Christmas Midnight 2015
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)
December 24, 2015
Not long after I was confirmed something happened to me that I think many other people experience. I became disenchanted with the Church. Disappointed. Disillusioned.
I didn’t stop believing in Jesus. I wasn’t disappointed with Him. I was blessed in that I had a pastor that I liked and respected—He wasn’t what caused me to be dissatisfied.
It wasn’t even the people in the church at that time. No one was mean or blatantly hypocritical. Many of them struck me as being truly sincere.
It was just that things were so—ordinary.
Nobody seemed extremely holy, or wise, or spiritual. The Divine Service seemed very human and not all that divine. People sang quietly or didn’t sing at all and they turned around and looked at you if you sang too loud. It didn’t seem like heaven was opening and God was about to be revealed.
Somewhere inside my teenage self, mixed up with all kinds of other worries and desires, was the desire not just to hear some facts about God, but to experience Him. To see Him or feel Him.
But that didn’t seem to be happening in church. So I got disillusioned. I started looking for God in other places, in beautiful things, in music and literature and art. Little by little I stopped going to church; over time I started to find reasons not to go without formally rejecting what I had been taught. I took offense at really devout people I knew who I thought were jerks and hypocrites. Then I started avoiding Church because I knew I had no intention of quitting things I was doing that I knew were wrong.
Then when I got a little older I started going back to Church. And I experienced other things that didn’t cause me to quit going but made me struggle to believe in “the Holy Christian Church” and the “communion of saints.” A couple of different pastors hurt my feelings and it was years before I could get over it, even though I tried to forgiven them. Then I had the experience of being on the receiving end of personal attacks and slander from church people. I guess the disappointment I felt in the Church as a teenager never completely went away.
I’m pretty sure that some of you know what I’m talking about this Christmas Eve. Maybe church just seemed too earthly, too routine, too boring—when you wanted to see God or feel God. You wanted heaven to open like it did for the shepherds. You wanted to experience God and felt disappointed. Or maybe someone in the Church hurt you or disappointed you. Maybe it was me, or maybe it was another pastor, or someone else in the Church.
Then the unspoken question becomes: “Can God really be there? In Church?
Among such ordinary people? Among such seemingly backward people? Among people I feel like I have little in common with?
Can God really be found among such sinners and sometimes hypocritical people as I see in the pews and the pulpit?”
Can God really be found among the simple, the lowly, the ordinary? Can He be found among sinners? And if God really is there, shouldn’t we see or feel something of His glory?”
Those are good questions for Christmas.
Not necessarily. That’s the answer. God can be there and our hearts and eyes may miss Him entirely.
He may be there and we don’t feel Him or see Him.
In fact, that’s sure to happen unless our hearts and our eyes submit in humble faith to God’s Word. Apart from God’s Word we can’t see God.
Consider the Gospel reading tonight. There are shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem. They go into the town that night and discover Mary and Joseph and the baby wrapped up in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
If the baby is in a manger, there are probably animals around, grunting and smelling like animals do.
Unlike the paintings, there are no halos marking the heads of the holy family. There is nothing to suggest that God is there. If the shepherds didn’t know what they were looking for—a baby in a manger—they would have walked right past. There was nothing remarkable about that scene of Mary and Joseph and the baby except for the poverty and lowliness of a mother having nowhere to put her newborn son besides a manger.
But the shepherds see this baby with different eyes. Their eyes see a poor newborn swaddled near oxen and sheep. But through the Word of God spoken to them by the angel, they believe that this baby is “Christ the Lord,” the Almighty God who led Israel through the Red Sea and appeared in fire on Mount Sinai.
Can God be found among the ordinary, earthly, among the non-glorious and the pitiful? Can He be found among the sinful?
Can God be there where we don’t expect Him, even when our hearts don’t feel Him?
Yes. We have to realize that our hearts, minds, and senses don’t recognize God and His works. St. Paul writes, “The natural person 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.” (1 Cor. 2:14)
Our hearts, reason, souls are not responsive to God. Sin has darkened and deadened them.
By nature we don’t know God and don’t want to know Him. We want to see Him reveal His majesty and glory. But we don’t realize that we couldn’t bear to see it. If we tried to approach God’s glory with our sin and uncleanness He would terrify us (at best) or destroy us (at worst).
