Bethlehem, and tell them that they, too, have a savior. To you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord. And they go and visit Mary, Joseph, and the Baby. Some Magi from the east, as well, show up to visit Mary, Joseph, and the Baby.
But the angels aren’t proclaiming their own visits. And the shepherds and the Magi are not in the story because of their visits. They are there and the angels are proclaiming something far more unexpected and surprising: the visitation of God Himself to His people. God has appeared on the earth in this unexpected way, wrapped up in the new flesh of an infant born of a virgin. But though it might have been unexpected or surprising that He appeared at just that moment, it should not have been either unexpected or surprising to anyone who knew the Scriptures. Because God had been promising for a very long time that He would show up and visit His people with salvation once and for all.
Sometimes when unexpected visitors show up, it is good and we are happy. But sometimes unexpected visitors bring bad news. And God does both. Sometimes He visits, and it means judgment on the idolatry and sin of the people. He visits them with foreign armies who destroy Jerusalem. He visits them with exile into Assyria and Babylon. He visits them with prophets who announce what God is doing and what the people should do or not do.
But that kind of visitation is not the goal. That kind of visitation is always temporary and contingent. What is not temporary is the visitation that God promises from the very beginning, and that He never takes back. It is an unconditional, eternal promise of visitation. And no matter how long it takes, God always does what He says. Like when He visits the people in exile and Babylon after 70 years and brings them back to the land. Or when He visits the people after 430 years and brings them up out of Egypt, as Joseph had prophesied.
And this is not a short visit to say hi. This isn’t God staying in the guest room for a few days. God’s visitation means much more than that. It means help, and guidance, and mercy, and guarding, and watching over, and keeping safe. He visits not to leave His people, but to be present with them. And when God visited His people and saved them from Egypt, or visited His people and brought them out of exile, those were pictures of God’s great and final visitation, when He would appear and grant His people full and complete salvation.
This is what Zechariah saw when he sang about God visiting His people and making redemption for them. Jesus appears as an infant, but He doesn’t stay that way. Christmas isn’t just about something that happened a long time ago, for those people only. It’s not here to give us nice, warm feelings about some distant events involving a baby. Because that baby was God in the flesh visiting His people with salvation, to make redemption for them. And He did it by growing out of that manger, and stretching out His arms on the cross. He makes redemption for His people by the blood of His cross. And He proclaims that redemption as an eternal one after His resurrection: Look! He says to His disciples, I am with you all the days until the completion of this age.
This is not a temporary visit, but an eternal one. It is the dawning of the Light of the world, and a sun that would never go down. What Zechariah said about the sunrise from the highest place and the ways of peace is the same as what the angels said to the shepherds: glory to God in the highest place and peace on earth. It is the promise bound up in the book of Ruth. Naomi was from Bethlehem, and she was in Moab because of a famine. Bethlehem means “house of bread,” and there was no bread! But then Naomi hears that God had visited His people and given them bread (Ruth 1:6). So she and Ruth return to Bethlehem, Boaz marries Ruth, and it is from their marriage that a man named David is descended. And it was in David’s little town of Bethlehem that bread was given: not the bread that you eat and die, but the true Bread from heaven that gives life to the world. The bread of life came down from heaven and appeared in the house of bread, and Jesus says that this bread that He will give for the life of the world is His flesh.
God’s visitation was not only then for those who were alive at that time. God’s visitation is once and for all in the flesh and blood of Jesus. Once and for all for the whole world and for you. He is still God’s salvation and He is still God with us. And He continues to visit us in ways that are unexpected and surprising to people, but exactly as the Scriptures tell us. He comes in words of forgiveness, in water that brings the death and resurrection of Jesus to people, and in bread and wine that brings Jesus’ life-giving flesh and blood. And all of this is as we prayed: that we may hear and receive Him as our Redeemer here and now, so that when He comes again as Judge, we will welcome Him with sure confidence. And He will come. Christians have always looked symbolically to the East as they await the final visitation of Jesus, because that is the direction from which the sun rises. The King shall come when morning dawns! And when the sun rises on that day, it will rise forever and darkness and the shadow of death will be no more. He will swallow up death forever and wipe every tear from every face, and there will be no more mourning or crying or pain anymore. In Him, the hopes and fears of all the years—your hopes and fears—are met at His birth, and today, and every day until His appearance.
When the people of Israel in Egypt heard what Moses announced, that God had visited them and had seen their affliction and suffering, and the weight of their slavery, they believed. And they bowed their heads and worshiped. Tonight is the yearly reminder that God has visited us and done away with death in Himself so that death can no longer claim us. He takes away the sin of the world, so He has mercy on us and gives us His peace. He visits and gives us the Holy Christian Church, the communion of the saints, and the forgiveness of sins, so that we will have the resurrection of our bodies and life everlasting. And at that, the believers bow their heads and worship. O come, let us adore Him. 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, 12/24/19