SERMONS - DECEMBER 2011
11 December 2011 - Advent 3 - Psalm 85:1-9
St. Mark writes: “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”
John the Baptist came, as the forerunner of Christ, to call the people of Israel to repentance. By means of the Biblical witness to his preaching, he also calls us to repentance.
Most of the people of Israel in the day of John the Baptist were not openly wicked and brazen defiers of God and of his law. But John still knew that it was his mission from God to call them to repent of their sins, and in faith to receive a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
Even those who were not outwardly and noticeably evil in their words and actions were still sinners. They were self-satisfied and self-righteous, and were complacent regarding God and his authority in their lives.
They were indifferent to the needs of the poor. They were not cheerful in the fulfilling of their duties, in the society and in their families.
Their religion had become ritualistic and superficial. Their hearts were far from God and his Word.
For all of these reasons, and more, they were not ready for the coming of Christ. The clearest evidence of their sin, and of the spiritual and moral blindness that sin brings, was that they were unaware of their sin.
In their bondage to the flesh, they felt free. In their captivity to death, they felt alive.
In their distance from God, they felt close to him. They were the chosen nation, after all. Doesn’t that mean that they were O.K.?
John came to tell them that they were not O.K.! John came to call them to repentance.
John came to open their eyes, so that they would see God as he really is, and see themselves as they really are. In the words of Isaiah the prophet he admonished them: “Make straight the way of the Lord.”
Get ready for his coming. Prepare yourself, so that when he comes to you, you will recognize him, and acknowledge him, and receive him.
And what John said to them, he says also to us. John’s rebukes and warnings are still valid today, but they are not directed only to those who are outside these four walls.
His preaching of repentance in our time is not intended only for the openly wicked and brazen defiers of God and of his law. It is intended for you and for me.
To the extent that you, like the Jews of John’s day, are self-satisfied and self-righteous, and complacent regarding God and his authority in your life, you too need to take John’s message seriously.
How concerned are you regarding the needs of the poor? Do you fulfill your duties in the society and in your family cheerfully and eagerly?
Or do you grumble about the circumstances of your life, complaining about what you lack, instead of being thankful for what you have?
Has our religion become ritualistic and superficial? Do we come to church, only to spend a large amount of our time here thinking about leaving again, as soon as we can?
Is my heart fully set on God and his Word? Or is my heart far from him, in love with this world and the things of this world?
How ready are you for the coming of Christ? When Jesus comes to you in the preaching of the Gospel, and especially in his Holy Supper, do you really recognize him for who he is?
Do you still remember that those who partake of him at his altar in an unworthy manner, thereby profane the body and blood of the Lord, and receive him to their judgment?
If God were to come to you this very night and say to you, “your soul is required of you,” what would that mean for you?
The First Commandment requires us to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. Do you trust in him, or do you trust in your own reason and strength? Do you love him, or do you love yourself?
Do you fear him? Or do you fear only the disapproval of your friends?
“Make straight the way of the Lord.” Get ready for his coming. Prepare yourself, so that when he comes to you, you will recognize him, and acknowledge him, and receive him.
Psalm 85 - from which today’s Introit is taken - guides us in making a good confession before God. It teaches us what true repentance of sin is, by describing for us the attitude of someone who does truly repent.
The first thing that this Psalm teaches us - in verses that precede the ones that we sang today - is that the God whose forgiveness we seek now, is a God who has forgiven us in the past. He is patient with us in our weakness:
“Lord, you...forgave the iniquity of your people; you covered all their sin. You withdrew all your wrath; you turned from your hot anger.”
“Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us! Will you be angry with us forever?”
“Will you prolong your anger to all generations? Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?”
God’s Son died for all the sins of all the world. For his sake, therefore, our Father in heaven declares to us his forgiveness of our sins, as often as we repent of our sins: not as often as we say that we repent, but as often as we do actually repent.
St. Paul writes: “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked.” God does not put away his indignation against us because we know how to read a properly-worded prayer of confession.
God’s wrath is turned away from sinners because his Son died and rose again for them; and because they - by faith - are in Christ, daily dying to self, and daily rising in him.
And the kind of genuine repentance that is capable of receiving God’s forgiveness, is the kind of repentance that will be accompanied by sentiments such as these, from the Psalm verses that we did sing:
“Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation. Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints; but let them not turn back to folly. Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him...”
