Thursday, December 30, 2021

Mark's thoughts: Jesus brings a sword, not peace


 

The Scripture readings for Christmas Eve make the point that the birth of Jesus Christ brings peace. In the Old Testament lesson, Isaiah says of the Christ, “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” (9:6).  He then goes on to add, “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” (9:7). 

In the Gospel lesson, the angel announces 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” (Luke 2:10-11). We are left in no doubt that this Savior brings peace as a multitude of the heavenly host praise God saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14).

The theme that Christ has brought peace resounds throughout the New Testament.  Jesus promised, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). Our Lord expressed the assurance of peace to the disciples when he appeared to them on the evening of Easter (Luke 24:36; John 20:26).   Peter told Cornelius and those gathered with him that the word that God had sent to Israel was one of “preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:36).  Paul wrote to the Romans, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1).

The apostle Paul says this peace does not only exist with God because of Christ. Jesus is also the source of peace between people.  In particular, he is the source of peace between Jew and Gentile as they are united in Christ.  He told the Ephesians: 

For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. (Ephesians 2:14-17).

Because of this background, it seems quite shocking to hear Jesus say:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person's enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:34-39).

Jesus Christ is God’s gift of peace and reconciliation for sinners through this death on the cross and resurrection from the dead.  He means peace and forgiveness between those who have received the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit in Baptism (Titus 3:5). Jesus is the peace of knowing that death cannot separate us from God. To die is to be with Christ (Philippians 1:23), and our Lord will raise our bodies on the Last Day (1 Corinthians 15:20-23). All of this is true for those who are in Christ – those who confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised Jesus from the dead (Roman 10:9).

 But for those who do not believe in Jesus Christ, he is a source of division and conflict. Those who do not want to listen to God’s Law, will not confess their sin.  Instead, they want to hang on to it. They want to do things their own way, and react in anger against anyone who speaks the truth about God’s will.  They do not want Jesus Christ to be their Lord.  Instead, they embrace the multitude of false gods offered by our world. Jesus’ statement, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” (John 14:6) evokes indignation because of the exclusive claim made by Christ. 

Our Lord identifies family as the most basic setting where this occurs.  Jesus brings peace to those who receive him in faith.  But where family members do not, Jesus Christ becomes the source of strife.  He does because the way of Christ and the way of the world are very different.  Where the world accepts fornication, living together outside of marriage, and homosexuality, Christ says these are sin. Where the world accepts unbelief or “agnosticism” as normal, Christ says that they are the rejection of him. They bring damnation.

There is no middle ground when it comes to Jesus Christ. Either he is your Lord, or the devil is your Lord.  We think of family as being the most important connection and relationship in life, but Jesus says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37).  This means that as we deal with family members who reject Christ and embrace sin, we must put the Lord and his will first.  We must speak the truth and be willing to back it up with action that confesses this truth (so for example, no, we won’t stay at a household where an unmarried son or daughter is living with a girlfriend or boyfriend).  The witness to Jesus Christ and his will is one of love, and so we seek to speak and act in a loving and caring fashion, even when the content is not received as such.

This is a cross that none of us wants to face.  Yet our Lord says, “And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:38-39). Jesus calls us to take up the cross of hardship and suffering.  In fact, if God wills, he says we must do so even if it is costs us our life. 

Yet these are not the demands of a tyrant.  They are the words of a Lord who has served us.  Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).

The call to take up the cross and follow Jesus comes from the Lord who has already died on the cross for us and risen from the dead.  He is the One who has given us peace – peace that has defeated death and gives us eternal life with God.  He is our Lord who has risen from the dead. Jesus prepares us for what we will face in the world, and by his Spirit leads us to confess him as Lord in what we say and do. 

  

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Commemoration of David


 

Today we remember and give thanks for David.  David, the greatest of Israel’s kings, ruled from about 1010 to 970 B.C.  David was gifted musically. He helped to organize the music for the temple and was the author of 73 psalms. His public and private character displayed a mixture of faithfulness (for example, his defeat of the giant Goliath; 1 Samuel 17) and sin (as in his adultery with Uriah’s wife, followed by his murder of Uriah, 2 Samuel 11).  In 2 Samuel 7:12-16, God promised that He would establish David’s kingdom forever, as He promised that the Messiah would descend from David.   It was under David’s leadership that the people of Israel were united into a single nation with Jerusalem as its capital city.

