Concrete for Christmas
Who doesn't know that misbehaving children get a lump of coal in their Christmas Stocking? And who wants concrete for Christmas? I do. Increase Mather, Puritan preacher, predicted in the 17th century, "'We shall come to have no Christ but a light within, and no heaven but a frame of mind,..' In the 18th and 19th centuries scientific materialism was to triumph, and the pious were to find that all the concreteness had left their religion, leaving nothing behind but a 'light within' and 'a frame of mind'" (Hansen, Witchcraft at Salem, 27). I don't know about you but my "light within" has all but been doused by all things pandemic without, and my mind within is "framed" by worry, falsehoods, and false hopes. I need concrete for Christmas.
Remember the scene from Superman, where his father, Jor-el is putting the baby Superman in a spaceship to send him to earth? Well, that's our text. God steps into His creation today concretely. "And the Word was made flesh." The Word that was in the beginning, before all time and space, the Word that existed in the eternal halls of God and was Himself God, was sent to earth today. Only it was our planet that was exploding with Sin, Death, and Devils. JB Philips said in 1957 that "we live on a visited planet." 17th century Lutheran, Johann Gerhard said, Jesus "was born an alien in a stall" (History of the Suffering, 251). Only like Superman, the Visitor from an alien realm wasn't an alien. He was made flesh. The One who before the beginning was with God, and was God, "was made flesh". Heb. 1:3 says Jesus is "the brightness of God's glory, and the exact image of His person". According to Heb. 10:5, animals sacrifices and offerings weren't able to satisfy the wrath of God, pay for sins, or redeem flesh and blood men. Then Jesus says in triumph. "A body hast Thou has prepared for Me."
And no words about how God loved us, forgave us, saved us would do it either. French poet, Mallarme said in an 1890 sonnet, "'The flesh is sad and I have read all the books.'" Faust, 100 years before, said, "'all the books are dust, not life'" (From Dawn to Decadence, 623). Us 21st century brooding, moody, emo types have nothing on the 19th or 18th century ones before us. Whether our angst is about existence or how we can know anything, better minds than ours have plowed this ground and found no relief in the books of men. So, the Word became flesh. Notice John doesn't say the Word became Man, that's not concrete enough for us who confess to look for the resurrection of dead bodies. Dead, decayed to dust bodies. Ancient creeds wanted to nail it down that the Word came to redeem this flesh and blood, right here. In our very flesh and blood, the battle was to be joined, fought, and won. So we confess that Jesus was born "from the virgin Mary" and we further explain in the Athanasian Creed that means "from the substance of the mother"' rather than simply through her (Horton, Christian Faith, 471-2).
To not only visit but to redeem our planet from the Sin, Death, and Devil destroying it, God the Word became flesh, and took up concrete residence among us. You've heard from me that "dwelt" is literally the Greek tabernacled, pitched a tent, or tented. From this you could think I meant a temporary residence, a flimsy dwelling, one that would eventually be taken down. My bad. The general meaning of the word is "'take up one's abode'" with the suggestion of a long or permanent dwelling. It doesn't suggest a temporary or transient one (Weinrich, I, 107-8). Then why use that word, right? It takes us back to the OT Church. God commanded a tabernacle, the noun for our Greek word in the OT, be pitched for Him to dwell with His people in the wilderness. He never commanded an immovable building of stone be built. The Lord pitched His tent among the shifting tents of His people and shared in the 40 years of chastisement He gave them for not trusting Him. Dwelt, tented, tabernacled goes back to OT Church and forward into Eternity. Rev. 7:15 says, "And He who sits on the throne will dwell [tent/tabernacle] among them." Rev. 21:3 says, "'The tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell [tabernacle/tent] with them" forever.
When Jor-el sends his son to earth, the vehicle is a spaceship. When God sends His Son, the vehicle is flesh and blood. You know what a big deal it is if a special person moves into your neighborhood? Imagine if Matthew McConaughey or Sandra Bullock, both Austin residents, were to move into your neighborhood! How about if just life-sized cutouts popped up in your local 7-11? Jesus moving into not just your neighborhood but your flesh is like the first. Let me illustrate: A brat of a girl terrorizes the children's Christmas program practice. She stomps up to the manger to proclaim it's just a doll. For the program, a real baby is used. The brat stomps up to the manger. But this time she stiffens, awestruck, then turns, eyes wide with wonder, and hurries back saying, "He's alive!" "Like ripples in a pond, the word passed from pew to pew all the way to the back of the sanctuary. 'He's alive...alive...alive'" (Best of Guideposts Christmas, 23-26).