What God says is most important. Precisely how we express ourselves to him is not the basis on which we will know that our sins are washed away.
A prosaic prayer cannot cover inner hypocrisy, at least not before God. “For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
And that also means that a heart that is genuinely sorry for sin, is ready for God’s forgiveness, even if the person in question is able only to stammer out a simple cry for help and mercy.
Notice, too, how the Psalm goes from the plural to the singular at a crucial point. The Psalmist first speaks on behalf of the whole nation, when he says: “Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.”
But then he gets very personal - and he guides each of us likewise to get very personal - when he then prays: “Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people...”
God speaks peace to his people - to his whole church. But as he speaks that peace, it impacts each of us personally.
The Lord’s word of forgiveness addresses, and comforts, each one individually. “Let me hear what God the Lord will speak.”
Sometimes in our guilt we do feel very alone. We are ashamed to tell anyone else what we have done.
We bear our sins by ourselves. But God in Christ comes to us in that loneliness, and speaks his word of peace and restoration to us.
Perhaps in our guilt we are alone. But Jesus becomes our very personal companion and friend in the forgiving peace that he speaks to us.
I hear him. Even if I am with a thousand other people, I hear him. And I now live in him.
“He will speak peace to his people, to his saints; but let them not turn back to folly.”
A true rejoicing in the peace of Christ always brings with it an enduring regret over the sin that required God’s forgiveness, and a recognition - in the clarity of hindsight - of how foolish that sin actually was.
In my departures from the good and gracious will of God, I didn’t just make well-intentioned mistakes that happened not to work out very well. I was stupid and foolish.
I knew better, but I ignored God’s wise counsel and Fatherly warnings in the Scriptures. I did what I knew I should not have done. I refused to do what I knew I should have done.
And now that God has opened my eyes, and once again shown his loving and merciful face to me in Christ, I want so much to avoid that folly, and never again to be so inexcusably foolish.
A true sorrow for sin does not mean that you regret getting caught in your sin. It means that you regret committing the sin, and with God’s help want never to do it again.
In this life I will never be able to become someone who is without sin. But as I move forward in the grace of God, and in the peace that he has spoken - to me and into me - I will not be compelled, against my will, to commit any particular sin.
Christ is with me. In the moment when I am tempted to repeat an old foolish failure of the past, I can say: “Jesus, help me now.” And he will help me.
Let God’s penitent and faithful people, forgiven in Christ, not turn back to folly. Lord Jesus, keep me from turning back to folly.
And as the Psalmist goes on to say, “Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him...” God is holy and righteous. He is to be feared. His Word is to be taken seriously.
We are able to rest in God’s peace, however, because our holy and righteous God has made unbreakable promises to us. God is to be feared. This is most certainly true. But even more so, God is to be believed.
And God tells us that he “so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned...”
And Jesus says: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. ... Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”
As you heed the call to repentance that John the Baptist issues to you - in this season of Advent and at all times - you will be ready for the coming of Christ. You will be prepared for the word of peace that he speaks to you.
You will receive his forgiveness. And in that forgiveness you will be strengthened by his grace, to turn away from the follies of the past, and to rejoice in him, every day.
“Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” Amen.
18 December 2011 - Advent 4 - Luke 1:26-38
Today’s Gospel begins with this sentence: “In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.”
The reference to “the sixth month” is not a reference to the month of June - or to whatever the sixth month would have been in the Jewish calendar. Rather, it means the sixth month after the earlier visit of the angel Gabriel to Zechariah the priest, when Zechariah was told: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.”
As we know, the baby in that story grew up to be John the Baptist. There are some similarities between this announcement to Zechariah, and the announcement that Mary received in today’s text. In both cases Gabriel was sent from heaven, to foretell a miraculous birth.
Of course, John was not conceived without a human father, as Jesus was. But his conception was nevertheless miraculous, since, as we are told, his mother Elizabeth was barren, and both she and Zechariah were advanced in age.
The recipient of each announcement also hesitated to believe it right away. Zechariah said, “How shall I know this?” And Mary said, “How will this be?”
One major difference between these two accounts, however, is that Zechariah was punished with temporary muteness because of his lack of faith. But Mary was not punished for her questioning of the angel. Why was this?
In the case of Zechariah, the angel Gabriel said to him: “your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. ... Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.’”
“And the angel answered him, ‘I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.’”
