Saturday, December 24, 2016
Sermon for the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord - Christmas Eve - Isa 9:2-7
One hundred years ago, Christmas Eve was a very dark time in Europe. As 1916 drew to a close, Europe had seen the highest war casualty totals for one year that the continent had ever experienced. And when you consider the long history of war in Europe, that was really saying something.
World War I had broken out in August 1914, and before the year was over it had turned into trench warfare. Allied attempts to retake ground during 1915 produced no success and instead yielded casualties at levels that had been previously unimaginable. Entrenched positions built in depth, protected by machine guns and barbed wire, and shielded by artillery support, proved to be impregnable. Defensive echnology had outstripped tactics, and the generals’ answer to the problem of costly failed offensives was that they needed more men to throw into attacks.
By 1916 it had become clear that the war would be one of attrition. Beginning in February the Germans initiated a battle at Verdun against the French that did not end until Dec. 17. Around 800,000 casualties were suffered on both sides, and 300,000 of those were killed. In order to take pressure of the French, on July 1 the British launched an offensive at the Somme. On the first day of the battle, the British suffered 57,550 casualties, of whom 19,000 were killed. The battle of the Somme didn’t end until November. The armies fighting suffered a million casualties, of whom 300,000 were killed. At the two battles nearly two million casualties with 600,000 killed had only moved the frontline a couple of miles in each location – a muddy wasteland shattered by artillery and filled with rotting corpses.
Our text for Christmas Eve addresses a similar dark time of war. Eighth century B.C. warfare did not produce battlefield deaths on the scale of the industrialized twentieth century. But it was horrific nonetheless since it brought the destruction of cities, and the enslavement and forced relocation of the civilian population.
The prophet Isaiah wrote in this time of war. First, the northern kingdom of Israel and the nation of Syria had attacked the southern kingdom of Judah. Instead of trusting Yahweh, the king of Judah had requested help from the powerful Assyrians empire. Assyria was only too glad to get involved as it conquered Israel and Syria, and then attacked Judah. Only God’s dramatic intervention against the Assyrian army saved Jerusalem.
Yet the devastation of the northern kingdom was complete. Israel’s capital city, Samaria, was destroyed. The population of Israel was taken away into exile as part of the population swapping strategy that Assyria used to control conquered peoples. In our text, Isaiah speaks about the devastated north. He says in the verse just before our text, “But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.”
The northern parts of Israel had been the first to bear the brunt of the Assyrian onslaught. The defeat and devastation was a time of great darkness. Yet the prophet speaks of a later time when God would make this land glorious. He would do it by bringing a light into the world.
Isaiah starts our text by saying, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.” God promised a light that would pierce the darkness of a sinful and fallen world.
Yahweh would act, and it would bring them joy. Isaiah compares this joy to that experienced at the time of harvest, or when the spoil obtained in victorious battle was divided up. God would free them from the yoke and rod of the oppressor. And he would give them peace. Isaiah describes the destruction of the implements of war when he says, “For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire.”
How would he do this? He would do it through a child. In chapter seven Isaiah had referred to a child born of a virgin who is Immanuel – God with us. Now in our text he says: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
This child born of a virgin is Immanuel – God with us. And in our text we hear him described with names that go beyond anything that makes sense for a man. Yet clearly, this One is also a king of Israel – a Messiah descended from King David – because Isaiah says at the end of our text: “Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.”
The great challenge for us as sinners is to let God be God. This occurs in obvious ways that break the First Commandment when we choose to put people and things ahead of God. Our choices about the use of our time, resources and attention reveal what is most important to us; what we value most.
But at a deeper level this occurs when we demand that God work in ways that make sense to us. We know how things should be done. We know what is best. We know how to evaluate things, and so we can let God know when his ways just don’t measure up.
Tonight we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. We celebrate the incarnation of the Son of God. And in this event we see that God’s gives us everything that we need – everything that Isaiah describes in our text – and yet he does it in ways that often don’t make sense to us. It’s not how we would do it.
In our Gospel lesson we hear about how the virgin Mary gives birth to Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. Luke has already told us about how this virgin became pregnant. The angel Gabriel told Mary, “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.”
It is a real human baby that Mary lays in the manger. And yet because he has been conceived through the work of the Holy Spirit he is also truly God. He is, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” The Creator of cosmos is found in a feeding trough for animals. He is true God and true man – born in Bethlehem because Joseph has taken him to be his own son, and so had made him part of the line of David.
Matthew tells us that Isaiah’s words in our text were fulfilled when Jesus begin his ministry in Galilee. The light shown in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali as Jesus preached, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” and worked miracles.
But this is probably not how we think it should work. Israel is devastated by Assyria, and God’s answer is Jesus Christ’s ministry seven hundred years later. And what of the peace Isaiah describes, when “every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire”? What of the description in chapter two when “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” That doesn’t describe what happened in 1916. That doesn’t describe what happens today.
God’s plan for the child in the manger does not look like anything we would expect. Jesus Christ is born in Bethlehem so that he can die on a cross in Jerusalem. He goes as the sacrifice for sin – the means by which God justly punishes sin and yet also gives you forgiveness. The Son of God is incarnate so that he can die. But he is also incarnate so that he can rise from the dead on the third day as the second Adam who begins the new creation – who begins what we are meant to be.
He is the Prince of Peace now. As the apostle Paul told the Romans, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” And the ascended Lord will return to bring the peace Isaiah describes. He will end all wars. He will bring peace to humanity and to creation itself.
Again, this is not how we would do it. We would never plan a “now and not yet.” We would not have God act dramatically to save, and yet leave us walking by faith and not by sight.
On this Christmas Eve, we need to humble ourselves. We need admit that God is God, and we are not. We need to let God be God. And instead of being the mouthy child who is never satisfied, we need to listen to what God has done.
God the Father sent the Son into our world as he was incarnate through the work of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. The Father showed how much he loves us – how much he values our created existence – by having he Son of God become one of us without ceasing to be God. He has given us the joy of knowing that our sins – all that would keep us separated from God – have been taken away by Jesus Christ’s saving death. And he has shown us the life that awaits us in the resurrection of the incarnate Lord. God has defeated death, and even if we die before Jesus returns, sin and death cannot separate us from God.
This is what God has done. And when we focus on this, we can let go of the other questions that trouble us go. We can let go of the way we would want things done. And instead, we can set our attention on those ways by which God nourishes and strengthens us in this faith. We can return with renewed attention to God’s Word as we hear it proclaimed at church and as we read it at home. We can return to our baptism, for there we have shared in the death of the Lord and have the promise of our resurrection.
And, as we will in a few moments, we can come to the Sacrament of the Altar. The One who was bodily present in the manger, now comes to us bodily in the Sacrament. Yet here he does not, like on Christmas Eve, come as the One who is just beginning his mission. Instead he comes as the incarnate Lord who has completed his work for us. He gives us his true body and blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of our sins. In doing so he assures us that we are the forgiven children of God now. And he guarantees us that we will share in his resurrection and the final peace he will bring. We will, because the child whose birth we celebrate tonight is Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. He is Immanuel – God with us.