St. Augustine lived about 400 AD. He complained in a Christmas sermon about those who came to the equivalent of our Christmas Eve service saying “even those who find the word of God burdensome were with us to celebrate the festivities usual on that day.” He went on to say, “But now, I suppose, only such have come here as desire to hear a sermon. We are not, therefore, speaking to ears that are deaf, nor to minds that are bored.” I'm making this same assumption today, and so I'm going to tackle the cliches of Christmas that are near and dear to the crowds this time of year but really ought to be done away with.
The first is the pious poem that goes: “Though Christ in Bethlehem/ A thousand times were born,/ Unless He's born in thee/ He was never born at all.” This poem is based on the words of an 18th century Catholic mystic. It sounds so pious to say that though Christ were born a thousand times in Bethlehem it doesn't matter unless He's born in you, but true Christianity asserts the direct opposite. Even if Christ were born a 1,000 times in your heart, it would not matter or save you unless He had first been born in Bethlehem.
The Christian faith, Christian truth is rooted, grounded in history. Our creeds date the suffering of Christ as being “under Pontius Pilate,” a real Roman ruler whose reign can be dated historically. The Words of Institution passed down by St. Paul root the last will and testament of our Lord on a date in history: “On the night He was betrayed.” St. Luke goes to great lengths to let you know he spoke to eyewitnesses of events. He dates those events in the way historians of his time did. St Peter says that we have not followed cleverly devised myths, and St. Paul says the saving events of Christ's life were not done in a corner but in real time and space.
Think about Dec. 7, 1941, Nov. 22, 1963, Jan. 26, 1986, or Sept. 11, 2001. Do those dates need to be believed by you to be real for you? Not at all. They happened whether or not you believe in them. They impact your life whether you believe they happened or not. If fact, they impact your life whether or not you were born when they happened. Today is that kind of date. Christ was born today. Your believing it does not make it true. Your unbelief does not make it untrue. Whether you feel in the Christmas spirit or not does not diminish the reality that God took on flesh and blood today. Whether or not you have joy in the world does not detract from the real world, real time fact that joy came to the world today. Whether you have a “good Christmas” or not does not take away from the fact that Christ was born of Mary today and good Christian men and women can rejoice over it.
And that brings up another cliche of Christmas. “Christmas is Jesus' birthday.” Of course Jesus was born of Mary today, and frankly with young children, I can't see any other way of answering the question of what today is other than by saying, “Today is Jesus' birthday.” But if this is a high as your thoughts go, they are not high enough. If you think you ought to have a birthday party for Jesus and give gifts to baby Jesus, you're missing the point. And I can summarize the point you're missing simply by saying: He who has no birthday, took one today.
The eternal God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who dwells in light that can't even be approached and is in essence a fire that consumes everything close to it, the eternal God who no man has seen at anytime, reveals Himself to us today in flesh and blood. Today we celebrate the fact “that all the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily in Christ” as Paul says in Colossians. We celebrate not the birthday of someone who didn't exist before today, but the incarnation, the taking on of flesh and blood by God the Son who has always existed with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit.
We celebrate today what the devil cannot do. As powerful as the devil is he can't become flesh and flood. He can dwell in flesh and blood as he does in the demon possessed but He can't become flesh and blood. Luther said the manger and the altar, Jesus in flesh and blood and Jesus in Bread and Wine confront the devil with what he is unable to do, and for that reason the devil hates both the incarnation and Communion.
Luther repeatedly told this story of the devil being in church. When the congregation said in the Creed, “And He was made man,” one of the people did not bow his head as was customary. The devil promptly struck him on the head saying, “You gross knave...If God's Son had become my Brother as He has become yours, I would certainly be bowing my head.” You see, you celebrate a birthday, but you bow before an incarnation. You rejoice with someone who has a birthday, but you kneel before the God who took on a birthday by taking on your flesh and blood to redeem you.
