Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Sermon: Nativity of our Lord

25 December 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: John 1:1-18 (Ex 40:17-21, 34-38; Titus 3:4-7)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

God was with His people, His beloved people, in the tabernacle – which was basically a tent in which God chose to be present in a special way. The Israelites knew when the Lord was present because of the cloud that served to let them know that the glory of the Lord was inside. At night, this cloud took the form of a fire. Inside the tabernacle was the Ark of the Covenant, with its special lid called the mercy seat. Under the mercy seat, inside the Ark, was the Testimony, the written record of the Law.

And while such a sight of pillars of cloud and of fire sounds frightening, the Israelites of old must have taken great comfort in knowing that their God was there for them, that He was present in their coming in and in their going out, in war and in peace, night and day – tabernacled with them.

Aside from the bright lights, this tabernacle doesn’t sound much like Christmas – but it truly is!

The same word – “tabernacle” – is used in our Gospel. “The Word became flesh and dwelt” – literally: “tabernacled” – “among us.”

But unlike the cloud in the Old Testament tabernacle, this Presence of God shows His face in the New and Greater Tabernacle: the face of a Man – Jesus Christ. The face of a baby born of a virgin mother. The face with a mouth that speaks the Word of God from the Word of God in the flesh.

And like the ancient tabernacle, He is “the light [that] shines in the darkness.” Not a pillar of fire glowing in the dark, but rather a beacon of light, of uncreated light, “God of God, Light of Light,” the Light through which men might believe, the Light that confounds the darkness, the Light that is not comprehended by the darkness.

The light of this New and Greater Tabernacle shines from His face at His transfiguration – unlike the temporary light that reflected from the face of Moses. For the Light of Christ is not simply created energy bouncing off of matter, but rather is the very Creator, the One through whose Word “Let there be light” created all other light in the universe.

Within the New and Greater Tablernacle, within the Babe of Bethlehem, is the Testimony, the law, that is upheld by Him and Him alone. For “the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” He did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. He fulfills it for us. Where fallen man only breaks the law, the New and Greater Man, the Second Adam, keeps the law – not with technicalities and loopholes, but with perfect love.

And just as the ancient tabernacle boasted of a “mercy seat,” the lid that kept the Law inside, and above which the Presence of God hovered, the New and Greater tabernacle, the Lord Jesus Christ born on the very first Christmas, contains God’s wrath with a lid of mercy, a seat that is for Him a throne of a New and Greater Kingdom, a Kingdom not of law, but of grace, a Kingdom not typified by power, but by restraint, a throne not made of the gold of the false God Caesar, but rather a throne of the wooden cross of the slave who is truly divine.

Our Lord Jesus rules from a throne of mercy, not a seat of judgment. For He did not come into the world to condemn, but rather so that “as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God.”

The Ark of the Covenant, cradled within the old Tabernacle of God’s presence also contained a bit of heavenly bread, the manna that miraculously sustained the Israelites in their pilgrimage from slavery to freedom. And the New and Greater Tabernacle is the very Bread of Life whose flesh is given for the life of the world. The manna in the tabernacle, whose name is literally a question: “What is it?” is answered by the New and Greater Tabernacle Himself when He replies: “This is my body.”

For the Israelites ate the manna in the wilderness, and yet they died. But He who eats the flesh of the Son of Man, the Bread of Life, will live forever.

And this New and Greater Tabernacle was born to us in a placed called Bethlehem, (whose name means “House of Bread”), and was placed in a trough to feed animals used by the Israelites for sacrifices. For He is the very sacrifice to end all sacrifices, the Bread of Life from Heaven.

Our Lord Jesus is not merely a fulfillment of the Old Tabernacle, but rather the pinnacle of “the kindness and the love of God” – for as a result of that love toward man, “our Savior… appeared.” And not by the “works of righteousness which we have done” – not by the testimony of the law – but rather “according to His mercy He saved us through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.” This baptismal grace is “poured out on us abundantly” as Paul writes to Titus.

As wonderful and miraculous as the tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant were, they were merely foreshadowings of the glory to come when the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” For the New and Greater Tabernacle, the living Tabernacle, the Tabernacle of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, was to be miraculously born to Mary by the Father through the coming of the Holy Spirit upon her. Jesus is not merely a collection of boards and bars and sockets and pillars, but rather the flesh-and-blood incarnation of God Himself.

That incarnate God, dear brothers and sisters, is much better than a tent. For the Body of Jesus isn’t merely a shell to contain God’s glory, rather He is God’s glory: “This is my beloved Son.” The New and Greater Tabernacle is not merely a container, but is salvation Himself.

Through Him, we not only see the power of God, but we can also receive Him in His Word and in His sacramental Presence – a presence that in turn “tabernacles” with us as we eat His body and drink His blood, as we receive His forgiveness, as we are given that “washing of regeneration,” and as the Word is proclaimed by John and all preachers who “bear witness” and who “cry out.” For in this New and Greater Tabernacle, we are indeed “justified by His grace” so that we “should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

That hope took the form of the Christ Child, and He continues to tabernacle among us, continues to shine in the darkness, and continues to give us the greatest gifts of all: eternal life, victory over death, and eternal communion with God. Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

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