Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Sermon: Christmas Eve - Early

24 December 2008 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: John 1:1-14

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”

Christmas is such a glorious time that we often hear little children wish that every day could be Christmas. And in a very real sense, every day is Christmas, for every day around the world, God takes a visible, humble, and even helpless form in order to be with His beloved people. For the word “Christmas” is a contraction of “Christ’s Mass” – the reality that Christ is truly present with us, that He is “pleased as Man with man to dwell” in his Word and in His Sacrament.

For “in the beginning was the Word.”

Over the course of many centuries, it was the custom in Christian churches to read the first fourteen verses of John’s Gospel at the very end of the divine service. After the priest gave the final blessing, he would send all the faithful off on their way by reminding them of the reality that God, the Word, took on flesh – which is especially important as this reading took place shortly after the people had just consumed Lord’s flesh and blood in Holy Communion. This custom of reading the “Last Gospel” was a fitting reminder that every Sunday is a form of Christmas.

The thing that makes Christmas special and wonderful is not merely the things that we do – the baking, the gift-giving, the visiting, the family rituals, the feasting, the decorations, the candlelight rendition of “Silent Night” and all other such things. For all of these things are there to point us to Christ, the very “Father’s love begotten.”

The thing that makes Christmas special and wonderful is what God did for us, does for us, and will always do for us. Christmas is not limited to December 25th every year, but like the Charles Dickens’ story A Christmas Carol, the spirit of Christmas is past, present, and future. More accurately, Christmas is eternal. For “in the beginning was the Word.” Our Lord Jesus Christ is God. And though He had a human birth, He had no beginning in time. He is “eternally begotten of the Father.” He is “Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending, He.”

For our God became the Christ child in those days when Caesar Augustus ordered that everyone in the empire should be counted in order to be taxed, and He comes to us anew even though Caesar Augustus is only part of the rubble that is the empire today. We aren’t merely counted by a Caesar in order to be taxed, but rather we are all counted worthy of being saved by the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, a ruler who pays the tax Himself with His own blood. Our God took human flesh, became one of us to be fed by one of us, nurtured by one of us, and to die for all of us, in order to rise again as the first fruits of all of us, we who are baptized and believe in Him, so that we could then be fed by Him, nurtured by Him, and live by Him forever.

Our God continues to come to us, year after year, week after week, day after day, moment by moment. He has promised to be with us always. He is the Christ and He comes in the Mass – Christmas. And that continual Christmas bears the “always” of the Lord’s promise.

The Eve of Christmas, today’s feast, is a wonderful time to worship our God and King, our Creator and Redeemer, our Savior and Brother, our Priest and Deity. It is fitting that men should crowd into churches like the Shepherds that first Christmas squeezing into the stable, to “see this thing that has happened.” It is fitting that Christians assemble where they will find their Savior – no longer in swaddling cloths in a manger, but enrobed in bread and wine in a chalice and paten, in a cup and a plate, the Christ child that we can, in a way not completely unlike the Virgin Mary, carry the within us bodily.

“In the beginning was the Word... And the Word became flesh.”

This Christ, this Word, is proclaimed year-round in the Church, from pulpits like this one – many more humble and many more grand. This preaching of the Divine Word of Christ has gone on non-stop for nearly twenty centuries. This eternal Christmas has continued without interruption these two millennia – in spite of war and famine, in the face of persecution and bloodshed, in the constant struggle with disease and death, over the constant attacks of the devil and of our sinful nature.

That sinful nature of ours is why God did something so drastic and radical and extreme as to take on our flesh. For the Baby in the manger is only the beginning of the story. Thirty years later, He would be the Man on the cross, dying for our sins. He would be the Body in the tomb, resting that Holy Sabbath Day for us. He would descend into hell to proclaim His victory over death and Satan, and He would rise again in glory that first Lord’s Day to bring life to all of us as well, we who are the branches of His Vine.

Our sinful nature explains why we have more people in church on Christmas than on other days. Some of this is because visitors are in town to be with family members. Some of this is because some people are elderly or physically debilitated and cannot come every week. But most of it is because there are many people, even people who are members of this congregation, who do not believe church is important the rest of the year. They come on Christmas or Easter because it is a custom, or to hear beautiful music, or because they convince themselves that this makes them a Christian.

If this describes you, dear friend, please listen carefully. We Christians, we redeemed sinners, have been celebrating our Lord’s Incarnation for nearly 2,000 years. We are all waiting for the Lord to return. He will return, but we do not know when. And even if it isn’t in your lifetime, you will die. You will need the Baby in the manger, the Man on the cross, the one who rose from the dead that you might rise as well. If you truly believe the Word became flesh, it is because your flesh is sinful and in dire need, just like mine, and just like that of everyone in this church.

And that need is so great and so dire and so urgent that it isn’t a once a year or twice a year thing. If you only come here every few months, you need to repent. As the hymn says: “Let every heart prepare Him room.” You can indeed celebrate the wonder of Christmas year-round, partaking of the Christ Mass of Word and Sacrament every Sunday. You can hear the Good News of the Word made flesh, week in and week out. And this is why Christ has come! This is the one and only meaning of Christmas!

For if you really believe that God became a man and was laid as a baby in a Bethlehem manger, you will want to gather around Him at every opportunity. For He has come with good news! He has come to forgive us! We all need to hear that forgiveness and hear it often. And this is where you hear it according to the Lord’s promise. If it is important to hear that your sins are forgiven at Christmas, then it is equally important to hear it every week.

Jesus is bidding you to come, inviting you to Himself, pleading with you to open your hands to the unlimited riches He is tossing out to the whole world, the gold, frankincense, and myrrh of forgiveness, life, and salvation that comes from His Word made flesh that indeed dwells among us.

For this is all good news, dear brothers and sisters! Our Lord came into our world to save us, to rescue us, to cleanse our sinful flesh by His holy Word made flesh. Our Lord Jesus Christ came into the world not to condemn, but to save. And you will find Him here, doing His work of forgiving and transforming all of us who struggle with sin, who are beaten up by this world, who need to repent and hear the Good News week after week. Jesus is here, calling sinners to repentance and giving us “poor miserable sinners” reason to rejoice, to sing, to offer praises to God, and to be made a son of God by adoption because of the Sonship of Jesus Christ and by His promise to be with us “always.” The Lord doesn’t promise to be with us once a year, or only when we feel holy enough, or only when we are confronted with an event in life that drives us to our knees. He is here for us always, even to the end of the age.

And we know He is here, because His Word is here, His Gospel is here, His people, the redeemed sinners in need of Good News, are gathered here – like the shepherds bowed down before this humble and yet holy God who has come to save us.

Let us sing praises to Him, the Merciful One, who has come to Redeem His people. Let us adore our King, the Victor, on bended knee. Let us offer our thanks for his divine mercy and goodness to all of us, we who have done nothing to deserve it. Let us “behold His glory… full of grace and truth.” “O Come let us adore Him,” the Word made flesh, now and unto eternity! Amen.

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

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