CHRISTMAS EVE, 2017

SCRIPTURES – Isaiah 7:10-14; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:1-20 

Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory. 1 Tim. 3:16

 

“Great indeed is the mystery!” begins our reading from 1 Timothy. It is a very fitting reading for this night. After all, the mystery of Christmas is often a focus of songs and TV shows and movies, and especially when they focus upon children. Great is their joy and wonder! But, the word mystery – at least, as the Bible uses it – refers to something deeper than a child’s wonder. It doesn’t mean something that is intangible and perhaps a bit mythological, and “spiritual” – today’s term – doesn’t capture it. The mystery of Christmas – of the birth of Jesus – is not at all intangible or mythological. It is rooted in historical people, such as Caesar Augustus and shepherds, and actual places like Bethlehem. It is through them that God confronts us with His mystery.

The mystery of this night is that, by a common and even rather lowly event, God is sending a message that is intended to change the world! To change you and me. And it has done so. Christmas is celebrated around the world! This is amazing, considering the lowly way in which He conveyed the message.

Now, the way God first conveyed it was not at all lowly. “An angel of the Lord appeared to [the shepherds], and the glory of the Lord shone around them,” Luke tells us. Just imagine the night sky lighting up and an angel shining brilliantly before you! Awesome! And, he had an awesome message: “to you is born a Savior who is the Messiah, Yahweh Himself!” Incredible! This news had been yearned for since Isaiah had announced over 700 years before, “to us a Child is born, to us a Son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Now, finally, that child had come! And yet, the news is given to shepherds.

Ø  Men who were not well-educated; men who were very common, and were even looked down upon by many in their society. Especially the religiously devout and the religious leaders in Israel looked down on them, for their work required them to stay with the sheep and so miss services in the synagogue and temple.

Think of the shepherds as the Dept. of Public Works employees of their day, fixing your roads at night and collecting your trash in the early morning – and using crude language and telling off-color jokes while doing so. God decides to send His world-changing message… to them! There’s mystery. There’s foolishness! They seemed rather poor wrapping paper for God’s great gift. Who would take them seriously and listen to them?

And then, there was the gift itself: a baby. Now, speaking as one who’s going to be a grandfather in the spring, I think that’s a wonderful gift! And, indeed, He is. This baby Jesus is, according to the angel, none other than God Himself: Yahweh, the God who revealed Himself to Moses in a burning bush and sent him to Egypt; who revealed the impotence and falsity of the gods of Egypt through mighty judgments such as turning the Nile River into blood; who, as a visible and terrifying pillar of cloud and fire, led Israel out of Egypt and destroyed its mighty army. The true and almighty and holy God… is born, says the angel; is flesh and blood! – just as Isaiah had prophesied.

Yet He comes in such weakness and lowliness. A helpless baby, and born to a lowly family. Joseph and Mary were not only Jews who lived in poverty; they were Galileans! They lived in a predominantly Gentile region that the most pious and God-fearing in Israel avoided! Galileans were like back-woods folks from Arkansas compared to cultured NYC area people. This is a mystery: that the almighty and eternal God would come to us, not only in our flesh, but in such lowly flesh.

That’s not the greatest mystery, however. The greatest mystery is that this poor baby who was wrapped tightly with strips of cloth and laid in a manger made of stone would 33 years later be taken down from a cross upon which He had been crucified, wrapped in linen cloth, and laid in a tomb cut out of stone. He saves us, not by doing mighty deeds and destroying powerful enemies, but by bearing our sins in His own flesh and dying a criminal’s death – the death we sinners deserve – for them.

This Jesus, this gift of God is a mystery, and the way God tells us of Him is also a mystery. You can see the person and hear of the places and people and events, but still not know Him. God’s salvation in Jesus is beyond your intellect. He does not act in ways that make sense to you and please you. God did that which was contrary to our reason when He sent His Son; and He continues to work in this way. To receive Jesus as your Savior and to rejoice in His salvation – in your salvation – you must deny yourself. You must turn away from how you think God must work and from what pleases you, and simply listen to and believe and trust in God. You must listen to and believe the shepherds who bring you God’s news. You must run to where Your Savior is laid and offered to you. Only then will you know, and become part of, the mystery.

Christmas reveals that God works in opposition to how we work and contrary to how we think. Jesus’ birth was not revealed to brilliant philosophers, or the wise and learned, or even to well-respected leaders. The angels were sent to lowly shepherds. They didn’t question and argue among themselves as to how God could have been born among them as a weak and lowly infant. They simply believed… and ran to see Him and worship Him… and told others all that they had heard and seen… and then went back to their flocks, filled with joy. In them we see this truth: God opposes the proud, but gives His grace to the humble.

Rejoice in this Savior and run to where He is laid and offered to you. Then, go tell of Him… and don’t worry about it. It’s God’s message, after all, and not yours. Oh, we focus on ourselves and how we’ll be received. “Will I say the right thing? What will people think of me?” Some parts of the message embarrass us because they are so contrary to how people think, especially the more cultured and intellectual. We’re tempted to avoid those parts, or clean them up.

Those lowly shepherds: let them be your guide. They didn’t seem to care what people would think of them. They just went around and told everyone they ran into of all that they had heard and seen! And through them God Himself was at work, revealing His mystery. Revealing His Son. He will do the same through you. Trust Him!

Trust Him. That’s the message and the mystery of Christmas. It’s far beyond presents and bright lights and holding candles in a darkened church while singing “Silent Night.” It’s hearing the angel’s message, to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord!” and believing he’s speaking to you. It’s rejoicing in your God. It’s keeping all these things and pondering them in your heart.

"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill to men!” Through Jesus Christ, the “Wonderful Counselor, [the] Mighty God, [the] Everlasting Father, [the] Prince of Peace” who was born for us. Amen.