Christmas Eve Vespers 2015
Christmas Eve Vespers
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Matthew 1:18-25
December 24, 2015
Christmas preaches hope to us when cold reason and experience tells us there is nothing left to hope for. It proclaims in the darkness that a light is shining, and that light has even overcome the darkness. The seeming omnipotence of the darkness is exposed as a lie by the birth of the God-man. The light appears in the heart of the kingdom of darkness at Christmas and shines its glory into our hearts.
It’s not hard to recognize the darkness that has descended on us even if your eyes are accustomed to the dim light. We sense the darkness this Christmas. So many friends and relatives no longer recognize the light. At least at one time, duty or some faint, smoldering spark of faith drew people to come to honor the newborn King at His birth, even if they wandered away for the rest of the year. But now, though Christmas still brings in great profits for retailers, the formerly Christian world has become functionally atheistic. Neither the pagan gods of our distant ancestors nor the Holy Trinity give meaning to people’s lives, provide the story in which they live. Instead each person lives to discover the god within himself, to pursue pleasure and meaning for himself wherever he thinks he will find it.
As the darkness settles into even the government and enshrouds public standards of morality, many in the Church become afraid and despondent. We see the signs of moral collapse in our society. Families have broken down; children grow up with no father, no Joseph. People are unclear on what it means to be a man or a woman, and that confusion is reflected in the education of our children. The government, which is supposed to be God’s instrument to maintain order in society, sanctions gross immorality and threatens to apply force to the Church when she raises her voice in protest. People are encouraged to no longer take responsibility for their sins, but to blame parents, authority figures, the structures of society. All of this comes as the result of our society’s idolatry, of trading the Triune God for the false god within self.
As our society feverishly pursues that god, chaos results for us and our children. And the light that the Church bears in the world seems to be flickering, in danger of going out.
The darkness around us is deep. And yet there is a deeper darkness that would overwhelm us. That is the darkness inside of us. It is relatively easy to recognize evil outside of ourselves, in the world and in other people. But that darkness has a limited ability to harm us. The devil and the world can cause us pain, take our possessions, comfort, and even our lives. But they cannot harm our souls unless we consent to their enticements to sin, to turn away from God.
What is harder to recognize and accept is the darkness that is already within us. It can really only be made known by God’s Word; it is not apparent to our feelings and reason. The darkness that is in us by nature is total. It is such that there is no light in us at all by nature, nothing that could light the way back to God. We are conceived and born without any righteousness before God, in sin. The first parents of our race sinned against God. When they did that, they died. They were corrupted by sin. They came under the power of Satan. They became enemies of God, hiding from Him and His judgment. And they passed that state into which they fell onto us, their descendants. Only by the work of God’s Spirit does light come to dwell in the utter darkness of our hearts, and even after that the darkness continues to fight against the light, trying to snuff it out again through sin and unbelief.
So as bad as the world is, as great as the darkness is which seems poised to put out the light of the Church, it is not the greatest threat to us individually. The greatest threat is the darkness within us—the total power sin holds over our flesh by nature.
That’s why the angel tells Joseph that this unexpected child conceived in Mary’s womb by the Holy Spirit will be called “Jesus.” Jesus means “the Lord saves.” The angel says that the child is to be named this because He will save His people. He will save them not from the Romans and their invincible army, nor the rising godlessness of their people. The angel says: “You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)
Jesus will save us not just from the darkness in the world, but the darkness within our hearts. He will save us from the sins that cut us off from God, and He will save us from the sins that still rage within us when we have begun to believe in Jesus.
But how can this baby Mary conceives and bears give us hope in the darkness in which we find ourselves? The world is so corrupt. The Church appears so weak. It seems like there is no help for either one.
And then there is the darkness within us. We were born in the dark. And even as people who are baptized and believe in Christ, the darkness within us remains so great. Sin rages within us with such power that we sometimes doubt whether we are Christians at all, whether we have been saved.
How does this baby save us from our sins?
Even though Jesus is conceived in a way that appears shameful to human eyes, even to righteous Joseph, the angel declares that His conception is a wonder that has never happened before. There is not taint of sin or shame in it. Mary’s Son has been conceived in her womb by the Holy Spirit, in a womb never touched by sinful human seed, but overshadowed by the Spirit who hovered above the waters at creation. A new kind of human being has come into the world. His conception is not stained and corrupted with the guilt of Adam. Jesus is conceived and born in innocence. He is a sinless man.
And He is more than that. Isaiah tells us that this child He foretold by the Holy Spirit, born of a virgin, would be called “Immanuel—which means, ‘God with us.’” The baby is not just a new kind of human, without sin. It is the Lord God, who has become a human being.
God is with us to destroy the darkness within our flesh.
Why should God become a human being and come into the world? To save His people from their sins. To destroy the darkness in the world and in your heart—in Himself.
He comes to live the innocent life that neither Adam nor his descendants have lived. He comes to fulfill God’s law and will from conception to death. He comes to resist the temptation of the devil, to stand where we have fallen into the darkness.
He comes to offer His holy, divine and human life. He comes to suffer and die under God’s wrath for the darkness of sin within you—your lusts to go your own way and be your own God, and for the times when you followed your desires into the darkness, away from God’s light.
He comes to rise from the dead with sin atoned for, buried, and to take our nature to the throne of God in heaven.
He is, “Immanuel, God with us.”
God with us, a human being, forever. In Mary’s womb, in the manger, hanging on the cross, buried in the tomb, ascended into heaven, at God’s right hand interceding for us. On the last day when He comes again in glory, and forever and ever, God is a human being. He is what you are.
And He is with us to save us from the darkness inside and outside. He has been born to cover your sins with His obedience, to swallow the darkness of our sins in His death and rise from the dead to make known our justification. He stands at the right hand of God on your behalf, to speak for you to the Father. And from heaven He sends the word of His Gospel, His Baptism, His supper, to declare your share in His righteousness and the forgiveness of your sins.
He is with us in human nature to accomplish our salvation and to give us that salvation in His Word.
He is also with us to save us from the sin with which we are still battling in this valley of sorrows.
He saves us not by making the darkness inside us disappear, but by forgiving us. Seventy times seven. Again and again, until it no longer lives in us to torment us.
And at the same time He sanctifies us. He forgives us and He makes us partakers of His divine nature. The almighty power that formed Him in the virgin’s womb is also at work within us. When we were baptized into Him and believed, the Holy Spirit conceived a new you inside of you. A new you in the image of baby Jesus, who is innocent and holy.
Through this little baby born to Mary we receive forgiveness of sins, but also a new self. He is born within us. He gives us the power daily to put off our old man and put on Christ until the day we put Him on forever in the resurrection. And on that day the darkness within and without will be banished forever.
Christmas preaches hope to us. It preaches hope in the darkness of the world and even more, as we feel the darkness within our hearts. God is with us in flesh and blood. Our sins have become His, not ours. His appearing in the manger means that the darkness is dispelled, even though He seems too small to accomplish anything so great. Those who believe in this child may smile and laugh at the darkness in themselves and in the world.
And if you are weak in faith, and you fear the darkness that surrounds the Church or makes itself felt in your heart, come to this child and hold on to the words of the angel. If you continually fall into sin, into the darkness, away from God, don’t try to make things right yourself. Trust this child. He is God, with you in your weakness, with you in flesh and blood, with you, bearing your guilt, sin, and shame. With you even in death.
That is why the virgin conceived—so that God might be with you when you could not bring yourself to Him. That is why He is called Jesus. He is the Lord who saves His people from their sins.
The peace of God which passes understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria