Each Sunday when we confess the Creed we say, "I believe." At this time of year it seems like everyone believes. God's name is all over the place right now. The God-Man is all over the place. Manger scenes are on people's lawns. Your favorite singers are singing of Him on radio and TV. Editorials even speak about Him sometimes. There is almost a casual familiarity with God this time of year. Everyone seems to believe in Him. Do you think this is good? Is God pleased with the fact that at this time of year people do seem to believe? I don't think so. The explanation to all the commandments begins with, "We should FEAR and love God," not "We should BELIEVE and love God."
The devils certainly fear God; they fear to the point of trembling. James tells us the "the devils also believe, and they tremble." These beastly beings whom if you ever saw one you would probably die of fright don't just believe in God they tremble over Him. You can bet the name of God does not cross their lips without giving them pause. They don't sing the name of God casually in Christmas carols. They wouldn't decorate their lawns with God incarnate. That would be like us decorating our lawns with live power lines. They don't send each other Christmas cards about God. That would be like us exchanging cancer cards. No, demons tremble every time they see or hear His name. They take God seriously, not as if He were some Christmas ornament that they could take out and put back once a year.
And don't think that the devils only tremble at God the Father. No, they also tremble at God the Son. We know this from what happened the first time He came. A legion of demons, hundreds of them, capable of ripping real chains as easily as we do red and green Christmas ones, ran up to Jesus and begged Him not to torment them. They begged Jesus to leave them alone. They came running up to Jesus and fell on their knees and shoved their faces into the dirt not daring to look up. Demons believe all right, and they tremble.
We say that we believe. We say, "I believe in God the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth," but we tremble more at the officer pulling us over, the teacher monitoring the halls, or the doctor holding our test results, don't we? We wouldn't dare to let anyone of them hear us take their name in vain, or doubt their authority or power, but we aren't afraid of God who hears everything hearing us treat Him that way!
The same goes for God incarnate, Jesus Christ. We claim to do a whole lot of believing in Him, but where is our trembling? There used to be lots of it incorporated in the Divine Service. When the Church confessed in the Second Article of the Creed that Jesus humbled Himself in the incarnation by being "conceived by the Holy Sprit, born of the Virgin, suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, died and was buried," people were taught to bow their heads.
Luther use to tell the story of a man in Church who did not bow his head at this part of the Creed. The devil smacked him upside the head saying, "You fool! If God the Son had become flesh and blood for me, I certainly would bow my head." Yet, we think God becoming flesh and blood for us is natural. The way things are suppose to be. Just like at the end of every year Christmas is suppose to come, so God was suppose to become man and die.
The Church use to have many ways of expressing their trembling. One group when communing would hold out their hand saying what the centurion did, "I am not worthy O Lord to have you come under my roof." What do we do? We approach the Lord's Table as casually as we do buffet line! If at the presence of God in a burning bush Moses was told to take off his shoes for the ground was holy, how holy do you suppose the place is where God has deigned to put His body and blood? How much more worthy of trembling is this place?
Speaking of shoes reminds me of clothes. I'm tired of this nonsense that makes a virtue of dressing down for God. This pretentious nonsense that says, "I don't have to impress people on Sunday morning." Whoever was trying in the first place? Whose house is this any ways? Whose Table is this? Whose meal is it? Wouldn't you wear your best, whatever that might me, if you were going to the Governor's house? Wouldn't you wear your best, whatever that might be, if you were invited to eat with the Mayor or even just an important person? Then why do some dress better to go out on Saturday night then they do on Sunday morning? Why do people care what they look like when they come into the presence of sinful people and not give it a thought when they come into the presence of the holy God?
What? Am I saying that God cares whether you bow your head when saying the Creed? Am I saying that if you commune without stating your unworthiness you are sinning? Am I saying that there is a divine dress code prescribed by God for Church? No, I'm saying that believing God has actually come into the world and comes in the Divine Service should impact how we act. I mean the devils believe and they tremble...but - and this is an important thing to say - BUT the devils are not saved. Yes, though you groveled on the floor all service, though you believed yourself so unworthy you never came to Communion, though you dressed in the finest clothing, you would not be saved by such things.
