Rejoice at Christmas
December 25, 2011
Beloved in the Lord, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is Christmas Day, a time to be glad and celebrate the Holy Incarnation of Our Lord – for “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Indeed, we had been hoping for the coming of the Messiah, for the longest of time [Isaiah 9:6-7; Sigmund Mowinkel, He That Cometh (1951, 1954) pp. 17, 109]. And finally, when the time was right (Luke 2:6), Jesus was born of Mary – over 2000 years ago now. But each year, as our celebration of this day draws near, we still long for its coming. The tension builds and builds, and then finally we burst out and sing for joy with the angels of long ago (Luke 2:10-14)!
Born a Stranger
But will our songs of joy be right on this holiday – since we’re sinners who fail to do what we’re supposed to do (Romans 7:15-20) – brimming, as we are, with defilements from within (Mark 7:20-23)? No wonder then, that there are many ways to be happy, and many things to rejoice over (Psalms 4:7, 19:10, 62:10; 84:10). So how should we rejoice at Christmas? When we greet one another with MERRY CHRISTMAS, what should we mean by that?
Good question! But where should we go for an equally good answer? That Lutheran Dane from Copenhagen, Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), is a good source, since he cherished Christmas – seeing in it “the strongest expression for our being saved entirely by grace, [since] the Savior is a child [and so] there can be no talk at all about imitating [him]” [Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals & Papers, ed. Hong & Hong, 1:573]! And he probably learned this from Martin Luther (1483-1546) himself, who was to him the truest figure of all, next to Jesus (JP 3:2898)! And what Luther had to say was that God couldn’t have “demonstrated more pleasantly that he is gracious to all those who are lowly and despised on earth than by [Christ’s] lowly birth” (Luther’s Works 52:14).
So Kierkegaard begins his Christmas meditation in his last published book, Judge For Yourself! (1851-1852, 1876), stating that Jesus was born “unconditionally a stranger in the world,… where everything is actually a matter of alliance” (Kierkegaard’s Writings, 21:170) – being based on who you know. So the Christ child was “laid in a manger [where] if there was any alliance,” Kierkegaard famously adds, “it had to be with the horses” (KW 21:161)!
For Kierkegaard, then, “Christianity did not enter the world [at Christmas] as… human whimpering… to win many by scaling down [the faith]” (KW 21:208)! No, that would be to “seize every possible worldly enjoyment for oneself” (KW 21:168). Against this “nibbling away” at eternity (KW 21:157), Kierkegaard says:
No, in order to worship God properly and to have the proper joy from worshipping, a person must… strive [to] accumulate, and the more the better,… good deeds. And when he then takes them and deeply humbled before God see them transformed into something miserable and base – this is what it is to worship God – and this is a lifting up (KW 21:154).
What a complex and strange joy this is – being lifted up to God!
[For] I do not turn on my heels,… I do not allow what I become in the world to be the earnestness of life – no, I let the unconditioned requirement incessantly transform into worthless rags and wretchedness myself and what I have become – on the condition that I can still… be involved with you, O God (KW 21:167).
Otherwise our joy is phony and we would hog-tie our faith and
the unconditioned requirement becomes a Sunday ceremony, an entertainment put on by the pastors – and a person’s life otherwise continues in total security, unmoved by the wounding restlessness of the unconditioned requirement. This emaciates Christianity, creates a façade, converts Christianity into platitudes, which it least of all wants to be (KW 21:159)!
So God wants the “quiet hour on Sunday [to] alter the actual state of affairs on Monday,” that we serve him alone (KW 21:189, 151)!
This is true rejoicing at Christmas. It isn’t self-indulgent joy, that tries to “defend and explain away one’s own contemptibleness and mediocrity” (KW 21:157), but the transformative joy that glorifies God for the Savior Jesus and admits that without him we are nothing – even though that seems to turn Jesus into “a much more terrible robber” than Barabbas himself (Matthew 27:21), since Jesus levels “his assault upon the whole human race and upon what it means to be a human…!” (KW 21:177). But without that assault, Kierkegaard says our Christmas joy would be shamefully reduced to the “unholy sentimentality of peanut-brittle” (Journals 1:568)!
Even so, we can’t on our own, rejoice as we should. For “no one” can fulfill this calling, and so, “says the Gospel, that is precisely why I proclaim an Atonement” (KW 21:152)! So Jesus born this day, sent by the Father to save us, has come to die for us – which is his atoning sacrifice (1 John 4:10). Therefore he offers up his life as a sacrifice to God (Luke 23:46), to free us from having to be punished for all of eternity for the sins we have committed (1 Peter 2:24; Romans 8:3). And that’s because while God sends his son out of love (John 3:16), if we don’t believe in him and follow him, his wrath will rest on us, all the more heavily (John 3:36).
This dialectic between divine love and hatred offends many. But Luther says we instead should “distinguish between God and God” (LW 12:321). What an idea! And Kierkegaard mulls it over, meditating on what he calls “divine sublimity” (Journals 3:2442):
Christianity is the combat of divine passion with itself, so that in a sense we human beings disappear like ants (although it still is infinite love for us) (Journals 1:532).
The joy from this combat is what’s promised at Christmas – “God and sinners reconciled,” as we sing [Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) hymn 60]! So it’s not about being happy-go-lucky (contra John 16:33) or making the world a paradise (contra Genesis 3:24). No, it’s about Christ alone – since “our sins can be expiated only by a price commensurate with the God they offend” [Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. J. Lenker (1988) 6:181]. So Luther concludes:
The Son… is my Savior; and if you… believe it in your heart, then your heart will be filled with assurance and joy and confidence, and you will not worry much about the… best that this world has to offer (LW 51:215).
Say yes, then, to this heavenly message – do not fault it as some ridiculous mythology. And watch out, as Kierkegaard warned, for “if you do not become unconditionally joyful in this relationship, then the fault lies unconditionally in you” (KW 18:43)! Or as Luther says eight years earlier in another of his Christmas sermons:
The lesson is just like the sun: in a placid pond it can be seen clearly and warms the water powerfully, but in a rushing current it cannot be seen as well nor can it warm up the water as much. So if you wish to be illumined and warmed here, to see God’s mercy and wondrous deeds, so that your heart is filled with fire and light and becomes reverent and joyous, then go to where you may be still and impress the picture deep into your heart (LW 52:8-9).
Quit stirring up the waters of your hearts, then, and rejoice. Do so by receiving the Lord’s Supper today, for in it the Lord gives you something material to “cling” to [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 440]. And so Kierkegaard sings of it:
O safe hiding place for the sinner! O blessed hiding place, especially after first having learned what it means when the conscience accuses, and the law judges, and justice punitively pursues, and then, exhausted to the point of despair, to find rest in the only hiding place that is to be found…. Only Jesus Christ can do that; [for] he gives you himself…. at the Communion table (KW 18:186-187).
The Only Savior
Then, finally, also be “zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:14) by inculcating Acts 4:12 about salvation coming through no other name than that of Jesus Christ. Of late this teaching has come under attack (The Myth of Christian Uniqueness, ed. J Hick & P. Knitter, 1987). Prestigious Christian scholars say that Acts 4:12 isn’t about eternal salvation, but only about physical healings [Christ’s Lordship & Religious Pluralism (1981) pp. 11-15]. But this can’t be right since it says that healings come from our faith in Christ (Acts 3:6-8, 16, 4:2, 10, 16-22). So there’s no wedge here. And the Lutheran Confessions say the same (BC p. 292). And so Kierkegaard adds that Acts 4:12, “compared with all earthly goods, is solid and unshaken like a mountain, and similarly… elevated like a mountain over the low-lying regions” (KW 17:222).
May we then be equally unshaken and elevated mountains in our defense of Acts 4:12 – letting our strange and unpopular view be part of the meaning of our greeting: MERRY CHRISTMAS. Amen.