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.