In Mary’s case, the conversation went like this: Gabriel said to her, “‘you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.’ ...”
“And Mary said to the angel, ‘How will this be, since I am a virgin?’ And the angel answered her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy – the Son of God.’”
Why was Mary not punished or chastised for her questioning of what the angel had said, as Zechariah was? What was the difference between her hesitancy in accepting Gabriel’s message to her about the miraculous conception of her son, and Zechariah’s hesitancy in believing Gabriel’s message to him about the miraculous conception of his son?
Well, this is the difference: In the case of Zechariah, the angel had told him not only that God was giving him a son, but he had also told him the means by which God was going to do this. He said, “your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.” In other words, John the Baptist would be conceived by means of the marital union of Zechariah and Elizabeth.
A special intervention by God was necessary, of course, since Elizabeth was too old to have a baby without such divine intervention. But the mechanism that God was going to use, was the procreative mechanism of the husband-wife relationship that Zechariah and Elizabeth shared.
And yet, even though the angel had told Zechariah what God was going to give him, and how he was going to give it to him, Zechariah did not believe it. He asked, “How shall I know this?”
How shall I know that the message that God told you to deliver to me is actually true? How shall I know that God will actually use the means that he has said he will use, to bless me and my wife in this way?
That was unbelief. That was an improper doubting of God, even in the face of God having specified to him not only what the gift would be, but also how and in what way he would give that gift to him.
It was different with Mary. Gabriel started out by telling her that she would have a son. That was the wonderful gift that God was sending to her.
Mary’s question, in response to this announcement, was not a query as to whether this was really going to happen. Rather, she wanted to know how this would happen.
What means or mechanism would God use to give her the gift of Jesus? “How will this be, since I am a virgin?,” she asked.
The angel was not offended by this question at all. God was not offended by this question. God welcomed such a question, in fact.
God is willing to reveal to us, not only what his promised gifts will be, but also the means that he will use to fulfill his promises. Since Mary was not married, God was not going to use the normal husband-wife relationship as the mechanism for bringing her this gift.
Indeed, since Mary’s son would be the Son of the Most High, and not a mere human baby, the means that God would use to bring about the conception and birth of this baby would be something truly extraordinary. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you,” Gabriel said.
Now Mary knew. She knew about the gift - the gift of Jesus. She knew about the means through which this gift would come - a special, miraculous operation of the Holy Spirit.
And so she believed what the Lord had directed the angel to tell her, and she humbly accepted the Lord’s gracious gift to her. “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
The gift that Mary received - Jesus, the Son of God - is a gift that God also wants us to receive. To be sure, with us this giving of Christ will not be in the same way as it was with Mary, or for the same purpose.
The incarnation - the entrance of the eternal Son of God into human flesh - needed to happen only once. And it has happened once and for all time.
But for the purpose of your salvation from sin and death, and for the purpose of your enjoyment of a wonderful and peace-filled fellowship with God, God wants to give his Son to you too.
God, in his Word, announces the offering of this gift. The apostle Paul preaches that “God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised.”
Jesus is the Savior for whom we long in the season of Advent. Jesus is the heavenly gift whose arrival we celebrate in the season of Christmas.
But, as wonderful as it is to hear from God about the reality of the gift of Christ, that’s not all we need to know. God wants us to know - and he wants us to ask - precisely how this gift is bestowed upon us. What means will God use to bring Jesus, and the blessings of Jesus, into our lives?
Without a description of the mechanism that God will employ to connect us to Christ, we would be left guessing and confused, disappointed and discouraged. It would be as if God gave us a treasure map, but without an “x” marked on it.
But God does not simply tell us about the existence of this wonderful treasure, without also telling us where and how to find it. He does not only announce to us that Christ is our Redeemer. He also announces the means by which we can know this Redeemer, and experience the blessings of his work of redemption.
St. John’s Gospel reports these words of Jesus: “whoever hears my word, and believes him who sent me, has eternal life.” “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him, and make our home with him.”
St. Paul writes: “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” And we read in St. Luke that, when the risen Christ was sitting at table with the disciples at Emmaus, “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him,” and “he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
Christ and his blessings are delivered to us by means of the Word and Sacraments of Christ. That is where the gift of God for you is to be received: not through exotic spiritual exercises or esoteric meditative methods, but through faith in the preached and sacramentally-enacted Gospel.