That’s why when the angel appears to the shepherds and the glory of God shines around them, they are “filled with fear.” They are undone with terror. The light of God’s glory exposes their sin and they are afraid that He is going to break out against them and consume them.
But the angel says, “Don’t be afraid…I bring you good news of a great joy.” The good news and the joy is that Almighty God has come to us. But He is not here to overwhelm us, to terrify us or to avenge Himself on us.
He has been born a baby. He has come as one of us. And He has come to save us.
God has come to His creation. He has come to live among the ordinary and the sinful, to be gazed upon by sheep and cattle, shepherds and townsfolk, his mother and adoptive father. He has come to live among the ordinary and sinful so that they, through His flesh, might safely enter His glory. God has come as a human being to take our sins away and to safely conduct human beings into heaven and the glory of God.
Not that we would ever recognize our God coming in our image and lying in the manger. We are proud, and that makes us blind to God who comes down to serve us. Guilt makes our hearts insensitive to His presence. Neither your heart nor your intellect will lead you to God.
But the good news, the Gospel does, whether it is preached by an angel or a man, whether it causes your heart to burn within you or not. The Gospel teaches you unfailingly to find your God in human flesh, coming to serve you. Your Savior, Christ the Lord. Believe that word and hold on to it, even when you look at the child and your reason says, “How can God be there for me?” Hold to the word and the great joy of the message will dawn on you in God’s time.
Because what are we looking at when we look at the manger with the shepherds? Not just a poor baby, but your God, seeking you.
He is seeking you out like a shepherd seeks out his lost sheep. The mighty One, your Creator, becomes weak like you, becomes a creature like you. He who is the image of the glorious Father has taken your image, the image of a slave bound by sin and death.
He who lived in eternal joy, always seeing the face of His Father, has now come into a world that is estranged from God and full of grief. He comes to us who don’t know God’s joy but only the misery of sin and death to give us life and the eternal joy of seeing God.
That is why He is in the world. That is why He was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, why He was born in Bethlehem and laid in a manger. He comes to claim us, to live among the ordinary and the sinful, to purchase us by taking our nature, dying our death, rising from the grave and ascending to the Father.
When we look into the manger, we see God with us, near to us. He is not ashamed to be among the ordinary and not ashamed to be found among sinners, not even afraid to serve them and give His life for them.
Amazingly, God the Creator is humble. He willingly comes to the womb of Mary and is put in the manger. He is not ashamed to be seen this way because He wants you to have what is His—His eternal glory and His unending joy.
It’s a shame that Christians so often experience and exhibit so little of the great joy proclaimed by the angel. But that happens because we pay attention to the feelings of our hearts and the reasoning of our minds instead of listening to the message that is preached to us.
We look at the dirty hay of the manger and smell the animal’s stench. We look at poor Mary and the baby and doubt what the angel said—“To you is born this day in David’s city a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
Or we look, as I did, on the outward appearance of the Church. We see its ordinariness, its frailty, its sin. And we say, “Could God really be there?”
And the joyful answer of Christmas is “Yes!”
God was there in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.
God is in the midst of His Church. The Words of Scripture and preaching are His swaddling bands and manger. In the water joined with His Word God comes and gives sinners new birth so they are holy, united with the Son of Mary. He comes in the bread and the wine of His supper through His Word and makes them His body and blood. And believing we eat and drink and our sins are forgiven. We eat and drink and under the bread and wine God comes to us in flesh and blood.
He takes ordinary people in an ordinary place and unites them to Jesus through His Word and Sacrament. And those ordinary people become God-bearers. They mystically, in a hidden way, share in the glory of God.
From this comes the joy of the Christian Church. It’s not that we can see or feel God’s glory. But God’s word tells us it is for us. “To you this day is born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord!” That means I have a Savior and a God, whether I feel it or not. He was born for me and lived and died for me 2000 years ago; but He rose from the dead, ascended to heaven, and from there gives me the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and union with God. That is joyful news, which we believe even when we can’t see. But one day we will look at Jesus and no longer see a baby in swaddling clothes or bread and wine hiding His flesh and blood. One day we will look at Him and see clearly the glory of God in His body. And on that day we will no longer be disappointed by the Church of Christ. Because we will see every member of it transfigured into the glory of Christ the Lord.
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Soli Deo Gloria