 Collect of the Day:

God of majesty, whom saints and angels delight to worship in heaven, we give you thanks for David who, through the Psalter, gave your people hymns to sing with joy in our worship on earth so that we may glimpse your beauty.  Bring us to the fulfillment of that hope of perfection that will be ours as we stand before your unveiled glory; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

 

 (Treasury of Daily Prayer, 1068; Concordia Publishing House)

 

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas - Lk 2:33-40

 

Christmas 1

                                                                           Lk 2:33-40

                                                                           12/26/21

 

          We pray that in the year 2022 we will see the overturning of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that has made the completely unrestricted practice of abortion legal in the United States.  There is a very real possibility – even likelihood – that the Dobbs case will be the instrument that does this.

          The right to abortion was never something that was provided by the Constitution of the United States.  And off course, Roe v. Wade was never really about interpreting the Constitution. It was about providing something that people wanted – the unlimited ability to avoid any consequences of having sex.  Society wanted it, and so it was read into the Constitution.

          What has changed is not the Constitution, but instead society’s understanding about children in the womb. And the single most important factor in this has been the development of imagery technology that allows us to see an unborn child – to see it in the womb.  People have seen that there is without a doubt a living human being there.  Of course, this has not changed the hardness of heart in everyone.  But it has made a huge difference.

          Not only can we see a baby before it is born, but our technology is now so good that we can determine the sex of the child.  We can know whether it is a boy or a girl.  During the late 2000’s this led to the practice of “gender reveal parties” and to revealing online in an exciting announcement whether the baby is a boy or a girl.  This can be very helpful as parents plan, and as people buy gifts.

          Recently Amy told me about a couple that had done a gender reveal video online as they announced that they would be having a girl.  I am sure that in the usual fashion, all of the d├ęcor for the nursery was prepared for a little girl, and that the gifts purchased were darling baby girl outfits.  However, when the baby was born … it turned out to be a little boy.  It doesn’t happen very often, but sometimes mistakes occur.  I am sure that there were some very surprised parents in that delivery room!

          In our Gospel lesson for the First Sunday after Christmas, Mary receives a great surprise about her child.  She has received wonderful information about her baby before he is even born. Blessed events had occurred at the time of his birth that reinforced this positive impression.  Now, she meets Simeon who begins by saying more delightful things about Jesus.  Yet then in our text, he suddenly shifts and speaks ominous words about the future of Jesus and what this will mean for Mary.  As we celebrate Christmas, our text helps to reveal the whole truth about this child and what he means for us.

          Our text tells about the visit that Joseph and Mary made to Jerusalem with Jesus.  We see this was a very faithful couple – people who lived their lives according to God’s word.  They had come to Jerusalem to offer the sacrifices necessary to make ritual purification for Mary after she had given birth.  They were also there to redeem Jesus, their first born son. This was a reminder about how God had rescued Israel in the Passover when he killed the first born sons of Egypt in order to force Pharaoh to allow the Israelites to leave.

          While there they were met by a man named Simeon.  Luke tells us that he was righteous and devout.  He was waiting for the consolation of Israel – for God’s saving action on behalf of his people in the Messiah.  We also learn that the Holy Spirit was upon him, and that the Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ – the Messiah.

          While Mary and Joseph were at the temple with Jesus, Simeon came in the Spirit into the temple.  As promised, the Holy Spirit brought Simeon to Jesus and led him to recognize that this was the Christ. He came up, took Jesus in his arms and blessed God saying, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”

          Simeon said that now he was ready to die, because God had kept his word and revealed to him the Christ. As he looked at the infant Jesus, he was seeing God’s salvation. And he announced that this salvation was not only for Israel.  Instead, the Christ in his arms was also a light for revelation to the Gentiles.

          For Mary this was simply more wonderful news about Jesus.  Gabriel had revealed that her son was the Son of God, and that he was the fulfillment of God’s promises to king David as the Christ.  Shepherds had come to the manger where Jesus lay after his birth and reported how an angel had announced to them that Jesus was the Savior. He was the Christ, and he was the Lord. The latter was language that was used of God in the Old Testament, but of course Mary knew that the Holy Spirit had caused Jesus to be conceived and that the baby was holy – that he was indeed the Son of God.

          What Simeon had said simply confirmed and continued all the great news that Mary had heard about her child. So Mary must have been surprised and shocked by what Simeon says next in our text.  He shifted dramatically as he went on to say, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

          Instead of salvation, Simeon announced that Jesus was appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel – and note that he mentions “fall” first.  He says that because of Jesus the thoughts of many hearts would be revealed.  And in the midst of this he also delivered these chilling words to Mary: “and a sword will pierce through your own soul also.”