St. Augustine distinguished between the faith of Christians and devils this way. "The Christian faith differs from the faith of the devils in the last article of the Creed: "I believe in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting."
The devils can and do believe that God the Father made the heavens and the earth. They do believe God the Son was conceived by the Holy Spirit. How else would God the Son whom they have known from the day they were created have gotten in the womb of the Virgin Mary? The devils believe God the Son suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and buried. They were there. They do believe He rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and will return to judge the living and the dead. But they don't believe in forgiveness, resurrection, or everlasting life in bliss. The devils believe and tremble, but they don't believe in the Gospel.
The devils can say, "I believe in God the Father, Maker of heaven and earth," but they cannot say the explanation of the First Article that we do in our Catechism. O they can say that God has made them and all creatures. They can even say that He has given men body and soul, eyes, ears and all their members their reason and all their senses. They can say the part about God providing man with clothing, shoes, food, drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals and all they have. They can even say that God defends men against all dangers and guards and protects them from all evil.
Where the demons stumble and fall is at that last paragraph. "All this [God] does only out of fatherly, divine, goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in [man]." And dear friends, this is where all unbelievers stumble and fall. This is where the Lodge stumbles and falls which talks loud and long about the Creator God. This is where all human reason stumbles and falls. Yes, there is a God who created and takes care of all things, but He doesn't do this ONLY out of fatherly, divine, goodness and mercy without any merit or worthiness in people.
Don't you realize what a startling statement that is? All of the world operates based on merit and worthiness. You have to merit a raise. Your talents have to be worthy to be on this or that team. The world speaks of what people deserve or have earned. Even in this supposed season of giving the ideas of merit and worthiness come into play. You have to be down and out enough in order to merit free presents for your kids. If you show up for a free holiday dinner or gift basket in too nice of a car or too good of clothes, everyone will know you are not worthy of them.
This idea of merit and worthiness extends to the world's Christmas story too. The Grinch is only worthy of our love because he does change. Rudolph can play in the reindeer games only after his bailing out Santa on one foggy Christmas Eve. Scrooge shows himself worthy of our love because he is so very nice to the Kratchet family. And it's a wonderful life for Jimmy Stewart because he is really such a nice guy.
The world doesn't tremble in awe and amazement at the Christmas story because they go right on by what is so awe inspiring and amazing. They go right on by the "for us" that Isaiah zeros in on. "For us a child is born. For us a Son is given." God comes into the world for sinners. For Grinches whose hearts are small. For Ruldophs who are never bright lights. For Scrooges who've killed Tiny Tims and for people who far from leading wonderful lives have lived horrible ones. Christ the Lord came into the womb for us who are sinful from our mother's womb. He came into a feeding trough for us who have lived focused on feeding our faces. He comes into flesh for us who do not tremble as we should at the flesh of God.
Step lightly here. Remove your shoes here for we are indeed on holy ground. Christmas has become ordinary, throughly American. It has been hijacked by Macey's, Wal-Mart, and the mall. Christmas has become the consumer's duty on behalf of the retailers of America, but for all that it is still Christmas. Jesus still comes FOR us men and FOR our salvation.
Even when people abbreviate it X-Mas. It is still about Christ, because Christians were the first to do that. They replaced the word Christ with the Chi the first letter of Christ in Greek which looks like an X. Even the simple name Christmas preaches to us of the true wonder of Christmas. Christmas combines two words that were originally separate Christ and Mass. Mass is the ancient word for the Holy Communion service. Christ Mass was the service celebrated on the day of His birth. Christmas, then refers to the meal where Christ is so much for us sinners that He is present to be eaten and drank by us. We eat what was given and shed FOR US on a cross called Calvary.
Friends, the devils tremble at God like we tremble at a downed power line. There is nothing in God for them but powerful judgment and damnation. Christians tremble at God being in flesh and blood for them as a great and mighty wonder. And they tremble as new fathers do when their first born is placed in their hands for the first time. They can't believe this is for them. Even though the whole world might think a child's birth is ordinary and everyday, the new father doesn't care. This is a mighty miracle and it's all for him. And Christmas is all for us sinners, and so we tremble both in awe and excitement at such an astonishing and gracious miracle even though the world and devils around us don't get it. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Midweek Advent 1 (12-6-00) First Article Creed