Thursday, December 28, 2017

Glory, Angels, and Shepherds. . .

The sermon for the Eve of the  Nativity of Our Lord, December 24, 2017.

     The traditional announcement marks a different way of counting time and only heightens the distance between the way people saw things at the time of our Lord's birth and how we see things today.  The glory of God, the angels of the Lord, and the shepherds of old have all been transformed by our way of thinking.

    We approach things decidedly different than the people of old.  Remember when Moses saw the glory of the Lord and His face shown with brightness?  The people who saw him were not encouraged by what they saw, but fearful.  They told Moses that they would listen to Him but they wanting nothing to do with the Lord for if they heard the sound of His voice or saw His glory, they would surely die.

    It is the same with angels.  Just as we have tamed God and made Him into a unthreatening old man, so we have declawed the angels and made them into the stuff of myth and legend.  We like angels.  We not only want to see one, we want to be one, complete with wings and flowing blond hair.  Not so the people of old.  The angels were threatening to them and they were happy to keep their distance from them.

    In the Gospel for Christmas, we encounter shepherds.  These were not the romantic figures of our imaginations but common men without pedigree or education.  Their vocation meant long times away from family and home as well as soap and water.  They lived with their sheep, protecting them with their lives and guiding the stubborn critters to find food and water and safety from predators.

    But they all came together when the shepherds got to see both the angels and the glory of the Lord.  You may want to have seen the angels and the glory of the Lord but these shepherds were driven to fear.  The angels and the glory of the Lord was shocking to them.  Before they could hear the Word of the Lord about what took place in Bethlehem, they had to be calmed down.  “Fear not!  I am not here to scare you but to tell you good news for you and for all people.”

    We think of Christmas with fondness and joy.  We have rich memories of times spent with families of old, of presents given and received, of meals shared, and of holiday traditions that warm our hearts.  Not the shepherds.  They were filled with fear.  For the glory of God and the appearance of the angels exposed them and all the secret sins they had tried to keep hidden.  If God was near, there was no place to hide and if there was no place to hide, then they would be alone in their sin before God’s glory and the messengers of His terrible will.

    The angels had to calm them because their instinct was that God had come to judge and only the Holy Spirit could convince them that God had come to save them.  So the angel tells them the good news or Gospel.  And what is this Gospel?  It is not that God accepts you as you are or that you have nothing to worry about from God’s wrath or sin is no big deal or that as long as you are happy, God is happy.  No, the Gospel is radical.

    You will find the Lord in the flesh and blood of a baby, born of a Virgin, laid in a manger, wrapped in swaddling cloths, and here is Your Savior, the Messiah long promised of old.  God is no longer the God of the mountain tops or hidden in the heavens or far off.
God has come near, filled with grace and mercy, to redeem those who confess their sins and to save those who know they cannot fix the problem of that sin and its death.  The fearful and terrible God has come as He promised, in our own flesh and blood to suffer for our sins and die our death upon the cross, and to rise up and give to us everlasting life. 
    The fearful and terrible God whose glory and whose messengers caused the shepherds no little angst has come as Savior, Christ, the Lord.  He is Lord, the God through whom all things were made.  He is Lord who spoke to Adam and Eve of the Son who would saved them.  He is the Lord whom Moses saw upon the mountain top.  He is the Lord whom Israel followed through the wilderness and to the land of hope and promise.  He is the Lord who spoke through the prophets of what was to come.  He is the Lord who is now fulfilling that prophecy and that Word.

    He is the Messiah, the Christ, who is come to sit upon the throne of David forever and who will carry the burdens of our lost lives upon His own shoulders.  He is the King who rules by suffering for His people.  His Kingdom is not of this world but we meet that Kingdom in the world wherever His Word speaks and His sacraments are administered.

    He is the Savior who takes the sins from the guilty and declares them holy, who purchases those enslaved to sin not through silver or gold but with His holy and precious blood.  He is the triumphant warrior who fights our enemy the devil and wins for us not only the day but eternity.  He is the Savior gives what He has won freely to those who believe in Him.  He saves us not by compelling us but by grace, not by our own works or good behavior but by His own saving work upon the cross.