          Yesterday, the world and the Church both celebrated “Christmas.”  Today the world begins to move on from Christmas.  The tree and decorations may stay up for a few days – maybe they even make it to New Years as the world milks the “holiday season” for all it is worth. But Christmas is done.

          In the Church, our Christmas celebration is just getting going. The season of preparation during Advent is followed by Christmastide as we celebrate our Lord’s birth until the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord on January 6.

          But the difference goes far deeper than just a matter of timing. The Church knows that Christmas is about Christ. And as soon as you focus on Christ, Simeon is absolutely correct, you have a sign that is opposed. You have the One that stands at the center of the fall and rising of everyone.

          Jesus Christ is salvation.  He is the light of revelation for the Gentiles.  But for Christ to be that, you must recognize that you have a problem that only he can answer.  The problem is, of course, sin.  It’s a problem that we must confess as well.  And that goes beyond some kind of general acknowledgement. 

It is the confession that gossiping about my neighbor is sin against God.  It is the confession that looking at pornography is a sin against God. It is the confession that speaking angry and hurtful words to my family or friends is a sin against God.  It is the confession of those specific ways I do not fear, love, and trust in God above everything else.  It is the confession of those ways that I love myself more than my neighbor.

          And then, it means believing in Jesus Christ as the only answer to this problem. Mary had heard wonderful things about Jesus, but she did not realize that a sword would pierce her own soul as Jesus suffered and died on the cross.  Yet it was in this way that Christ won forgiveness for us, and then defeated death by rising from the dead. It means confessing that Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen One is my Lord – that I belong to him and that my life is lived for him because of what he has done for me.

          Jesus was a sign opposed.  He was appointed for the fall of many as they rejected him.  Luke narrates the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with the visit to his hometown of Nazareth. There, before it was all done, the people were trying to kill Jesus by throwing him off a cliff.  In spite of the miracles, Jesus will meet with constant opposition from the religious leaders until they finally engineer his death.

          The world still rejects Jesus because it wants to live life in its own way.  It doesn’t want a God who reveals himself – a God upon whom it must rely.  The world wants to be its own god. Agnosticism may sound really cool, but it is really a person saying I am in charge – I decide.

          Like Mary up until the moment she heard these words from Simeon, our Christmas celebration has been one warm fuzzy after another.  We have heard that Christ is our Savior who brings us peace. We have heard that he is Immanuel – God with us.  We have heard that he is the revelation of God’s love for us.

          But Simeon is right.  Jesus is a sign opposed. Our Lord himself went on to say, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

          In Simeon’s words to Mary we have a wake up call about what the Christ of Christmas really means for us. Until the Last Day Jesus will be a sign opposed.  He will be the fall of all who reject him.  And if you are going to believe in Jesus and confess him as Lord, then you will be opposed.  You will encounter division – division that occurs at the most basic level of family. Expect it.  Don’t be surprised when it happens.

          And at the same time, Simeon’s words assure us that in Jesus Christ we have everything. As the crucified and risen Lord he is salvation for us – for us, even those who are Gentiles and were not part God’s covenant with Israel.  He does mean peace – peace with God that will last for eternity.  He means the comfort of knowing that death has been defeated – that to die is to be with the Lord - and that Christ will raise us up on the Last Day. 

         

         

         

 

         

         

           

 

         

         

 

 

 

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Sermon for the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord - Christmas Day - Tit 3:4-7

 

Christmas Day

                                                                                      Tit 3:4-7

                                                                                      12/25/21

 

          When I say the name “Christmas,” what books of the Bible come to mind?  Obviously, you think of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew.  Luke gives us the most information about the events leading up to Jesus’ birth.  He tells about the annunciation to Mary and the visit that the pregnant Mary had with the pregnant Elizabeth, as John the Baptist began his prophetic work of pointing to Christ when he was still in the womb. Luke the tells us about the birth of Jesus and what happened on Christmas Eve as God revealed the birth of the Savior to shepherds. Matthew provides an account that focuses on Joseph’s experience, as both Gospel writers explicitly share that Jesus was conceived by the work of the Holy Spirit, and born of the virgin Mary.

          Of course, you will think about the Gospel of John, in which we find the Gospel lesson for today.  There in the prologue to his Gospel, John describes in theological terms what Luke and Mathew narrate. After telling us that the Word – the Son – is God, he then goes on to say, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” 

          Certainly, you will also think about the book of Isaiah.  The prophet tells in chapter seven about how the virgin will give birth to the Christ who will be called Immanuel – God with us.  The Old Testament lesson for Christmas Eve came from Isaiah chapter nine, as we heard, “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.”

