Sunday. The Lord’s Day. The day we celebrate the victory of Jesus over sin and death. Every Sunday is a little Easter. And this Sunday happens to be Christmas. Christ’s Mass of His Nativity, the divine service of the Child of Bethlehem born to save the world. A double bonus!
Great is the mystery, worthy of all telling. The Word became Flesh and made His dwelling among us. Who would have known it? Who would have done it this way? The eternal Son is born of a virgin mother, the Creator of all now joins His creatures. The Infinite is taken up in the finite. God is now Man and Man is now God. God is with us.
It happened in time and place. “It happened” are actually the first words of today’s Gospel, but the translators left it out figuring you didn’t need to hear that. But you do. In today’s LA times, there’s a picture of a church in Bethlehem. The caption reads in part, “the West Bank town where Christians believe Jesus was born.” But this birth is a matter of fact not faith. Don’t let the myth-makers turn history into a fairy tale. “It happened.” It happened when Augustus was the Roman Caesar, and Quirinius was the governor of Syria. It happened during a tax census, one of those unpleasant bits of bureaucracies everywhere including Rome. You thought 10W40s were bad. Try having to walk to Bethlehem from Galilee with a pregnant fiance.
It happened in Bethlehem of Judea. Beth-lechem, the “house of bread,” Judah’s bread box. The place where Jacob buried his beloved bride Rachel. The place where David, the shepherd-king of Israel, was born. The place of which prophet Micah spoke some 700 years earlier: “But you, Bethlehem, Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”
It happened at the guesthouse in Bethlehem. You can’t get more located than that. The animals were kept below on the first floor, the guests slept up above them, dormitory style. Not exactly the sort of place for a mother to have her baby. Better to put her downstairs with the animals. It was warm and safe there. An act of kindness. There she gave birth to her firstborn, a son, and laid him in a manger, as the animals quietly looked on. “The ox knows its master, the ass his owner’s manger.”
Surprised by it all? You should be. Or perhaps you’ve heard the story so often it no longer thrills you. That would be a shame. We need to become like Mary and ponder these things in our hearts every year. Every day. The infinite God, the Creator of the universe, the Word through whom all things were made and in whom all things hold together, now makes His appearance in this world as a helpless newborn. An infant crying out for His mother. “Little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes?” I can’t imagine it. How else would He be able to tell her that He was hungry or wet and needed those swaddling cloths changed? God in diapers. Who would have known it?
We’re so enamored of glitter and glory that we don’t expect God to act subversively. We’ve got this notion that God should run around and flex His muscle and do favors for us. A respectable Deity who throws a few lightening bolts around (just not at us), or who shakes things up a bit (just not under our feet), or who stirs up a whirlwind (just not in our direction).
Our old Adam loves the notion of power and control. We cook up gods in our own image to satisfy those religious urges of ours – gods who throw around their power, gods who can be bribed and buttered up with religion. But what about a God who is born of a virgin mother, who makes His bed in a manger, who wears diapers? Not the sort of God we could cook up for ourselves, is it?
There were shepherds out in Bethlehem’s fields, watching over their flocks at night. It was lambing season. Perhaps some would be a Passover sacrifice in a year. Shepherding was hard, dirty work. Shepherds were looked down on, especially by the religious. These were rough men, not very clean, didn’t contribute much to the budget’s bottom line, weren’t the best church goers. Not the sort of folk one would expect angels to visit.
But it’s to these poor shepherds that an angel appears and on whom the glory of the Lord shines. And the angel says, “Fear not,” because that’s the first thing that happens when you see an angel and the glory of the Lord shines all around you. You’re scared out of your wits, as well you should be, since no one may look on God and live. But the angel says, “Fear not. I have good news that will bring you joy. Today in David’s birthplace a Savior has been born to you. He is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign: Look for a baby wrapped in cloths lying in a manger.”
They had to be told. Where would you look to find the Savior who is Christ the Lord? How would you know him from any other newborn in Bethlehem? The manger, that’s the sign. The feed box. You don’t ordinarily find a baby in a feed box. That One is the baby who is God.