The question that remains, then, is this: Do you believe this? God has told you what the gift is - his Son Jesus Christ, and the forgiveness and life that accompany Christ. God has also told you that Christ is brought to you in the means of grace.
Having been told this, will you be like Mary? Will you say in humble faith, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word”?
Or will you be like Zechariah? Will you say with skeptical doubt, “How shall I know this?”
It is understandable, humanly speaking, why Zechariah did doubt God’s word. He and his wife were too old to have a baby, by any normal expectation.
It is also understandable, humanly speaking, why you would doubt God’s word. You can’t see Jesus coming to you in the pastor’s sermon, or from the pages of a Bible, or in the blessed bread and wine of the Sacrament.
And it is understandable, humanly speaking, why you would doubt God’s willingness to give his Son to you, and to embrace you, and establish spiritual fellowship with you, through him.
Your conscience tells you that God is holy. Your conscience also tells you that you are not holy, and therefore that God should not be expected to want to be associated with you. Instead, he should really be expected to turn away from you, and to condemn you for your sins.
The knowledge that God forgives sin through Christ, and that God forgives your sin through Christ, is always a supernaturally-bestowed knowledge. The faith that your sins are forgiven, and that God is at peace with you, is always a divinely-wrought faith. It’s something you would never have figured out on your own.
You do have a Savior from sin - a Savior who lived for you, who died for you, and now lives again for you in his victory over sin and death. And God creates and strengthens within you a faith in this Savior, by bringing that Savior to you in his appointed means of grace.
If you were to rely on empirical observation and human reason, you would not believe what God tells you - about the gift of Christ, or about the way in which he delivers that gift to you. You would be like Zechariah.
But when God’s Word is recognized, through the working of the Holy Spirit, to be the word of the almighty Creator of all things - with whom nothing is impossible - then that word will, miraculously, be believed.
The gift of Christ will be acknowledged. The salvation of Christ will be received.
In the angel’s annunciation of Christ’s conception and birth, Mary knew that what he said would happen, was humanly impossible. But Mary also knew that if God had a way of making it happen, it would happen, because nothing is impossible with God.
And God did have a way - a way which was made known to her. The Holy Spirit would come upon her, and the power of the Most High would overshadow her. In faith, therefore, she accepted and embraced what the angel told her.
In the message of the Gospel that you hear, and in the promise that all sins can be washed away in Christ, you likewise know that this is humanly impossible. But you also know that if God has a way of making it happen, it will happen, because nothing is impossible with God.
And God does have a way - a way that is made known to you. The Gospel is not just “information” about the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The Gospel carries the living Christ to us.
Baptism mystically unites us to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. And the Lord’s Supper does not only remind us of the Lord. It brings the Lord to our lips, and to our hearts.
In faith, therefore, we accept and embrace these means of grace. We are embraced by the means of grace. And we are indwelt by the Savior who comes to us, and abides with us, through the means of grace.
King of kings yet born of Mary, As of old on earth he stood,
Lord of lords in human vesture, In the body and the blood
He will give to all the faithful His own self for heavenly food. Amen.
24 December 2011 - Christmas Eve
During the Christmas season, nativity scenes are often put on display in homes, in churches, and also outdoors and in public spaces. Figurines or statues of the animals and people who were at the stable on the night of Jesus’ birth are set up in these displays.
A donkey or two, and a sheep or two, are always included. Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds are also always represented. Quite often, the wise men from the east, who brought gifts to the Christchild, are also portrayed in figurines or statues in these Christmas creches.
Those who are familiar with the chronology of the Biblical events surrounding the birth and childhood of Jesus know, however, that the wise men were not there on the night when Jesus was born. Probably about two years passed between the birth of Christ, and the visit of the wise men. St. Matthew tells us that by the time they came, the Holy Family was living in a house, and was no longer in a stable.
So, in spite of the sentimentality that may be attached to the story of the wise men coming to worship the baby Jesus, lying in a manger, that really didn’t happen. The wise men should not actually be in a nativity scene.
In this sense, they are not a part of the Christmas story. But in another sense, they are.
When the wise men did finally come to kneel before the Son of God, they came from a distant land - from a non-Jewish land. They were gentiles.
