God has uttered His final Word, and it turns out to be His first Word. God has bared His holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and it turns out to be His only-begotten Son. The Word became flesh and dwells among us, and we find a humble little Child born of a virgin mother. All the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God, and they will see salvation in the face of the infant of Bethlehem, a mangered Baby wrapped in cloths.
Behold the sublime Mystery of the feast of Christmas – the eternal Word who made all things, who upholds all things, who is the light and life of all, is born a tiny helpless infant of a virgin mother for the sole purpose of saving our humanity from sin and death. Dare we believe it? Can we afford not to believe it?
The Word became flesh. That is Christmas in a nutshell. God and man have come together in one Person. The Infinite has become the finite. The Transcendent has become Imminent. The Creator is one with the creature. The Eternal breaks into time. The fulness of the Deity dwells bodily among us. It is almost to much for the mind to bear. How can the Word who fills all things, who made all things, who is before all things, limit Himself in this way, becoming bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, yet still remain God? Here reason must bow in humility as the shepherds bowed before the manger, just as we must bow at the altar before the Bread that is His Body and the Wine that is His Blood. We are in no better position to understand that mystery than we are to understand the mystery of Christmas. In fact, they are tied together. Just as we cannot separate the Body of Christ from the Bread of His Supper, so we cannot separate the eternal Word from the Baby of Bethlehem.
We do try though. Our old Adam would let reason have the upper hand over God’s Word. It creeps in when you hear people say that Mary is the mother of Jesus but not the “Mother of God.” Or Mary is the mother of the “human part” of Jesus. It even slips in to one of our traditional Christmas hymns: “The Word becomes incarnate, and yet remains on high.” Yes, you can, and we must, understand this correctly. The Word becomes Flesh and yet remains the eternal Word, even in His sweet humility. The infinite, eternal Word remains the infinite, eternal Word even as He takes up residence in the finite. But the door is opened in that little phrase to separating Christ’s humanity from His divinity, or at the very least having something more than this baby lying in a manger or this Word spoken from mouth to ear or this Bread placed on the tip of your tongue. The old Adam always wants “something more” than what God is giving.
Luther was fond of saying things like, “I look for no other God than the one lying in the crib, nursing at the breast of His mother, and hanging dead on a cross.” John would say, “That right, Dr. Luther. No one has ever seen God; the only-begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known.” Do you want to see God? Do you want to behold the glory of God? Do you want to see the true grace of God? Don’t go looking into space or groping in your heart to find God. Go to the baby in the manger, as the shepherds did. Go to the young child in the house, as the wise men did. Go to man on the cross. And since we can’t literally do any of those, go the Word and the Supper where the Son of God is mangered for us so that we might be able to perceive and receive Him.
The Word became Flesh and dwelt among us. This is the essential core of Christmas: the incarnation of God. I’ve noticed something over the last fifteen years as a pastor and preacher. Perhaps you’ve noticed it too. Cultural Christmas seems to be on the wane. Political correctness, atheism, apathy, and the ACLU have all had their way with cultural Christmas. I did a little emergency shopping yesterday. No, not Christmas shopping, but a couple of brake light bulbs for my car to make it street legal. Yes, the dealer had a Christmas tree near the front door, and one of the salesmen was dressed in a Santa suit, but that was the extent of it. The gal behind the parts counter told me to “Have a great holiday,” not sure which of the many possibilities I celebrated, not wanting to offend me. I smiled and said, “You too.” There seem to be fewer light displays on our block. I used to be one of the few holdouts. Perhaps I’ve started a trend. Or maybe the neighbors are doing their part to conserve energy. Part of it may be the influx of other cultures. A Chinese person asked me, “Why do people decorate their houses with lights in December?” I answered, “I don’t know. You’ll have to ask them.”