God works hidden under opposite signs. You can’t see Him; you have to trust the Word. To the eye, this is just some ordinary newborn and his mother. Poor thing. No comfortable crib, but a feed box. But the Word tells you what the eye cannot. This child is the Savior, the Christ, the Lord. His birth is a matter of fact. That He is Savior, Lord, and Christ is also a matter of fact, whether anyone believes it or not. The shepherds didn’t “make him” their Savior, Lord, and Christ. That’s who He is. The Word reveals it to them.
To you is born this day a Savior who is Christ the Lord. “To you” is the faith part. Remember what the catechism says? “The words ‘for you’ require all hearts to believe. How do the shepherds know He’s for them, this little Christ and Lord? The words “for you” told them. And how do you know He’s born for you? The same angelic words were spoken at your Baptism and a here from this pulpit and there at His Supper. He is here for you, hidden for you, for your forgiveness and life and salvation. Your Savior and Christ and Lord. God means you; He wants you to take it personally.
The shepherds heard a heavenly hymn sung by an angel choir: “Glory to God in the highest and one earth peace to men on whom His favor rests.” Just as the angels sing with us in the liturgy. Every Sunday a little Christmas! The glory is God’s, the peace is ours, all on account of God’s little Child whose glory is to die on a cross, and in whose wounds there is peace.
Propelled by the heavenly hymn, the shepherds run off to Bethlehem to see what happened as the Lord had told them. They seem to have forgotten about the angels. It’s the Lord who told them. That’s OK. Preachers are used to that. Forget the messenger; it’s the message that matters.
Who tended their flocks while they were away? Who looked after the newborn lambs? Who chased away the wolves? We don’t know, and the shepherds don’t seem terribly concerned. That’s how it is when the Word grabs hold of you. Work can wait, the Lord will provide. All those piddly excuses about “being too busy” evaporate when the Word has its way. They were glad to come and worship.
They found things just as they had heard. There He was all swaddled, lying there in the feed box – Judah’s lion lying down with the lamb on manger straw. They told everyone what they had heard, which is also how it is when the Word has it’s way with you. You just can’t keep it to yourself. You have to spread the word to others, be an angel for others.
Mary treasured everything she heard, pondering these things in her heart. She would need these things on those days she forgot who her Child was. Being mother to the Son of God isn’t easy. She would need those treasured words on the day the sword pierced her own soul as it pierced the side of her Savior-Son. And we need to ponder these things in our hearts too, not just on December 25th, but throughout the twelve days of Christmas and on through the rest of the year Jesus is Savior and Christ and Lord every each and everyday of your life, to the end of your days and to the end of all the days.
The shepherds returned to their flocks. No Christmas holiday for them. Right after church, they go back to the mundane matters of sheep. Same old sheep, but not the same old shepherds. They glorified and praised God for all the things they had heard and seen.
You needn’t go rushing off to Bethlehem. It really isn’t worth the cost, and there is nothing there that you can’t receive here. Here is your Bethlehem, your “house of bread,” where Jesus is for you, swaddled in His Word, mangered in bread and wine, where you get to sing “Glory to God in the highest” along with the angels who sing with you.
You come here much as the shepherds did that first Christmas. Busy, anxious, empty handed, offering nothing. Doubting perhaps. Wondering. Can it really be true? Can God be man and man be God? Can the infinite reside in the finite. Can the Creator become the creature? He seems so weak, insignificant, lying there in the manger, hidden there in the Word and Supper. But this is the One who takes away your sin, conquers your death, raises you to life. You have no other Savior, Lord, and Christ except this One. He’s all you need to see you through death to life.
You leave here much the way the shepherds left Bethlehem, glorifying and praising God, telling others what happened, tending the flock God has placed in your care – your family and work, your vocation – and receiving all the company of family and friends, food and drink, gifts given and received with hearts fixed on Jesus where the true and lasting joys of Christmas are to be found.
It happened in Bethlehem. And it happens here. And all for you.
In the name of Jesus,
[I am indebted to a sermon on this text by Dr. Norman Nagel – Selected Sermons, 28-32]