Christmas Eve 2014
What does the Bible say about the birth of Christ? I am taking the risk to admit this evening that if you have attended a Christmas Eve service before that you will likely not hear anything new tonight. Now some of you may receive this as a permission slip to doze off for the next ten minutes, but before you do first consider this question. Should you really hear something new tonight? Certainly if one of you has not heard the story of Christ’s nativity it will be new, but most of you have heard it several times if not a hundred times. Here’s the thing about hearing a story often; you begin to finish the lines before they’re even spoken. My wife and I do that while watching Christmas movies like White Christmas. Bing and Danny Kay haven’t even opened their mouths and we’re saying the lines and crooning the songs.
If we can’t hear the story of the Nativity of our Lord for the first time over again then what can we do? We can only pray that God will help us hear it anew. Let us ask God that we hear it in such a way that we won’t open our mouths to finish the lines and move things along, but let God tell the story again.
All people do not hear this story in the same manner. Some listen to it as only a lovely legend with a little historical truth. Christianity has always listened to it as written history. Some listen to it as a moralistic tale about goodwill, love, and self-giving that sets an example for mankind to follow. Christianity has always said that’s hardly the half of it, this is the story of God coming down into the depths of humanity’s darkness and brokenness to rescue us from all that afflicts us—to destroy the demonic forces of evil, to swallow up death forever, to forgive our sinful rebellion, and more.
The Christians have always confessed that the Nativity is historical truth and is the story of God saving us because that is exactly how the gospel writers present it. St. Luke makes it clear that he spoke to eyewitnesses of all the events of Christ’s earthly life and ministry. He knows the difference between legend and history. He is convinced these things happened. So, he states for us the only details that mattered. Anything superfluous to the Savior’s birth is left out. He states the events clearly and simply.
Jesus was born in the beginning of the census taken by Caesar Augustus. About 7 BC Quirinius was given the ruling power in the East and Jesus was likely born sometime around that year. Keeping with Hebrew custom Quirinius had everyone go to the hometown of their ancestors and since Joseph betrothed to the virgin-mother was of the house of David he traveled with his wife to Bethlehem. God’s hand was in these events as the Christ was prophesied to be born in Bethlehem. Since Mary and Joseph were not the only travelers there for the census there was no room for them in the inn. That was likely the case because they could tell Mary was close to deliver her child which would make the inn ceremonially unclean for a time. So, they were granted the warmth of a stable instead. The child was born, wrapped in swaddling cloths, and laid in a manger for there was no place for them in the inn.
So, you’ve heard the story again to add to all the countless times you’ve heard it in its beautiful simplicity. Are you having trouble hearing it anew? So, often at Christmas we want to walk away with something novel, something new, a tidbit we can hide away in our pocket to warm us when we return to life with all its mediocrity and gray mundane tasks. Yet, here’s the difficult thing about the Nativity of our Lord we must struggle with: God does not reveal himself where we want him to. Just as we might hope he reveals himself in some novel way tonight he showed up in the world in the least expected way—he reveals himself by crib and by cross.
We often see the crib as a quaint sentiment meant to warm our hearts as we sing of the manger when rather it should pierce our souls every time we consider it. Simeon would later say that even Mary’s heart would be pierced by what her child was born to do. This child was born for the rising and falling of many. He is born as a sign opposed. Opposition was right around the corner in the murderous rage of King Herod. Yet, this was God’s plan to save us; to come into the world and to be treated as an enemy. And this child of the Holy Spirit is born under the Law, held accountable to the 10 Commandments which he had written, none of which he ever transgressed, but he will shed his innocent blood on a criminal’s cross for the transgressions of the entire world.
This is how God has revealed himself—as a poor baby resting in a feeding trough and a poor executed man asleep in a tomb. How can we say God became man to do this for us and have it not shake us to the core? It ought too. Not even the angels in heaven have this honor that God so identified with them to become one of them. Only you have this honor to say that God has become my brother in Jesus Christ born of Mary, Son of Joseph of the House of David, Son of God. Only you have the honor to say my life is worth the life of God.
Without even considering the cross and the resurrection of Jesus this truth that Christ is God in the flesh should in of itself change our disposition. We should love others purely because God loved us so much he would honor my fellowman by becoming man. How could we hate or destroy the same flesh that our God now has? Jesus is true God and true man. That means he is your brother and he has honored all humanity. How then can we sin against other persons of humanity? But we do, daily. We still hate, mistreat, and transgress against our brethren. There is not a single person that any of us call friend or family that we not have sinned against in thought, word, or deed. And in so doing we defame the honor that God has given in the incarnation of his Son.
And this gets us to the heart of the nativity message. You see it cannot drum-up goodwill and perfect love in mankind. Though it often inspires men and women to deeds of service, especially this time of year, there is no getting around that our efforts pale in comparison to what God has done in Christ. Christ came to be the kind of brother we could not find in any other fellow. Angels announced it, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” He is your Savior; the one instance of humanity that has never sinned against you in thought, word, or deed. He has honored you by becoming like you in every way, not just in flesh and blood, and not in just what semblances of good and righteousness you have mustered out of yourself in the last year. He has become like you in your darkest and most helpless places. On the cross he became your sin for you. Receiving the just wage for our sin the Son of our heavenly father, our brother, willingly stood in our place. He spoke to the Father for us, “Father, forgive them…” and in raising him from the dead the Father has accepted his sacrifice in your stead. Because he was born, because he died, because he rose again, you are forgiven. And though you were born sinful, and though you will die, you will rise again too.
This is why God became man. This likely is not at all new to you. Yet, I ask you again, do you really think you should hear something new tonight? The simple story of Christ born for sinners is not new, but it is what you need to daily hear anew. It’s what you need more than any other thing in this world for from it you have a Savior from sin, death, and the power of the evil one. You have the promise of resurrection and the hope of the life of the world to come where indeed there will be eternal peace in the new heavens and new earth. So, as we celebrate, as we sing, and as we hear the story let us hear it afresh and anew and let its artless message find its way into our hearts and minds again and again. In Jesus’ name, amen.