          It is also likely that you may think about Micah, who tells us that the Christ will be born in Bethelhem.  And probably, you will think of Galatians where the apostle Paul tells us, “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.”

          But I am willing to bet that a book of the Bible that never comes to mind when you think about Christmas is Paul’s letter to Titus.  To be sure, there isn’t that much there to think about. After all, it’s only three chapters long.  But in spite of its small size, and the fact that when we think of Christmas this book doesn’t come to mind, both of the epistle lessons for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are from the book of Titus.

          Once you look a little more carefully, it’s not hard to understand why they were chosen.  Both texts contain the word “appeared” – a word that captures the fact that something new happened as God sent his Son into the world.  In last night’s epistle lesson from chapter two, Paul said, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.”  In this morning’s text Paul begins by writing, “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us.”

          Last night Paul said that God’s grace appeared – his unmerited loving kindness.  Today he refers to God our Savior and describes how his goodness and loving kindness appeared.  “Loving kindness” is actually a rather weak translation, since literally the Greek word means “love of man” – it’s the word from which we get the English word philanthropy.  What happened at Christmas is that God’s kindness and his love for man appeared, when the Son of God entered into this world.

          Lutherans, of course, speak about “law and gospel,” and our text today is literally the Gospel that follows the Law.  In the prior verse, the apostle has just said, “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.” Why is it that God’s kindness and love of man had to appear in Jesus Christ? It is because we are sinners. We are conceived and born as children of of Adam. His sin in the Fall has warped and twisted us all.  It’s not just that we engage in thoughts and actions that violate God’s will – his law.  But as conceived and born into this world we don’t know God; can’t know God; and are in fact opposed to God.  Paul told the Corinthians, “The natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

          Because of God’s grace, mercy, and love he did not leave us there. Instead, these appeared as God sent his Son.  As I mentioned earlier, Paul told the 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.” At the right moment in history as he worked out his plan, God sent forth his Son.  Paul tells us that Jesus Christ was born of a woman.  He says in Romans that he descended from David according to the flesh. In First Timothy he refers to “the man Christ Jesus” and describes how he was “manifested in the flesh.”  The apostle declares that Jesus was true man.

          Yet the apostle is also clear that the Jesus is more than just a man.  In our text Paul refers to how the goodness and loving kindness of “God our Savior” appeared.  But then he also refers to “Jesus Christ our Savior.”  God is our Savior and Jesus Christ is our Savior, because Jesus Christ is God. Last night we heard Paul refer to “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”  Jesus is God, and that is why Paul told the Colossians, “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.”  Jesus is true man. But he is also true God. That is what appeared at Christmas as the pregnant Mary gave birth.

          Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God entered into our world. God sent forth his Son in order to save us.  In last night’s epistle lesson Paul described Jesus as the One “who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness.”  Christ died on the cross to redeem us – to free us from sin.  As the One who is true God and true man, Jesus died and received the punishment for our sins in order to reconcile us to God.  Paul told Timothy For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.”

          For Paul, the work of Jesu Christ the Son of God can never be separated from that of the Holy Spirit. We see this very clearly in our text this morning. God did for us in Christ what we could never do.  Where our works – our deeds – could never give us a righteous standing before God, God acted in Christ’s death and resurrection to provide justification.  Paul says that when God’s kindness and love 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, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

          It is God’s mercy and grace in Christ that has given us forgiveness. And since we were spiritually dead and cut off from God, it is God who acted to give us rebirth and new life.  Paul says that God did this in baptism, for there we received “the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.”  The Spirit poured out through Christ has given us new life in the water of baptism.  He has made us a new creation in Christ.

          The Spirit has given us new life.  And this fact speaks to our present and our future.  Paul ended last night’s epistle lesson by saying that Jesus Christ, “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.”  In the verses just before our text Paul has written, “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.” Then in the verse immediately after our text he goes on to add, “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.”

          God has saved us in Christ and given us new birth through the Spirit in the water of baptism so that we can live as his people in the world.  What happened at Christmas is not only about God giving you salvation.  It is God saving you so that you can live in Christ in ways that share his love with others.  It is God using you to help others by doing goods works in the vocations – the callings in life – where God has placed you.  These works are often not spectacular as far as the world is concerned. But they are the works that God has given you to do, and they are pleasing to him.