But they came to Bethlehem to worship the divine child who had been born to be a king for all nations, and to be the Savior for all people. That’s what the angel said to the shepherds, on the night of Jesus’ birth:
“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 good news of Jesus’ birth is good news for everyone - Jew and gentile alike. The wise men, who were drawn by the star to come eventually to worship their Savior, were therefore already included, in this way, in the Christmas story.
They were not physically there yet. But they were already there in the mind and heart of God.
Their names were written between the lines of the message that the angel was sent from heaven to proclaim. “All the people” included them.
And, “all the people” includes you as well! A figurine or statue in your image has never been included in any nativity display. But by means of the proclamation of the angel, you, too, are a part of the Christmas story.
The Christmas story is, of course, not about you. It is about Jesus. But it is about Jesus for you.
Jesus came to be the Savior for all people - because all people, trapped in the darkness and corruption of a universally-inherited spiritual death, needed a Savior. And God loved those who needed a Savior so much as to send them the Savior they needed.
Jesus came to be your Savior - because you need a Savior, and because God loves you so much as to send you the Savior you need.
This is why the birth of Christ is “good news” for “all the people.” This is why the birth of Christ is good news for you.
Jesus came to redeem us all, and to buy us back from the power and guilt of sin, with the price of his own blood. He came to redeem you, and to claim you as his own.
He came to restore you to fellowship with God, through the forgiveness of your sins. By faith in the righteous and holy Babe of Bethlehem, you are now justified before God.
“For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God; and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” St. Paul tells us.
All of us, in ourselves, do fall short of the glory of God. But the glory of God is still proclaimed by the angels on this night, because Jesus, and all the promises connected with Jesus, do not fall short.
On the night of Christ’s birth, the world became a different kind of place than it had been. And it will never be the same again.
It is now a world where God’s real but hidden glory is present in the person and work of his Son; and in the Word and Sacraments that his Son has entrusted to his church. It is now a world where God’s mercy is always available to everyone, through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
If anyone with a troubled conscience ever asks: “Is there a Savior for me, who can set my heart and mind at peace?” - the answer of the Christmas story is always “Yes!”
If anyone, in fear and doubt, ever asks: “Is there a Savior for me, who can assure me that God knows about me, and cares about me?” - the answer of the Christmas story is always “Yes!”
If your conscience is telling you that you need the Lord’s mercy; and if you know that your sins have created a barrier between you and God that needs to be broken down, then be of good cheer! God, in his infinite compassion, was thinking about you, when he sent his Son to this earth.
If you sense tonight that you are distant from God, and alienated from him; then rejoice in the good news that is proclaimed to you! You have been redeemed by Christ.
The Savior who was born in Bethlehem, was born to live for you, and to die for you; to win you back to God, and to restore your fellowship with God through the forgiveness of your sins.
Your sins are forgiven in Christ. You are clean, and God is at peace with you.
When the angel spoke to the shepherds of the good news that would go forth to “all the people,” you were included. “All the people” includes you: whoever you are, whatever you have done, and wherever you are in your relationship with God right now.
In the Christmas story, God gives you a new chance for a new beginning. God offers you a new life, and a new hope.
You were not physically there 2,000 years ago. But you were there in God’s mind, and in God’s heart. In this sense, therefore, You were in the Christmas story. And the Christmas story, today, is in you.
“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.” Amen.
25 December 2011 – Christmas Day - Isaiah 52:1-7 (Guest Preacher: Seminarian Paul Webber)
Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion; put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city; for there shall no more come into you the uncircumcised and the unclean. Shake yourself from the dust and arise; be seated, O Jerusalem; loose the bonds from your neck, O captive daughter of Zion. For thus says the LORD: "You were sold for nothing, and you shall be redeemed without money." For thus says the Lord GOD: "My people went down at the first into Egypt to sojourn there, and the Assyrian oppressed them for nothing. Now therefore what have I here," declares the LORD, "seeing that my people are taken away for nothing? Their rulers wail," declares the LORD, "and continually all the day my name is despised. Therefore my people shall know my name. Therefore in that day they shall know that it is I who speak; here am I." How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, "Your God reigns."
The conception of Christ and his birth into this world was not something that God thought up at the last moment. Rather it was something that he had planned would happen since long before the creation of the world and the fall into sin which, of course, made there be a need for the incarnation. God saw to it that the Old Testament would be filled with prophecies of the coming messiah, prophecies like the one which serves as our text this Christmas morning. While these prophecies foretold Christ, they did not do so in such a way so as to fully reveal everything about his coming. Using our common terminology of “who, what, where, when, and why,” a single messianic prophecy would give, for example, the who, where, and why, but not the what or when. This text, for example, gives the what, the person would be God, not just a messenger. It also gives the who, that is, the one who would bring good news to Zion and tell her that her God reigns. Finally it gives the why, because mankind was enslaved to sin and the messiah would free them.
In these prophecies, God told his people, and all of us, enough so that when the messiah came, it would be clear it was he and not an imposter. So in a way, the messianic prophecies were like dreams which God gave his people as they “slept,” waiting for the messiah. However, the birth of Christ signaled the moment when the world in its slumber was violently shaken awake to hear the glorious announcement that their wait was over, that they oppression was at an end; saying to them, Awake O Zion, for your God has made himself known, he has loosed your bonds and redeemed you—your God reigns.
The coming of God in Christ into our world was something completely different from the ways that God had revealed himself to mankind in times past. This is because in the Old Testament, God always revealed himself in a limited way. There were times where he revealed himself directly, such as to Moses on Mount Sinai in conjunction with the giving of the ten commandments. But in that case, God only let Moses see a fleeting glimpse of him as he passed by, because God knew that anything more than a momentary, fleeting glimpse of his divine majesty and power would overwhelm and kill a man. Even seeing God's coattails had a striking physical effect on Moses, as we are told in Exodus 34 that this experience caused Moses to glow so much so that those who saw Moses when he came down from Sinai were alarmed.
But God rarely revealed himself physically. The way he most often revealed himself was in the prophecies of Scripture. In the messianic prophecies of how God would reveal himself in Christ, He was never so explicit as to say that the messiah would come into the world during the reign of Caesar Augustus and that he would have to be born in a manger because there was no room in any of the boarding houses or private homes in the town of Bethlehem. No, instead God often arranged that messianic prophecies were made at times and in ways so that they could have multiple “meanings.” Yes, of course the chief, culminating manifestation of these prophecies was Christ, but others could have been, and were, fulfilled in limited ways in and through certain individuals even well before the coming of Christ.
For example, the prophet Isaiah wrote the words of our text at a time when God's people were under the oppression of the Babylonian Empire. Because of this, people could have well looked at these words of Isaiah and said, “Yes, he is talking about what is going on right now, how we are being oppressed by the uncircumcised Babylonians who have come into our land and enslaved and oppressed us so much that it is as if our entire people have been forced to dwell in the dust. Someone is going to come to rescue us from the Babylonians, to tell us the good news that this nation which has terrorized us won't bother us anymore.
One could easily see how someone could have come to this understanding, but the oppression of Babylon was not the only thing Isaiah was talking about. He was talking about the one who would come not only to deliver mankind from its oppression but who, in his birth, would announce an end to oppression. Isaiah prophesied that God would make his name known in Christ and declare that in Christ, it was God himself who was speaking.
The fullness of the Godhead dwelt in Christ. This was true not only after Christ became an adult or even a teenager but also in the state in which Christ was born, as a cute, little, seemingly helpless baby. Even from the moment of his conception and for the whole time that he was in the womb of his mother Jesus was our God and Savior.
Now according to worldly standards Jesus' birth was nothing to get excited about. But the humble circumstances of Christ's birth were not an accurate indication of the significance of the and the one being born. Christ was born in a manger, but by his birth the house of God was opened to all mankind. After his birth he was laid in a feeding trough filled with hay, but now he has been glorified and exalted, sitting at the right hand of God. The birth of Christ was not the birth of some terribly normal baby but was the culmination of the entire history of the world. Every Old Testament prophecy and event was building up to the birth of our Lord, who was not merely a humanly perfect loudspeaker through which God spoke but was rather “very God of very God” which we confess in the creed, who in making known the name of the Lord could truthfully and simply proclaim, “Behold, it is I.”
This and the other messianic prophecies in the Old Testament foretold the messiah and how he would come so that we would indeed know that it was the savior who had come and not just an imposter trying to cash in on the possibility of fame and fortune. That is why Isaiah tells us to “put on your beautiful garments.” It is because at the birth of Christ, even as we observe it every year, we celebrate the coming of the long-awaited king and messiah. But why has this one come? Perhaps sometimes we get so caught up with the festivities of the Christmas season that we are led to overlook the somber circumstances that necessitated the birth of Christ. Isaiah brings us back to reality by addressing his audience as “O captive daughter of Zion.”