First the cliche that Jesus being born in us is more important than Jesus being born in Bethlehem falls to the ground shattering like a glass Christmas ornament; then the cliche that Christmas is Jesus' birthday falls and breaks. But the biggest one is yet to be tackled. “Jesus is the reason for the season.” This cliche which you can find on Christmas cards, lapel pins, coffee mugs and t-shirts is a well intentioned attempt to keep Christ in Christmas. However, it is just plain wrong. Jesus is not the reason for the season. We are the reason for this season. What do we say in the Nicene Creed about our Lord Jesus Christ? He is the One “who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary and was made Man.” We, you and me, all men, women and children, are the reason for this season. That's what we plainly say in the Nicene Creed.
And this is what Scripture plainly says. Isaiah 9: “For us a Child is born; for us a Son is given.” Luke 2, “For you is born this day in the city of David a Savior which is Christ the Lord,” said the angel to the shepherds. Christmas is about us. It was us who were lost creatures condemned by God to be separated from Him for all time and eternity by our sinfulness and are many sins. It was us who were suffering under life's heavy load before pitiless sin, death, and the devil. It was us who had no claim to eternal life and no claim to earthly life for that matter. It was us whose daily sins mounted up higher and higher till all the world could not contain them.
We are the reason God the Father sent God the Son into flesh and blood. The divide was between God and mankind. In order to reconcile God and mankind both sides had to be reached. A Savior who was not quite God could not reconcile God to man, but a Savior who was not quite man could not reconcile man to God. Furthermore, it was laws given to man not to God that had to be kept, but even perfect man, Adam and Eve, had been unable to keep these laws. Then too the punishment God had decreed for breaking those laws was death, but how could God the Son who is Life itself die? God the Son could no more cease to live than He could cease to love. Living and loving belong to the essence of God. If He should cease to do either, He would cease to be God.
Can you see the dilemma? God the Father wanted to go on loving us fallen sinners, but how could He do it in the face of unkept laws and unpaid sins? How could He keep the law in our place when He was subject to no laws? And how could He pay for our not keeping His laws? How could God suffer, shed blood, and die to pay for and remove sins as His own law demanded? In order to bridge the entire gap between Himself and mankind, God sent forth His Son, of the same essence as He Himself was, to be born of a woman who was of the same essence as us. He was born under the Law to redeem us who were under it. God the Son descended into our dust, to raise our dust into heaven. That's how St. Ambrose put it.
But pious thoughts often take away from this wonderful truth by not having God the Son descend far enough into our dust, and by making it sound easy for God the Son to become a man, as if Christmas is a benefit to Jesus too, as if Jesus is the reason for the season. That's the sort of notion behind the beautiful Christmas carol “Away in a Manger.” It has the cattle lowing and the baby awaking, “But little Lord Jesus no crying He makes.” Then there is “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” which has the ox and donkey bowing before Jesus in the manger. And “Silent Night” has “radiant beams from” His holy face. Finally, there is an old spiritual that sings, “There are flies on me,/ There's flies on you,/ But there ain't no flies on Jesus.”
Yes, there were flies on Jesus. In the warm stable air, they survived in winter, and landed on the new born baby Jesus. There were more than flies on Jesus. There were your sins, your shames, your guilty conscience, and your lustful heart. It was all there on Jesus. He was a king but He wasn't born a king. He was God but He wasn't born in a divine way, but in the usual, painful, traumatic way. There were plenty of flies on Jesus so that when you die and the flies descend on you all that they can carry away is bits and pieces of your earthly remains. Your redeemed, forgiven, cleansed soul goes straight to Jesus carried there not by dirty flies but by holy angels.
You're the reason for this season. Your sins are the reason God needed to become man to redeem you. God's love for you even in your fallen, lost state is the reason God the Son was willing to come into your flesh where not just flies, but sin, death and the devil could attack Him. And He came in a real, historical, objective way. Your Savior is born today, but it's not His birthday. It's the day the eternal Son of God took on a birthday. Yes, we are the reason for this season, but the reason we celebrate is Jesus. He has come in our flesh and blood to do what our flesh and blood could never do, keep the Law perfectly, and pay what our flesh and blood could never afford, the full price for our forgiveness. And all this brings out yet one more cliche: “O come let us adore Him.” To which I can only say: Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Christmas Day (12-25-03); John 1:1-14