Sermon 5  


Go to Bethlehem

Luke 2:15

December 25, 2007


Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.

      Today is Christmas and we are filled with joy because we have heard again the good news of great joy that the angels gave to the shepherds long ago in Bethlehem . And so today we’ll also go there (Luke 2:15) to see this glorious savior, Christ Jesus our Lord.


Christmas Tinsel

But there isn’t much around us or even within us to support this metaphorical trip to Bethlehem . Our Christmas environment goes against our spiritual journey to Bethlehem to behold and glorify the savior of the world. For we are all tangled up in our thoughts and feelings – and culture – with all sorts of Christmas tree tinsel and other superficialities – something Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) called the “the enchantment of illusion and deformed transmogrification” of “fallen” Christianity (Kierkegaard’s Writings 16:200). Martin Luther called this fallen faith a “cold, indolent [lasse] Christianity” [Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. N. Lenker (1909, 1988) 7:155]. At Christmastide our mouths are stuffed with candy and cookies. Our bellies are filled with hot-buttered rum and spiked eggnog (see Philippians 3:19). And so, even though there have always been people for whom Christmas was


a time of pious devotion rather than a carnival,… such people were always in the minority. It may not be going too far to say that Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize [Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas (1996) p. 8].


      This is because during Christmas we go the way of the fool in Luke 12:19-20 and say to ourselves, “take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.” We do this rather than “counting the cost” of a life of sacrifice and discipleship with Jesus (Luke 14:28) – which includes denying ourselves and suffering daily (Luke 9:23). Even Myles Davis in his 1962 song, “Blue Christmas,” notes this:


See right through all the waste, all the sham,

all the haste, and plain old bad taste… It’s a

time when the greedy give a dime to the needy.


      So in order to go to Bethlehem we must first leave the trivialities of life (see Sandra Tsing Loh, Depth Takes a Holiday: Essays From Lesser Los Angeles, 1996). “Turn from… vain things” (Acts 14:15). Turn your eyes “from looking at vanities” (Psalm 119:37; KW 19:3). Our trip to Bethlehem requires this prior renunciation. So in our confessions, Lutherans teach that if we are to be drawn to God [attrahere], he must first “turn us away from [abstrahere] everything else” [The Book of Concord (1580) ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 366]. Our trip then to Bethlehem begins in pain – something our secular Christmas culture has no interest in helping us explain, present or promote.


To Show God’s Love Aright

So against these frivolities welling up at Christmastide (see Ephesians 5:4), we pit another message – one grounded elsewhere, in the Bible itself. This message heralds Jesus, that “illegitimate child,” who comes “without genealogy” (Hebrews 7:3), “an alien, outside society” (KW 21:160-61). This makes him the neglected one, the disrespected one. The Staple Singers, of all people, sing about this Biblical child in their 1970 pop song, “Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas”:


People all over the world,…. too busy

Having fun, drinking with everyone,

Showing no respect for Mary’s baby son.


      No, this alien savior doesn’t come for merriment or light-heartedness. Oh no, Mary bore him for entirely other reasons. This is well expressed in the beloved Christmas carol, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” [Service Book and Hymnal (1958) Hymn 38]:


To show God’s love aright,

She bore to men a Savior,

When half spent was the night.


So Jesus comes to shed light in our darkness. That is, he comes to straighten out the way we think about divine love – making sure we see it “aright,” as it were. And the right way to see it is to note that it rests on the sacrifice of God’s dear Son, Christ Jesus (1 John 4:10) – the very “lamb of God” (John 1:29). Therefore we can’t depend on some sort of generic divine love to get us through this life and on into the next. No, not at all. So we Lutherans teach that it is only because Christ died on the cross that “satisfaction” is made and that our debt to God is paid, so that we might be “restored… to the Father’s favor and grace” (BC p. 414). And this, we go on to say, is “the chief doctrine of the Christian faith,” that “in the same Person, Jesus Christ,” righteousness and sin


collide with… a powerful impact. Thus the sin of the entire world attacks righteousness with the greatest possible impact and fury…. In this duel… it is necessary for sin to be conquered and killed, and for righteousness to prevail and live…. [So in Christ] you see sin, death, the wrath of God, hell, the devil, and all evils… put to death…. Because [Jesus] took upon Himself our sins… it was right for Him to bear the punishment and wrath of God…. It is above all for this doctrine… that we bear the hate and persecution of Satan and of the world (Luther’s Works 26:281-85).


      So if this sacrificial death, with its power to appease God’s wrath, is neglected in any way, then all that will be left of Christianity is “scarcely half of Christ…. [For] the wrath of God is real, not imaginary…. Were it false, mercy would be false…. [For] when genuine wrath is at its highest, so is genuine mercy” (LW 28:264).


Virginally Conceived

But if Jesus, the eternal divine Word and holy second person of the Blessed Trinity, had not become flesh (John 1:14), none of this would have happened. His sacrifice would have been impossible. For without the incarnation there would be no body to pierce with nails and spear (John 19:34, 20:25; Romans 8:3; Hebrews 10:10; 1 Peter 2:24). And without that body, no blood would have been spilt to save us from our sins (Romans 5:9; Ephesians 1:7; Hebrews 9:22; 1 Peter 1:18-19; Revelation 5:9). So the beloved St. Athanasius (298-373), taught early on that Christ was “appointed” to take on a body in order to “surrender” it on the Cross, and thereby “offer it to the Father” as a sacrifice for sin [On the Incarnation, trans. P. Lawson (1946, 1981) p. 14]. So while the incarnation alone can’t save us – by supposedly ending the hostility between the human and the divine by perfectly joining these two natures together in Christ [Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (1986) p. 98], it nevertheless is essential for our salvation.

      And that’s because this blood wasn’t ordinary (1 Peter 1:19). Besides being human, it was also fully divine, albeit incarnate (John 5:18, 10:30; Colossians 2:9; Hebrews 4:15) – which is why it could cover the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). And it was holy blood because Jesus was virginally conceived (Luke 1:34-35; Matthew 1:20) – not by some holy coitus [contra the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Revised Edition (1999) §485, regarding Mary being “divinely fecundated”] but simply by Mary believing Gabriel’s word, “You shall conceive” (Luke 1:31) (LW 36:341, 37:89-90). This odd sort of conception signals that Jesus comes from above (John 1:1, 14, 5:26, 16:5, 28, 17:5, 24), that he is divine, and not some ordinary human who had never lived before being born of Mary. No, he is instead the pre-existent Word who, already existing, becomes incarnate when born of Mary.

      And we shouldn’t either balk at this weird conception. We should instead honor it because it isn’t “necessarily unreasonable just because it seems unreasonable” to us, remembering that “God is… far beyond all reason” (LW 36:343; Isaiah 55:8; 1 Corinthians 2:4). Unlike us, God is able to do “whatever he pleases” (Psalm 115:3), whether it lines up with our view of what’s possible or not (LW 44:275). Even Herod couldn’t stop this birth, though he was able to force an enrollment (Luke 2:1). Jesus simply was born  when “the time came” (Luke 2:6)! So believe in Jesus’ virgin birth, knowing that this “inscrutability” (Romans 11:33) is a bona fide part of it. And also do so, knowing that “a sinless birth was impossible except through the instrumentality of a virgin woman who was able to conceive… without the aid of man” (SML 6:249).


With the Barn Animals

And this inscrutability is also part of the reason why Jesus was born with no fanfare. Denied this sort of worldly celebration, he’s pushed off into a barn (Luke 2:7) – where the only real “alliance” he has is “with the horses” (KW 21:161)! This happens because he’s just too unlike the world to be endorsed by it (John 1:10-11, 3:19, 32, 7:7, 15:18; 1 John 2:15). This worldly chiding, then,


immediately… distinguishes sharply between his kingdom and the world’s…. [He’s born] in a strange locality where he has no home, in cold winter,… in a place and at a time when he is totally forsaken by everyone and without the usual necessities…. Miserable were the circumstances, with a world more hostile and loveless towards this King than to lions and bears [Luther’s House Postils, ed. E. Klug (1996) 1:100-101].


      But Jesus doesn’t care. There are no Christmas lamentations for this social, political, cultural slight. All we hear instead are exaltations of peace and glory (Luke 2:14). This is because Jesus


does not stand in awe of the world…. He conducts himself over against the world…. as a poor beggar who has come to earth to declare that he is no worldly king,… but that his kingdom belongs to another world and life…. Christ has not come to earth in order to seize power from Caesar Augustus…. The ultimate end of the church is not peace and comfort on earth, nice homes, wealth, power and honor, but…. to proclaim the treasure for trouble and anguished consciences which Christ has earned,… namely, the forgiveness of sins and everlasting peace (LHP 1:101-103).


      So it would be a misfire to rail against Christmas because “mistletoe doesn’t work” when you’re trying for “a little kiss from a pretty little miss” (Sonics, “Don’t Believe in Christmas,” 1965)! For Christ, the light of the world, shines in the darkness and the darkness doesn’t “overcome it” (John 1:5) – but neither does the light completely eradicate the world’s darkness (John 12:35).


Three Unlikely Signs

No wonder, then, that the meager “swaddling cloths” (Luke 2:12) are a sign of this king’s presence on earth. But they stand for more than darkness and neglect. They also stand for the Bible which is the only “witness on earth to Christian truth” (LW 52:21) – even though the worldly regard it as but “God’s poor candle” (LW 47:117). This is because the cynics limit the Bible and restrict it to, or “enclose” it in, quaint reports from the cultural past, thereby refusing to see in it any trans-cultural or global, “ultimate answers” [Jacques Ellul, The Humilation of the Word (1985) p. 32].

      And this leads to the second sign – that he will be a “sign that is spoken against” (Luke 2:34 and my “Christ as a Sign of Contradiction,” Pro Ecclesia, Fall 1997). The reason for this is not just to beat-up on Christ, but that “the thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:35). So when we attack Christ for his stridency (Matthew 7:14) and exclusivity (Matthew 11:27), it’s exposed that we “love the darkness rather than the light” (John 3:19). For if you’re an unrepentant sinner, you’ll go against Christ. This is because his way of salvation “must suppress and cast out the salvation, peace, life, and grace of the flesh…. that the spirit… may come to life” (LW 14:335). And this we intensely deplore.

      Because we’re “hardened” by the deceitfulness of our sin (Hebrews 3:13), we have this last sign, the “sign of Jonah,” which Jesus says is all that our wicked generation deserves (Luke 11:29-32). Through it we learn that the unrepentant are condemned and that no slack is cut for us. So while there’s kindness is Christ, be warned, there’s “severity” and “fury” too (Romans 11:22, 2:4-8).


Forced Into Egypt

Against this uncompromising integrity of Christ, Herod rears his ugly head, drives the newborn Christ from Israel and into Egypt , killing thousands of little children along the way (Matthew 2:13-16). God rescues Jesus from this bloodbath, but not the many thousand innocent victims! Why not? On this odd, singularity – matched only at Christmas by the virginal conception itself – Luther preached in 1541 that “this is how the life of our Lord Jesus commenced, with the devil appearing soon on the scene to foment… grief.” But Jesus soon sees that he actually gained by it,


for the children were taken out of this world… into heaven…. By his butchery…. Herod tore the little children from the mothers’ bosoms…. [which] for the parents was a terrible thing, but it happened for the eventual good of the children; they felt no anguish in their souls. So the Lord took them away at the time of his own advent into the world, as a sweet-smelling sacrifice to himself. Thus much good would yet come from Herod’s murdering (LHP 3:260).


      And so it did. Following in their very path, Jesus himself was brutalized and killed – but this time for our salvation (Romans 4:25).


Far as the Curse is Found

So Christ comes into a world teeming with wickedness – a world in which we cannot save ourselves (Romans 7:24; Psalm 49:7). This is because of the “curse” upon us from our ancestral disobedience (Genesis 3:14-19). But Jesus doesn’t prance around in all his divine glory here. No, he instead assumes “sinful flesh” (Romans 8:3). And by so doing he becomes a “curse” to save us from the curse of our punishment (Galatians 3:13; 4:4-5). And so we sing in the favorite Christmas carol, “Joy to the World,” that Jesus comes to make “his blessings flow far as the curse is found” [Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) Hymn 39].

      Yes, indeed, “far as the curse is found”! For this is the glory of Christmas, and in this blessing we get exactly what we so desperately need – salvation from our ancient, abiding and terrifying curse (Luke 16:28). And this Christ can now provide on the Cross, “for what we deserved – to be cursed and damned – He underwent and paid for us” (LW 26:261). He was born in the flesh so he could be crucified in the flesh and save us from the condemnation of the flesh (Romans 8:3). No one else could do this for us. So feeling our desperate need for this salvation from God alone “is the only way in which a person can truly love God” (KW 17:188).


Beauty & Belligerence

But Christmas includes more than giving thanks and singing Christmas carols. It also includes good works in Jesus’ name (Colossians 3:17; Titus 2:14). “So then, as we have opportunity,” let us do good works (Galatians 6:10). By so doing we can work to move our cultural Christmas beyond what Charles Dickens called “the delusions of our childish days” [The Pickwick Papers (1837) ed. M. Worwald (1999) p. 361]. And we can also show that Jesus’ birth is to lead us into rebirth (John 3:3-6; 2 Corinthians 5:14-17).

      Here, then, are two good deeds to do during Christmastide. The first is in Psalm 96:8-9,


Ascribe to the Lord… honor; bring offerings and come into his courts. Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, let the whole earth tremble before him.


      So see to it that churches are beautiful and awesome. Give money to them to pay for it – as the magi of old did (Matthew 2:11). Lay your gold before the Christ child – rather than giving it to the poor in his name. Don’t cut corners. Don’t skimp on altar vessels, vestments, windows and pipe organs. Let there be grandeur in God’s house that we might tremble before his Word – being put in our place by the architectural and artist majesty of it all (Ezekiel 43:10). And call on God to help you with this offering, since we can do nothing without him (John 15:5). Not even the magi from the East gave their gold without the miracle of the star leading them (Matthew 2:2, 7, 9, 10). That guidance, however, gives no astrological value to the star, which, if taken, would only amount to indulging in “idle quackery,” as Luther said (LW 52:169).

            And the other good work is prescribed in Psalm 96:3,5, 10,


Declare the glory of the Lord among the nations…. As for all the gods of the nations, they are but idols; but it is the Lord who made the heavens…. Tell it out among the nations, “The Lord is king!”


      This means that Christmas is a time for evangelism – so get out the good news in all of its righteous purity. Don’t water it down in hopes of larger gains. Let the hard truth be known that all other ways are false – as belligerent as that may sound (1 Kings 18:19, 40; Matthew 3:12). Let it be known that only Christ is Lord (Acts 4:12). Tell everyone about it – calling on God for help, that he would fill your words with needed insight and compassion. Amen.


(based on a compilation of Christmas sermons from 1997-2007)