Now yes, these words were written at a time the nation of Israel was physically and politically dominated by Babylon. But the captivity about which Isaiah speaks goes so much deeper than just political or economic difficulties. Isaiah tells us that we suffer from a captivity to and fear of not any person or country but to sin and Satan. More than this, our sins have caused a rift between us and our creator, who because of our sinful lives was duty bound to exact his terrible, yet righteous, judgment upon us for refusing to live according to his will. And we are without excuse, for it is just as Isaiah wrote, that we were sold, or sold ourselves, for nothing.
Our first parents, Adam and Eve, didn't find themselves forced to sin but freely chose to do so. So it is with us. Without the rebirth and faith given to us by the Holy Spirit we are filled not only with the guilt of sin but also with the fervent desire to keep on sinning, because as we are by nature sinful beings so our sinful natures are themselves nourished by our giving ourselves over to the urge to do, say, and think those things that are contrary to the will of God. We, and all people, since the fall into sin, have continued to allow sin to so enter into ourselves and our lives that we cannot escape its pull, and certainly on our own we are unable to put an end to our lives of sin and, inevitably, our having to pay the penalty for all that we have done.
This is why Christ was born into this world, to save us not just from the devil but from ourselves. Now something that we often say in describing how we have been saved is that our sins were paid for by Christ giving up his life on the cross. And certainly that is a true statement. But at the same time, saying just that doesn't tell the whole truth about what Christ has done for us. Christ didn't just die for us, he lived for us. He was conceived and was born - for us. Christ was born just as one of us under the same conditions, worse in fact, because I'm sure that the vast majority of us were born in hospitals or, at the very least, at home, Christ was born in a place where farm animals were kept - hardly a sterile place and certainly the sort of place where I would want my wife to give birth this Spring.
And even though the birth of Christ happened long ago, we can all still imagine seeing this cute little baby lying there, probably not crying but rather sleeping or doing something cute because we imagine that Jesus was, of course, the perfectly not-fussy baby. This is all fine and good, but think about this. Isaiah tells us in the words of our text to arise from the dust because the savior has come. Imagine that something is so heavy upon your shoulders that not only are you unable to stand with it, but you can't even kneel, leaving you with no other choice than to let this great, terrible, weight force your face into the dust, knowing that this weight is killing you slowly but that there is nothing that you can do to stop it. This is what Christ, even as an infant, was freeing you from, taking this terrible yoke up from off all our shoulders and placing it upon himself, even as a baby.
So how beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of this little baby. Often we use this sort of speaking when talking about those who today preach what Christ has done. However, here these words refer specifically to Christ who proclaims himself. It is not vanity that moved Christ to talk about himself, what he had done, and what he would do for us, because it was never for his own benefit.
If the divine Logos, the eternally begotten Son of God, had wanted to do what was best for himself, he would have never humbled himself to be born as a weak little baby. He would not have humbled himself to not fully make use of those divine attributes and abilities which set him far apart and far above us feeble humans. He would not have endured the agony of letting his very own human flesh be ripped apart and destroyed by scourging and crucifixion at the hand of Roman authorities. He didn't do any of these things for himself or for his own glory but for us, to redeem all of us who were captives of sin not with money, as Isaiah tells us, but with himself - his body, his life, his death. In this he has taken the weight of fear and guilt up from off of all our shoulders and raised us up from the dust of death to life in him.
The birth of Christ was a key part of the good news; it was not the beginning and it certainly was not the end. We shouldn't think about Jesus' birth as this cute heart-warming sideshow that is somehow disconnected from our justification, because it was a necessary step which Christ had to take on the path of our redemption. It was the beginning of his sinless life that was needed to free us from sin and win us for God. Before Christ was raised from the dead he had to die on the cross. And before he died on the cross, he had to live. And before he lived, he had to be born. Therefore let us rejoice all the more over the importance and wonder of this birth of the very son of God into our world; a beacon of light and hope in this dark world who, even as an infant, is the embodiment of life, grace, and truth. Because of this, the term merry Christmas is, for us, not just something we say at this time of year but is rather a reminder of the Gospel. Jesus is born, the promised messiah has come. Amen.