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Sermon for Christmas Day

by Rev. Brian Hamer ~ December 28th, 2010

Sermon on St. Luke 2:1-14

Christmas Day

25 December 2010

+ Jesu Juva +
When Thou tookest upon Thee to deliver man,
Thou didst humble Thyself to be born of a virgin;
When Thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death,
Thou didst open the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
— The Te Deum

 

Today’s OT lesson from Isaiah (7:10-14) records the promise of the Virgin Birth of our Lord to Israel during turbulent days of war and bloodshed. Speaking to King Ahaz in the days when Assyria was making war on Jerusalem, the Lord promised Israel a very unique sign. He offered the king anything as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven. However, King Ahaz did not want to put the Lord God to the test. And the Lord spoke through Isaiah, saying, “[T]he Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” It may seem strange, even a bit jarring, to skip from the Lord’s offer for a sign in the OT all the way to a birth that would come several hundred years later. But what greater sign could God give Israel, in the midst of military conflict, than the quietude and peace of the Virgin Birth? And what greater gift could He give than the Child who is Immanuel, God with us, the One who brought glory to God in the highest and peace on earth?

The first half of our familiar Christmas gospel from St. Luke describes the fulfillment of the sign promised to Ahaz. Apart from our yuletide ideas of snow and Santa, of nostalgia and good cheer, the story of the fulfillment of the promise made through Isaiah is very human and very real. Perhaps some of you have seen the film, “The Nativity.” It does a nice job of depicting the reality of the Christmas story, with no sentimentality or later additions. Joseph and Mary make the difficult, 90-mile trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, with no frills, no snow, and no companions. When Mary’s water breaks, Joseph frantically runs from door to door in the little “cow town” of Bethlehem, seeking some place for his wife to lie down and give birth. He becomes the picture of helplessness and desperation. A midwife, perhaps? Probably not. An OB/GYN? Not even an option. A hotel room? Nope. The neon “no vacancy” sign was lit at the Bethlehem Bed & Breakfast. But a merciful innkeeper (or was it his sympathetic wife?) offered them a barn or a cave, where she brought forth her firstborn Son, wrapped him in cloths, and laid him in a feeding trough for the animals. In short, the birth of our Lord had a lot more in common with a single mother giving birth by herself in a filthy ghetto than it did with the birth of other kings of the day. The key word written across the story of the Virgin Birth is humiliation. Here the Word is made flesh, taking all the suffering and sin of mankind into Himself under the most difficult circumstances – all for us and for our salvation.

This we proclaim in the Te Deum: “When Thou tookest upon Thee to deliver man, Thou didst humble Thyself to be born of a virgin.” The word translated “deliver” or “liberate” was used in the ancient world of freeing slaves. So the image here in this part of the Te Deum is our captivity to sin, set against Christ’s power to free us from sin and eternal death. Left to ourselves, we are slaves to sin. On our own, we are captive to sin and eternal death. For we have been born in slavery to Satan and bound to die. And we cannot free ourselves, for Satan does not ransom his prisoners. What to do? Christ took upon Himself to deliver us when He became man. He came as One born under the Law to redeem those who were under the Law. He must become man to redeem man, yet He must remain without sin. And that’s where the Virgin Birth is so important to our faith. If Jesus had been born of natural father and mother, then He would have been just another slave to sin. But through the Virgin Birth, He was able to be like us in every way, except without sin. So in the Te Deum, Christ is pictured as the One who became man to redeem those of sinful birth. No wonder the musical setting we will sing after the Lord’s Supper today switches to something called parallel minor, a sudden change to a different key, as the words, “When Thou tookest upon Thee to deliver man,” etc. The sudden change from B-Flat Major to B-Flat Minor contrasts the glory of the Father in the first part of the Te Deum with the humiliation of Christ in the section on the incarnation.

Just after this proclamation of the incarnation, we pray in the Te Deum for God to help His servants “whom Thou hast redeemed with Thy precious blood.” The word “redeemed” is also borrowed from the ancient slave market. It was used of the ransom price given to buy a slave. And so Christ has purchased our freedom with His own blood, giving His life in exchange for our lives. He became the slave and suffered the lowest form of death known to man, that you and I might be free from eternal death and receive the highest honor the heaven affords, true Sonship with the Father.

And so we sing, “When Thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death, Thou didst open the Kingdom of heaven to all believers.” Here we see the exaltation of Christ to God’s right hand. The word “sharpness” is really “sting,” recalling the sting of death (sin) and the power of sin (the Law, I Cor. 15). Christ overcame the power of sin through His resurrection, for the resurrection conquers death. The resurrection says that He did not die His own death, but our death; yes, that His death defeated death itself and His resurrection brought life and immortality to light. And the result for us? He has opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers. That is to say, slaves like you and me are released from Satan’s strong grip, brought to the Kingdom of Heaven, and given all the rights of the Prince of Peace, whose scepter is justice and whose judgment is compassion.

No wonder the second half of our Gospel Lesson describes the heavenly perspective of the Christmas story, the good news of how Christ opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers. An angel of the Lord, one of those heavenly messengers who does the Lord’s bidding, appeared in a nearby field. And since God’s true glory is to dwell among men, “the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.” However, there was nothing to be afraid of that most holy night of nights. “For unto you is born this day a Savior . . . who is Christ the Lord.” The OT promised the Savior (Jesus) and anointed One (Christ), who would come to redeem His people. But the word that packed the most powerful punch was certainly “Lord,” for this word designated God Himself. The same, all-powerful, all-pervading Word that created the heavens and the earth is “wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” The deepest mystery and the most profound reality that ever occurred in this world of ours: God wears human skin. And then the entire chorus of angels sang the “Gloria,” “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill to all men,” the ordinary that rings out anew this morning after its Advent hiatus. Yes, the Word is lying in a manger. The angels are singing His praises. And the shepherds and all the faithful are invited to join in the angelic hymn, to treasure these things in their hearts, and to proclaim the good news that God has taken upon Himself to deliver man and to open the kingdom of heaven to all believers.

And so the promise first given to Ahaz, fulfilled in the Christmas Story, and proclaimed in the Te Deum is richest and purest Gospel for us this Christmas Day and every day. Through the eternal Kingship of the One who did not abhor the Virgin’s womb, we are members of the kingdom of God, faithful heirs and subjects of the One who opened the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers. Perhaps St. John put it best in the first chapter of His Gospel: “But as many as received [Jesus], to them [God] gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (1:12-23). It sounds like the virgin birth of our Lord, doesn’t it? Our spiritual birth through Holy Baptism was not of human origin, but through the grace of God. Through our new birth from God the Father and Virgin Mother Church, we stand before God the Father as if we were the very Son of God Himself: holy and righteous in His sight. We hear His word of absolution, spoken from our heavenly Father to His sons and daughters. We sit at table with Him and eat His Son’s true body and blood. We feast with Him, even to eternity. And it’s all possible through Him “who became flesh and dwelt among us . . . full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14). INJ. Amen.

Rev. Brian Hamer

Redeemer Lutheran Church

Bayside, NY

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