Unless you have been living under a rock, you are aware that Star Wars Episode VII – The Force Awakens opened in theaters last week. The much anticipated follow up to the previous two trilogies of movies is on track to break all records for financial success. It has also been declared a success by even the most avid Stars Wars fans, as it has recaptured the feel of the original Star Wars trilogy in an engaging and fun movie.
I took the kids to see it last Friday. Though they have seen the six previous Stars Wars movies many times, they had never seen any of them in the theater when they were released. After all, Amy and I saw the last of the movies the day before Matthew and Abigail were born.
I was seven years old when the first Star Wars movie was released in 1977. From the beginning of the movie – when a massive Imperial Star Destroyers passes over head pursuing a rebel ship carrying Princess Leia – I knew that I had never seen anything like it.
That feeling of wonder continued to the very end, in the climactic battle as the rebels seek to destroy the massive Death Star space station. Before the attack, the smuggler Han Solo is shown rebuffing the pleas of Luke Skywalker as he tries to persuade Han to join the rebel attack. Han Solo doesn’t believe in any cause except himself – and besides he owes Jabba the Hut money and needs to repay it.
The rebels and Luke Skywalker press home the attack on the Death Star as they seek to launch torpedoes down a ventilating shaft. One by one they are destroyed by Imperial tie fighters, until finally, only Luke Skywalker has a chance as he races down the trench structure of the Death Star towards the opening.
Three tie fighters are closing in on him – the middle one piloted by the villain Darth Vader. Darth Vader has locked in onto Skywalker and is just about to destroy him. Then suddenly, one of tie fighters explodes. The movie cuts away to show Han Solo cheering in the cockpit of his ship the Millenium Falcon, and then it shows the Millenium Falcon rushing down towards the Death Star. Surprised, the second tie fighter moves abruptly and hits Darth Vader’s ship. Vader is sent spinning out into space as the other tie fighter collides with the wall and explodes. Han Solo shouts, “You’re all clear kid. Now let’s blow this thing and go home.” Han Solo and the Millenium Falcon appeared at the critical moment in order to save Luke Skywalker and the rebellion itself from the evil Empire.
The epistle reading for Christmas Eve speaks about another story which is cosmic in scope. We are reminded that in the birth of Jesus Christ at Bethlehem, God’s grace appeared in our world in order to save us from the evil empire of Satan, sin and death. He has worked salvation for us now, and because of that salvation we now live in ways that set us apart from the world. Yet we do so knowing that we looking for one more appearing of the risen Lord.
Martin Luther observed that while the Gospels tell us what happened with Jesus, St. Paul tells us what it means. Tonight we hear in our Gospel lesson about the birth of Jesus Christ – a birth that is announced by angels to shepherds. Now certainly the Gospels do tell us what the events mean. After all, we hear the angel announce, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Luther’s point is that Paul assumes we know about the events themselves. Instead he focuses only on what they mean for us.
Paul begins our text by saying, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.” This is how the apostle puts the events of Christmas Eve into his own words: “the grace of God has appeared.”
In Paul’s letters, “grace” is the completely undeserved loving favor of God. It is the love of God directed towards us which we do not deserve. We don’t deserve it because as sinners we have rebelled against God. We have said by our actions that we want other gods. We want ourselves to be the god of our own life. We want the unholy trinity of me, myself and I to be the center of our universe. As Paul goes on to say in the next chapter: “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.”
And yet … God loved us any way. Paul says in Galatians, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” The grace of God appeared as the One conceived by the Holy Spirit was born to Mary in a stable in Bethlehem. Jesus Christ, who is true God and true man, was born because God desired to bring salvation to all people. In his undeserved love, he wanted to bring salvation to you.
The grace of God appeared in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. But this was only the beginning. Paul says Jesus is the One “who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession.” The baby Jesus in the manger grew up to be the man on the cross – the man on the cross in your place. He gave himself on your behalf. He took your place – your sin – and received Gods’ judgment so that you never will.
Tonight we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. We rejoice in the fact that he exited the darkness of Mary’s womb as he was born and brought his life out into the world. Jesus was born in order to die. But then on the third day he exited the darkness of the tomb and brought his new resurrection life out into the world. Jesus is the second Adam who has provided the answer to sin, and has begun the life that will be ours.
Because of the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, everything has changed. In fact, Paul says that we live in a new and unique moment in human history. Paul calls it the “now age” in our text. We live in the time when the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation and the resurrection of the Last Day. That is what is already here. And because of what God has done through the work of his Spirit, Jesus causes us to live like it. Paul says in our text that the saving grace of God revealed in Jesus trains “us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.”
The Spirit of the risen Lord who is in us – the same Spirit who will raise and transform our bodies when Christ returns – causes us to renounce sinful ways and to embrace the ways of God. You received the Spirit in the waters of Holy Baptism. There he gave you new spiritual life. Paul says in the next chapter, “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.”
Paul says you are not saved because of works. You are not saved because of anything you do. After all, it is the grace of God that saves which appeared on Christmas Eve. You receive this salvation by faith as a gift. But when we turn to how faith acts in love, that’s a different story altogether. After all, Paul says in our text that Jesus is the One “who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”
When it comes to loving our neighbor, now we are all in when it comes to doing. As Paul says in the next chapter after talking about the regeneration that occurs in Holy Baptism: “The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people.” You become the means by which God cares for those around you. Martin Luther said that you become the pipe that delivers God’s love. The love that you have received by faith, you now pass on in deeds through the work of the Spirit.
We never do this perfectly. It is always done in conflict with the old man in us – the continuing presence of sin that characterizes the now and not yet of the “now age” in which we live. For while we celebrate the appearance of the grace of God on Christmas Eve which brought the “now age” in which we live, we also know that all is not yet complete. Sin still exists. Death still exists. The end of these things has begun in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but it is not yet fully here for us. We need to listen to Paul tonight when he reminds us that we are still “waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”
We rejoice and celebrate tonight that the incarnate Son of God was born in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. In his first coming the grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all people. But the coming as a baby in a manger was only his first coming. And now as God’s people we are to live as those who are looking for his second coming.
This is our blessed hope. Yet tonight reminds us that the word “hope” does not connote any uncertainty. Instead, this hope is one of eager and confident expectation. It is a hope that knows Jesus came on Christmas Eve. It is a hope that knows Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven as he was exalted. And so it is a hope that lives in the knowledge that Jesus who is still the incarnate One will come in power and glory once again.