          The Spirit has given you new life in baptism, and this also points to our future.  Paul told Timothy that God’s grace has “now been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brough life and immortality to light through the gospel.”  Jesus Christ was born in this world as true God and true man to die for our sins. But he also died so that in his resurrection he could begin the new bodily life that will be ours. 

Paul told the Romans, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.”  The Spirit raised Jesus from the dead, and because the Spirit of Christ is in you, he will raise you as well.  Adam’s sin brought death, but Christ’s death and resurrection means resurrection life for us.  Paul told the Corinthians, “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” 

And that brings us back to the language of “appearing.”  In the epistle lessons for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Paul refers to the appearing that occurred as the incarnate Son of God was born at Christmas.  But last night Paul also went on to say that we are “waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”  Jesus Christ who appeared as an infant in a manger at Christmas will appear again as the risen and exalted Lord on the Last Day.  He will raise and transform our bodies so that they can never die again.  No longer will be look back or forward to an appearing because we will see our Lord face to face as we live with him forever.  

 

         

  

 

     

 

           

 

 

 

Friday, December 24, 2021

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

 

Christmas Eve

                                                                                       Lk 2:1-20

                                                                                      12/24/21

 

          I can only hope that for many people, Christmas 2021 is a very different experience from Christmas 2020.  Although a year later we are still living with the Covid pandemic and the many uncertainties and inconveniences that go with it, I think it is fair to say that things have changed.  On the whole, I think people will be having a more normal, and much better, Christmas this year.

          A year ago the various vaccines were just being approved, and the public was yet to receive them.  Many people were very concerned about the threat the virus posed to their health – especially those who are older or have health issues.  They felt like they had no protection and were very concerned about exposure to the virus.  Individuals had changed their normal pattern of behavior in order to minimize contact with others.

          And so when Christmas arrived in 2020, many people had to make some difficult decisions.  Should they get together with family as they normally would? Should they travel in order to celebrate Christmas with family?  It was not uncommon for people to decide that given all the factors, to be on the safe side of things, this year they would not do so. There were families that did not gather and celebrate Christmas together last year because of Covid, and that certainly made for a Christmas that was messed up and disappointing.

          It is important for us to recognize that the almost everything about the first Christmas was messed up for Mary and Joseph.  We learn in our text that a decision by the Roman Emperor Augustus had set in motion events that directly impacted this couple.  A registration had been ordered – one that was ultimately tied to taxation.  Normally, this kind of registration was done in the location where a person lived.  But the Romans did show some flexibility when it came to these matters, and because of the Jews strong ties to their tribal history, this registration would take place on the basis of the location of family origin.

          Mary and Joseph probably would have preferred that things had been done in the normal Roman way.  Joseph was from the tribe of Judah, and specifically from family line of King David that originated in Bethlehem.  But Jospeh didn’t live in Bethlehem.  Instead, he lived in the north – in Galilee - in the town of Nazareth.  The registration meant that he and his betrothed, Mary, would have to make the ninety mile journey south to Bethlehem in Judea.

          It was bad enough that the Roman Empire was forcing them to make this journey.  But on top of this, the timing could not have been worse.  Mary was not only pregnant, but was also nearing the time when she would deliver her baby. The last thing the couple wanted was for Mary to give birth to a baby out on the road.

          Joseph and Mary made it to Bethlehem, but once there, the experience just kept going from bad to worse. Bethlehem was a small town – the place was really nothing.  Yet now it was filled with people who like Joseph and Mary, were there only because of the census.  They couldn’t find any lodging.  While our translation says there was “no place for them in the inn,” that probably overstates things. There is a Greek word for “inn,” and Luke uses it in the parable of the Good Samaritan, but not here.  Instead, a different word is used that seems to be to a place where travelers would gather, probably under a tent or covering.

          The couple could not even find shelter there.  Instead, the best they could do was where the animals were kept.  The journey of unplanned and difficult circumstances reached its conclusion as Luke tells us, “And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger.”  Mary gave birth to her son in the midst of animals, and then placed him in their feeding trough.

          There have been many children born in humble circumstances. And we could write off the birth of this child as just one more example of this, were it not for what Luke has already told us in the first chapter of the Gospel.  We have learned that Mary was a virgin, betrothed to Joseph.  The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and greeted her. Then he announced, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, 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 the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

          Gabriel told Mary that she was going to give birth to the Davidic Messiah – the fulfillment of God’s promise to David and to all of the Old Testament prophecies that spoke about the Messiah who would bring restoration to Israel and God’s end time salvation. This child, this son, would be the One Isaiah describes in our Old Testament lesson tonight in the words: “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.”