    The shepherds were right to be afraid.  Without Christ, God is terrifying and our sins are inescapable.  How can this be?  It was what the Virgin Mary uttered when the angel came to her to declare that she had found favor in the sight of God and would bear His own Son in her womb.  How can this be?  It is what the shepherds thought when they tried to reconcile the terror of a holy God with their guilty sins and when they tried to listen to angels they had learned to fear and when they encountered the glory of God in the darkness of the night.

    And it is our question today.  Though we are two thousand years removed from that night when angels sang and the glory of God was revealed, we are still in shock over just how radical this Gospel is.  The Gospel is not reasonable or rational.  It is not oriented toward our feelings or filled with sentiment.  It is about sin and the only place that sin is forgiven and about death and the only One who can release us from that death.  It is about the glory of the Lord and the surprise of grace that this glory is revealed not to condemn but to save us.

    It is troubling that Christmas has become so ordinary, so predictable, and so comfortable.  The shepherds were shocked by the angels, scared to death by the glory of God, and in awe of the God who was determined to become their Savior.  What about YOU?  The shepherds were left alone.  The angels went back into heaven.  The glory of the Lord  was in Bethlehem.  And they were left with a choice.  Do we go back home to the sheep or do we go to Bethlehem and see this things which the Lord has made known to us?

    And that is the question before you tonight and the question you face every Sunday morning.  How do we respond to what the Lord has done?  The shepherds went with haste to Bethlehem and found everything as the Lord had told them.  This is our Bethlehem.  The Word is the manger that holds Christ for us.  The Holy Communion is Christ incarnate in bread and wine for us to eat and drink.  And in that Word and Sacrament is the Gospel, the God who has become His people’s Savior.  In that Gospel is our redemption, our rebirth as new people created in Christ Jesus from a past defined by sin and death – for a future defined by forgiveness and new and everlasting life. 

    What does it say when Christ is greeted every week with a shrug of the shoulders or a question whether or not we feel like church?  What does it say that we prefer our old lives marked by sin to the radical new lives of holiness and righteousness He calls us to?  What does it say that we run after every new thing and treat the only thing really new as yesterday’s news – God come to earth to save us His people?  The glory of the Lord is His mercy.  The presence of the Lord is our hope. And the result of the Lord’s presence is rejoicing and peace.

    The shepherds glorified and praised God for what they had seen and heard.  Mary pondered all this in her heart.  Tonight we have the opportunity to do both.  As we sing the old carols and sing the familiar liturgy, we glorify and praise God as those who believe what He has said and done.  And every day we ponder anew this Gospel in our hearts as we live out the new lives He has given us, not for self but for the Lord, loving God by loving our neighbor.  But the one thing we cannot do is to go back home and live as though this story had not happened. 

Be not afraid.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.  O come let us worship Him.  Amen.


John Joseph Flanagan said...

Here is my recommendation to anyone who will listen, though few would agree or be willing to consider a major change in the way we celebrate the birth of Our Lord.
1. Christians should accurately celebrate Christmas in late September or October, the most likely time in which Our Lord was actually born in Bethlehem.
2. It should be celebrated as a Christian holiday entirely with the centrality of a worship service.
3. Let the worldlings keep Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red Nosed Rheindeer, drunken parties, elaborate overeating, and let them continue to max out their credit cards for trinkets, gadgets and toys. Let the worldlings have their black Friday's and the shallow satisfaction of instant gratification found in standing on line to accumulate mostly impractical things.
4. As in item 3 above, the world can keep December 25, as this date was a pagan day selected centuries ago to bring the pagans aboard the Christian train. It was not done to honor the Lord.
5. As for Resurrection Sunday.......well....let the world have the Easter bunny. The date of Easter is also wrong. The church should have gotten it right by now....don't you agree?

Anonymous said...

It has always amazed me how the gospel of the Incarnation becomes pedestrian even to the baptized. The new man needs exhortation and good preaching to help him out of the doldrums of spiritual stagnation. Luther was a kick-butt-and-take-names kind of a guy when it came to indolent Christians. But, I observe, if the Word is efficacious, it doesn’t have a very long shelf life before Christ is greeted with a shrug of the shoulders or a question whether we feel like attending church. Are we not properly drowning the Old Adam as we should or is it more a case of the seed falling on rocky ground or among thorns? There are so many things today tearing at our faith that it truly is miraculous that Christ continues to create it for those who will receive it.