Sunday, December 24, 2017

Sermon for the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord - Christmas Eve - Lk 2:1-20

                                                                                    Christmas Eve
                                                                                    Lk 2:1-20

            In 9 B.C. a stone inscription was made in Priene, a city in Asia Minor – modern day Turkey.  It says: “Since providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance excelled even our anticipations, surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him, which Asia resolved in Smyrna.”
            In this inscription, the Emperor Augustus is called a god.  That’s really not surprising, since it was a common practice in the eastern part of the Roman empire – a practice that stretched all the way back to the time of Alexander the Great.  What is striking is that he is called a “savior” who has ended war and brought blessings to all mankind.  His birth is described as the beginning of “good tidings for the world” – a plural form of the word we know in the New Testament as “Gospel.” His birth is described as the beginning of a new era, and in fact the inscription declares that the date of Augustus’ birth will be the first day of the new year.
            Now on the one hand this is the city of Priene and the  provincial assembly for the province of Asia flattering the emperor in order to obtain his good will and benefits.  But on the other hand it contains an element of truth.  From 133 B.C. to 31 B.C. the Roman world had been racked by civil war.  Large, highly skilled armies had fought against each other in unceasing carnage.  The movement of these armies was a constant hardship for the locals because the soldiers forced people to supply and move the army.
            All of this had come to an end in 31 B.C. when Augustus – then known as Octavian – defeated the forces of Mark Antony and Queen Cleopatra at Actium.  Augustus became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire.  Areas that had suffered greatly in the civil wars now knew so great a peace that Roman legions were no longer even stationed there.
            Augustus had brought peace.  But for him, it was all about power.  One by one he eliminated all of the competition.  He allied with Mark Antony to defeat Brutus and Cassius at Philippi in 42 B.C. Then he turned against Mark Antony and eliminated him.  Augustus claimed to be “restoring the Republic,” but in fact he was cleverly reorganizing things so that he was the absolute ruler. And while he may have brought peace within the Roman empire, he certainly didn’t end wars.  Instead, he launched campaign after campaign to enlarge the empire using his newly formed professional army.
            It is against this background that we need to hear the words in our text that were spoken about five years after the Priene inscription was made.  We learn in our Gospel lesson that there were shepherds in the area around Bethlehem who were out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.
            But the angel had not come to terrify them.  Instead he said, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of 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. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”  And as if to punctuate the truth of his statement suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army of angels praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
            You will note that like the Priene inscription the angel announces good news that is for all people.  He too announces that a Savior has been born.  And he calls him “Lord” – the very term that was used to describe the Roman Emperor.
            On the other hand, the angel is not speaking to cultural Greeks in Asia Minor.  Instead, he addresses Jews who live in Judea.  And so this Savior whose birth he announces has a clear heritage.  The angel declares that the Christ has been born in Bethlehem – the city of David.  He brings the good news that Yahweh has sent the Messiah – the king who descends from David.  This is the one who fulfills the prophet Isaiah:A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.”  This is the one upon him the Spirit will rest. This is the one about whom the prophet said: “He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.”
            Yet when we look a little closer, there are several things here that are puzzling.  The glory of Yahweh accompanies angels as they announce this incredible good news. However, the news is announced to shepherds who are living outside with sheep.  This is not something being announced in the midst of the rich, the powerful and the cultured like in the forum of a Greco-Roman city.  It’s announced in a backwater of the Roman empire. And it’s announced to people who are nobodies in their own culture.
            That is strange enough.  But then listen to what the angel says, “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” Now we have viewed so many crèche scenes that we are no longer able to recognize how bizarre that is.  The angel announces that the sign demonstrating the truth of his words is that they will find a baby in an animal feeding trough.  To put it in the terms of our own world: “You will find a baby in a dumpster.”
            The claims made about Jesus Christ the Lord, and Caesar Augustus the lord, are very similar.  And yet in our text tonight we see that these two are completely different.  Augustus operates by power and force and might.  He acts to service himself.  The real beneficiaries of his actions are the rich and powerful – after all, those are the kind of people who decided to put up the inscription at Priene.
            Jesus Christ on the other hand shows in his birth that he works in humility and weakness.  He is the Christ – the Messiah born in Bethlehem and yet he doesn’t even have a place in an inn. He is the Son of God, incarnate by the work of the Holy Spirit in the virgin Mary.  Yet he is born in the midst of animals and placed in a feeding trough.
            In this we receive the first glimpse into how he will carry out his saving work.  For Jesus has not come to conquer by force and power.  Instead he has come to win the victory over sin, death and the devil by suffering and sacrifice.  He has come to give forgiveness and salvation by dying on a cross – a cross of all things!  Like the manger, this too is something that we have seen so often that we now fail to realize how bizarre and offensive it was.  You can hear it in Paul’s words to the Philippians: “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!
            The Son of God did not enter into the world for his own benefit. He came to serve you. The angel announced to the shepherds, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of 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.”  Literally, the Greek says, “There has been born for you today a Savior.” 
            The angel announced this was the Savior for the shepherds. The beneficiaries of this Savior were not the powerful and accomplished.  They were the weak and the lowly.  Or more specifically, they continue to be all people who recognize that they are weak and lowly.  Jesus is the Savior today for you when you see the sin in your life.  He is the Savior for you when you confess the angry thoughts and words; the covetous desires; the ungrateful ambivalence about the daily bread God so richly provides.  These are the reasons that he entered into our world and died on the cross.
            He died to give you forgiveness – to give you the status of a saint before God.  Yet this would not be good news of great joy if that were it.  Instead, in the resurrection on the third day Jesus Christ defeated death.   His saving work may have been one that occurred in humility and weakness, but he did not remain there.  Instead, he rose from the dead with a body transformed so that it can never die again.  He ascended into heaven and has been exalted as the One who sits at the right and of the Father.  As the exalted One, he has poured forth the Holy Spirit.  Through the Spirit he calls people to faith and sustains them as believers. 
            Like Jesus’ own earthly ministry, this work of the Spirit through the Means of Grace looks humble and lowly. It occurs through the word of God preached and shared.  It occurs through water in Holy Baptism, and bread and wine in the Sacrament of the Altar.  Yet just as the baby in the manger and the man on the cross were salvation present for us, so also are the Means of Grace today. They are the Son of God present giving forgiveness.  They are his Spirit sustaining faith in the crucified and risen Lord.
            It is the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead.  And the presence of the Spirit within you points to the day when all the humility and weakness will fall way. As we celebrate the first coming of Jesus Christ at Christmas we hear in our text that the announcement of this arrival was accompanied by a multitude of the heavenly host. The angelic army showed up praising God. 
            That same angelic army will appear suddenly again to accompany the almighty Lord at his second coming on the Last Day. The Savior will appear to give us a share in his resurrection.  We will join the angels in singing glory to God in the highest, because of his gift of peace on earth that will have no end.




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