Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve 2009 Sermon -- Luke 2:1-20

December 24, 2009 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran ChurchMechanicsburg, PA

When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this Child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.

Wonder at what the shepherds told them: that is how the Evangelist describes the reaction of the people to the shepherds’ report. What had come out of the shepherds’ mouths to cause this response of wonder? St. Luke states that “[the shepherds] made known the saying that had been told them concerning this Child.” The repetition of the angelic message is what brings the shock and awe to the people of Bethlehem.

The angel was very clear about the Infant Jesus. The details provided concerning the description and location of the Child were explicit: “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a Baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” Not many newborns would be located in the town, let alone any who were sleeping in a feeding trough. But it is the angelic statement about the identity of the Child that brings about the people’s amazement: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

The promise of the Christ had been long known and long believed. For millennia, the Chosen People of God had awaited the appearance of a Deliverer, a Redeemer. Signs throughout the centuries had been given concerning this Promised Savior. From the first prophecy to the last, the Lord God had provided details about the identity and work of the Christ. It included the unique sign that you heard this evening: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

But now the shepherds of the fields come to town in the middle of the night and declared that this Promised Savior has arrived. They repeat the statement of the angel, that the Child lying in the manger is “Christ the Lord.” And this amazes. Few would be shocked that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem. It may not be the most expected location, but the City of David is a fine place for the One who would sit on David’s throne forever to be born. But when the shepherds apply the angelic message to Mary’s Son, the Infant in the stable, surprise sets in.

Announcement of the Christ’s birth would bring about elation. But what happens when the messenger is a shepherd and he points his staff at the manger and says: “That is the One the angelic hosts told us about. That Child is the Lord God in human form.” Joy and jubilation turn to disbelief and doubt. It isn’t what was expected. It challenges all assumptions. It even contradicts what the eyes behold.

And yet, the shepherds insist that it is true. With their hearts they believe what their ears had heard from the angel. With their lips they confess that belief, “[making] known the saying that had been told them concerning this Child.” The angel said that this was “good news of a great joy,” and after witnessing the Holy Infant, “they returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” All those who heard and were led to believe experience the same. Like Mary, those who believe treasure up all these things and ponder them in their hearts.

Why is this so? Why do you come here to listen again about the birth of a baby in a rural Palestinian village and assert it to be your “good news of a great joy”? Because the appearance of the Lord God as an infant in a manger shows that it is meant for all people. Everyone could behold the baby in stable and claim to be of a greater status. The Lord God comes to this world, but makes Himself accessible to all, not putting up barriers. As Jesus makes Himself a servant to all, His appearance is lacking in all grandeur. And yet, He is present with all divine power and authority to reconcile God and mankind.

The apostle John declares: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” Christ’s presence on earth is to offer Himself as a sacrifice for your sins and the sins of the entire world. By making atonement for them, divine love is put on display, as God the Father does not condemn you for your sin and enter an eternal summary judgment against you.

So that you may receive the benefit of His sacrifice, the Lamb of God is first laid in a manger. The Son of God comes in extreme poverty. He is born in the City of David, but is not surrounded with regal grandeur. David’s eternal heir, the Prince of Heaven, is dressed in humble cloths instead of velvet robes. But this is how divine love is shown to you. For the Babe of Bethlehem did not lack any claim to such things. Rather, He set them aside to assume your nature and to deliver you from your total lack of anything good. In this way, selfless love from God Himself is shown to you.

The effect of that selfless love displayed in what the Christ would do is why the angel proclaims: “I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people.” The great joy is the salvation that you receive from His work: forgiveness of every sin committed, life extended even beyond the grave, freedom from the dominion of Satan and all evil. You lacked all these things. But as Jesus becomes impoverished for you, you are enriched by Him. That which makes you abound in all good things is what you treasure. It is why this night is beloved by you, full of the joy spoken of by the angels.

But not only does this bring about your elation, it also causes the entire heavenly host to rejoice. The same Child in the manger would say as an adult: “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” When the One who would bring salvation to all sinners who repent comes to this fallen world, the angels sing their hymn of joy: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!” For they know what the great result of Christ’s work will be.

Tonight, you respond like the shepherds “to see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” But it to see what has happened is much more than to observe an Infant wrapped in swaddling cloths. No, you are invited to celebrate with great joy what that Child has accomplished for you. You are called to participate in His death and resurrection, to proclaim it as the source of your salvation. You are called to witness Christ the Lord who comes to you again, not wrapped in rags, but veiled in bread and wine to deliver forgiveness, life, and salvation for you. For this is how the result of His work—His birth, life, death, and resurrection—is applied to you, just as the Lord has made known to you.

On this night of joy and wonder, you may point to the altar and say that is His manger for tonight. Here is the sign for you that your salvation is complete, “a sign as deep as Sheol and as high as heaven.” It may lack visible majesty and grandeur, but it is the Lord God present for your benefit. You have been reconciled to God the Father. And as Christ makes Himself available to you here on earth, you know that He is your heavenly peace.

So rejoice with the angels and sing their hymns. Praise God the Father for the sending of His Son. Declare to one another the great thing “that has happened, which the Lord has made known to [you].” And as you receive again your salvation, treasuring it in your hearts, “return [home], glorifying and praising God for all [you have] heard and seen, as it had been told [you].” For the good news of great joy that Christ’s work achieves is for you and all people: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him.”

So it is true for you who receive that message, for you who “have come to know and to believe the love that God has for [you].” Believe with amazement “the saying that has been told [you] concerning this Child,” the wondrous message of Christmas: Christ made Himself nothing, so that you may have everything.

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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