I suspect that some of our holiday ennui may be the accumulated heaviness of bad news that seems to permeate our days. The war in Iraq, the endless hand-wringing over our dying planet, as if that should come as some sort of surprise. The violence of our youth, many raised without fathers, hardened to suffering by violent movies and mindless video games. The brokenness of our families, decimated by divorce and adultery. The uncertainty of our economy, the high cost of homes and gas, the uncertainty of the future. I see that in many of our kids today who don’t look to the future with hope but wander aimlessly in the present moment.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to sustain much Christmas joy for one day, let alone twelve days, if you don’t believe anything. All the Christmas trees and poinsettias and lights and chestnuts roasting on an open fire won’t do a thing to fill an empty heart. There is no present under that tree that will quiet a restless conscience or atone for a single sin. There are no Christmas lights that can bring light to a darkened soul save this one, the Light that shines from Bethlehem’s crib and Calvary’s cross to you in the Word of your Baptism, in the Word of forgiveness, in the Body and Blood born of Mary and there for you at the altar in the holy Supper of the Lord.
Were we to take away the glowing candles, the pretty poinsettias, the Christmas tree and the lights, the banners and all the other stuff, we would still have the essence of Christmas in the Word of Jesus and His Body and Blood. You can take away all the tinsel and mistletoe and family parties and endless expectations and have nothing more than two or three poor, miserable sinners huddled around the Word of Christ, and you will have everything of Christmas. The Word became Flesh and dwelt among us. Nothing in this world can take that away from you.
Now please don’t misunderstand me. I like the adornments. I love the way our church looks at Christmas. It’s very warm and inviting. Some out of town visitors commented on that last night, how beautiful everything was bathed in candlelight. Our home is decorated too with all sorts of Christmas stuff. I love our tree with its eclectic ornaments and the nicely wrapped gifts which we will eventually get to over the next twelve days. I like all that stuff, and I’d be sad if those Christmastime warm fuzzies weren’t there. Yes, even I get the warm fuzzies on occasion. But I’ve come to recognize something. Those warm fuzzies aren’t about Jesus and about my salvation. Those feelings aren’t necessarily “spiritual” or “religious.” They are nostalgia, a longing for the comforts of home and hearth and family. Those things, while important to us, are not the core of the feast of Christmas, but only the outer shell.
I seem to quote this poem every year at Christmas, but I think it bears repeating. It’s a delightful piece written by John Shea called “Sharon’s Christmas Prayer.” It’s about Christmas through the eyes of a five year old child, who may be in the best position to capture the wonder of the Word become Flesh. It goes like this:
She was five,
sure of the facts,
and recited them
with slow solemnity,
convinced every word
they were so poor
they had only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to eat
and they went a long way from home
without getting lost. The lady rode
a donkey, the man walked, and the baby
was inside the lady.
They had to stay in a stable
with an ox and an ass but the
Three Rich Men found them
because a star lited the roof.
Shepherds came and you could
pet the sheep but not feed them.
Then the baby was born.
And do you know who he was?
Her quarter eyes inflated
to silver dollars.
The baby was God!
And she jumped in the air,
whirled round, dove into the sofa,
and buried her head
under the cushion
which is the only proper response
to the Good News
of the Incarnation.
(“Sharon’s Christmas Prayer” by John Shea ©1977, 1992 The Hour of the Unexpected,Allen, TX: Thomas More Publishing.)
She doesn’t quite get her facts straight, but she has the heart of it. “The Baby was God!” And if you lose everything else, you have not lost this: The Baby was God. The man named Jesus is God in the flesh who has come to save you.
Ponder this in your hearts today as you enjoy the first of these twelve days of Christmas. The Word became Flesh and dwells with you, so that you might dwell with God. The Word became Flesh so that your flesh might rise from the dead to see God. The Word became Flesh to rescue your flesh from sin, death, and hell. The Word became Flesh so that in your flesh you might know the One who is your Light, your Life, and your salvation.
The Word became Flesh and dwelt among us.
We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.
In the name of Jesus,