          That was remarkable in itself. But when Mary asked how she was going to conceive this son since she was a virgin, Gabriel told 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.”  Mary learned that her child would be conceived by the work of the Holy Spirit.  God would work a miracle, and because of this miracle the child born to Mary would be holy – the Son of God.  This was not “son of God” in an adopted sense like the nation of Israel or the Davidic kings like Solomon.  Instead he would be the Son of God – the second person of the Trinity.  As Isaiah says in the Old Testament lesson, this child is “Mighty God.”

          In Bethlehem, the virgin Mary gave birth to a baby who was true God and true man at the same time. She gave birth to the Davidic Messiah promised by God in the Old Testament. She gave birth to the Messiah – the shoot from the stump of Jesse – that Isaiah said would bring the peace that extended even to creation itself.  He wrote in chapter eleven, “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” 

          Mary gave birth to this child – and then laid him in an animal feeding trough.  Now the place of birth – Bethlehem - makes perfect sense. As we saw during our Advent sermons, Yahweh had announced through the prophet Micah, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.”

          But nothing else about this seems to make any sense. Jesus the Christ is supposed to bring peace among the animals – not lay in the place where they eat.  This is God in our world, but he is in the manger as a helpless human baby.  This is the Messiah who will rule in glory and power, but he has been born in a setting of utter humility.

          Yet all of this has its explanation in two truths.  The first is the reality of what you are. We put on a good front, but it can never change what is inside of us. Jesus said, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” Since the Fall of Adam and Eve brought sin into the world we have been sinners. We are people who, as Martin Luther put it, are “curved in on ourselves.”  Created to live in fellowship with God, we find every possible way to turn away from God.  When push comes to shove, we put ourselves first, and God and our neighbor a very distant second.

          The second truth deals with the nature of God. Again and again the Old Testament reveals that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”  In his grace, mercy and love, God did not leave us in our sin.  Instead, he acted in order to give us forgiveness and reconciliation. 

          He acted, but he did so in a way that confounds human wisdom and expectations.  Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was born in weakness and humility, because this is how the Father would have him win our salvation. He was laid in manger because the goal of his life was to be nailed to a cross.  On the night when he was betrayed Jesus quoted Isaiah chapter 53 and said, “For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.”  The Son of God – the creator of the cosmos - took on a human nature in his conception, and entered into our world at Christmas in order to take our place and receive God’s judgment against our sin.

          Jesus Christ’s birth was one of humility and weakness.  Jesus’ death on Good Friday was one of humiliation, powerlessness, and defeat.  But in our Gospel lesson tonight we hear a note of glory and triumph. An angel of the Lord appeared to shepherds, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.  The angel announced, “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.”

          The angel announced that Jesus who is born in Bethlehem is the Savior.  And this messenger from God is not wrong.  For on the third day – on Easter – God raised Jesus from the dead. God had worked in humility and weakness to give us forgiveness and to defeat death. 

Christ the risen Lord is our Savior from Satan, sin, and death.  Because of the resurrection of Jesus, we now understand what God was doing through the infant in the manger and the man on the cross. St. Paul told the Corinthians, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

The risen and ascended Lord will return in glory on the Last Day.  He will transform our bodies to like his own, so that they can never die. He will renew creation so that, “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat.” He the Savior, will bring the consummation of his salvation as we will live with our Lord forever.

And right now?  The One who is true God and true man still comes to us in order to give us the forgiveness that he won on the cross and to strengthen us in faith.  Just like the infant in the manger and the man on the cross, he does so in a way that looks humble and weak.  In the Sacrament of the Altar our Lord uses bread and wine to give us his true body and blood, given and shed for us.  Just as in the manger and the cross, it is the Lord who is true God and true man who comes to us.  Just as the in the manger and the cross he was located in this world for us, so now he will be located at this altar for us.

And just as the angel announced, he is the Savior present for us.  He gives us the forgiveness and salvation that he won by his death and resurrection. In the Sanctus we will sing, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”  Yet unlike Christmas and Good Friday, it is the risen and exalted Lord who comes to us now in this way.  And because he is, the celebration of the Sacrament is the the reminder and assurance that he will return in glory accompanied by the angels of the heavenly host.  On that day, all will see that the infant in the manger and the man on the cross was God winning salvation for us. And we will sing in joy and praise, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” as we greet the glorious arrival of our Savior.