Your God came down from heaven and lives in your flesh and ever lives there to intercede, to help, to forgive you all the things your conscience is afraid of, all the things you can't imagine be really, completely, forgiven for. Luther writing to wife Katy from the place he would die knowing she was worried about him said, "'Free me from your worries. I have a Caretaker who is better than you and all the angels; He lies in the cradle and rests on the virgin's bosom, and yet, nevertheless, He sits at the right hand of God, the almighty Father. Therefore be at peace'" (Brecht, Luther III, 373). That concrete enough for you? God in heaven is born today of flesh and blood to do for us concretely what only God can do: rescue us from living from "a light within" and a "mere frame of mind". A talk radio host said last week, "Someone has to say something concretely about the real dangers or not of Covid over all, so we don't all sit starring at the bottom of TV screen wondering, "Am I about to die?" No light that I can generate from within me does anything to dispel that darkness and the only frame of mind I can maintain is one of doubt, uncertainty, and haunting fear.
But our text dispells darkness and renews our minds. In the last of the 3 "and" clauses which must be read together like this: "AND the Word was made flesh, AND dwelt among us, AND we beheld His glory...full of grace and truth." That last one is made convoluted in most translations. It can be translated that the Word made Flesh's glory is "The Full Gift of the Truth [of God's glory]" (Weinrich, I, 113). Luther observed that "When God speaks in the langue of His majesty. Then no human can hear it and live. Christ as a Man speaks in a way that can be endured, and His voice is kind and full of love" (LW, 58, 140). Stop listening for the voice of God in the world whether from tornados plowing through the Midwest, government officials speaking from podiums, or the consensus you find repeated ad nauseum from whatever social media outlets your chose to go to. Only in Christ does God speak so you can hear and understand Him.
Outside of the flesh and blood Jesus which you touch in Baptism, which you hear in Absolution, which you eat and drink in Communion, you will only find the false gods of the world or the true God in majesty. Either way you're toast. The first destroys you from within with fear, doubt, or worry, the second destroys you from without as Zeus did Semele, his human lover. Hera, Zeus' goddess wife, is jealous and makes Semele doubt it's really Zeus coming to her. She induces her to ask Zeus "to come arrayed in all his splendors such as he wears in heaven". Zeus doesn't put on all his terrors but what is known as "his lesser panoply." He enters Semele's room. "Her mortal frame could not endure the splendors of the immortal radiance. She was consumed to ashes" (Bulfinch's Mythology, Crown Pub, 1979, p 160).
The glory of God that you see in Who Jesus is and What He does is that the Law which can always and only accuse you has been kept by Jesus in your place. The glory of God you are shown in the Person and Work of Jesus is that God took out all His wrath against sins and sinners, even you, especially you, on the Flesh and Blood Jesus. God is glorified when you laugh at the Death and Devil stalking you concretely by setting against them the concrete holy life and guilty death of Jesus in your flesh and blood. God is glorified by you daring to believe you partake of the Divine Nature through the Babe born of Mary in a concrete place, time, body and soul. 2 Peter 1:4 says, through "exceedingly great and precious promises,.. you may be partakers of the divine nature." Hear those promises: as many of you who have been baptized have put on Christ. Whosoever hears a faithful pastor hears the voice of Jesus. Listen to all the pundits, Youtubers, and CDC people you want. But know that none of them have been Called by God to speak to you for Him but me.
Finally, you partake of the Divine Nature by eating and drinking His Body and Blood in your space and time at this altar. "According to Luther, we are as close to the Lord in the physical and spiritual eating and drinking in Holy Communion as Mary was who bore Him, as the shepherds were, who beheld Him, as Simeon was, who carried Him in his arms" (In the Name of Jesus, 356). Historically Communion wafers have been embossed at Christmas with "a little Baby Jesus, tightly wrapped in swaddling clothes" (Mosebach, Heresy of Formlessness, 178).
You are not doomed to keeping this little light of yours shining. Sure as contemporary music first taught us in 1969 "it only takes a spark to get a fire going". But try to get even a spark of faith in this downpour of gloom and doom today. And you're not doomed to only having heaven in a right frame of mind. In 1954 English poet John Betjeman wrote a poem "Christmas" about getting caught up in the frills of Christmas. Here's the last verse: "No love that in a family dwells/ No caroling in frosty air,/ Nor all the steeple-shaking bells/ Can with this single Truth compare -That God was man in Palestine/ And lives today in Bread and Wine." Today we can paraphrase: No virus that on earth doth dwell/ Not much testing in sterile air/ Nor all the fear-mongering news/ Can with this single Truth compare: That God was Man in Palestine and lives today in Bread and Wine, concretely forgiving, blessing, and saving. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Christmas Day (20211225); John 1:14