December 24, 2016
What are you scared of? Everyone's afraid of something, right? From itsy bitsy spiders to painful divorce, everyone has something they are terrified of. I had a moment of panic recently when I saw on the news that a terrorist drove a semi-truck into a Christmas market in Berlin, Germany killing a dozen people and injuring dozens more. My brother lives in Berlin with his wife and baby son. Just the off chance of them shopping at that particular market when the truck came barreling through the crowd of holiday shoppers dug a pit in my stomach. (God be thanked my brother and family are safe. Lord have mercy on those unfortunate ones).
So what are you afraid of? Terrorism? Death? Financial ruin? Failure? Embarrassment? Spiders? I'm sure our shepherds had their own fears. Perhaps different from our 21st century anxieties, but these first century herdsmen had fears nonetheless. From lions and bears eating the sheep to the political uncertainty of living in a Roman occupied province buzzing with zealots thirsty for Jewish independence, they had their fears. But I bet all those earthly fears flew out the window when the angel of the Lord shattered the night's darkness before their eyes and God's glory blinded them. The fear that filled them then transcended dinner tables, bank accounts, even earthly kingdoms. They were afraid. St. Luke tells us plainly. But of what were they afraid?
The fear these shepherds experienced is the fear of a sinner struck by the glory of God's holiness. It's the fear of unworthiness before God. This fear rises in the heart when a person is confronted with his own sins, is condemned by God's Law, and threatened with God's wrath and punishment. Yet here no word of Law is even needed. Simply the reflecting glow of God's holiness from the angel so recently in the Divine presence conveys this message and ushers in complete terror.
Scripture records similar instances of this. Moses covered his face in fear when God revealed himself in the Flaming Bush. Isaiah cried, "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!," (Isaiah 6:5) when he witnessed the LORD sitting upon his throne adored by flying seraphim. And St. Peter knelt before Christ after Jesus caused the Miracle of the Great Catch of Fish and said, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord." (Luke 5:8) The realization of God's present holiness is enough to bring a sinner to his knees in consciousness of his own miserable condition.
Of course this fear is not detached from the common fears of man. All wars, betrayal, and fear are mere symptoms of the deep darkness of sin. Inherited sin has plunged us into the dark. It is sin's fault that wars kill, that marriages fail, that money and food run out, that you fear the common elements of this earth. We fear death and destruction, because sin has made it our reality. And this fear points to the fact that God is displeased with our sin, our hurtful and careless words, our wicked thoughts, and the harm we do to our neighbor.
But the angels come not to frighten, but to bring good news for all people. They come to replace the shepherds fear with joy. "Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." God has become a man! This is certainly reason to rejoice. Just look at the angel, how ecstatic he is to announce this news! The holy army of angels cannot help but burst into song praising God for this great news. "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill to men." Why are the angels so happy? God didn't become an angel? What do they have to gain from this night?
The angels constantly serve God. It is their one and only pleasure to be of service to God at all times. What pleases God pleases them. They've heard the prophecies; of the virgin bearing Immanuel, of a Child being born, who will be called "Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." They are joyful because what God was pleased to do has come to pass.
They sing, "Glory to God in the highest," because God has glorified his name by being true to his word. Now the earth will worship God in the highest through Jesus Christ, the one true Mediator between God and man. "Peace on earth," Christ brings the greatest peace the earth will know. Although wars and bloodshed will continue through the millennia, God forgives his people. His sword of punishment has been sheathed. And this peace will spread throughout the earth until it is completed in Christ's return and God's new creation will live in eternal peace. "Goodwill to men," previously God's displeasure was upon humanity, because of their sin. Now God sends his good pleasure, his very own Son to take away our reproach. It pleases God to accomplish these things and the angels are overjoyed to sing this success into the ears of God and the shepherds.
And if this message brings such joy to the angels, how much more joy should it bring the shepherds, and you and me? As I said before, Christ was not born an angel. Except for their noble desire for God to be pleased, the angels have nothing to gain from Christ's birth. But you do. This is good news of great joy for all people!
Christ's birth as a human being changes your perspective of God. If you were to understand even remotely how severe your sins are, you would be convinced that God hates you. You'd fear his condemnation. But the fact that God has joined our race must put to an end such a notion. The Hymnist Paul Gerhardt writes,
"If our blessed Lord and Maker
Hated men, Would He then Be of flesh partaker?
If He in our woe delighted,
Would He bear All the care Of our race benighted?" (Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, 115. Stz. 5)
Of course he wouldn't! That the eternal Word became flesh demonstrates God's good pleasure toward all mankind. God loves you! He takes on your very flesh and blood. Why on earth would God's Son come to earth to join our family if he hated us?
Christ's birth forces you to look at God in different light. When the Son of God was born of the Virgin Mary he didn't temporarily take up residence in a human body as an evil spirit, who possesses a body for a while. No, God became man to remain man forever. He is our brother. He's on our team. He joins our ranks to feel our pain, to face our terrors, to conquer sin and death. You can't look to the child in Bethlehem and believe what the angel spoke of him, that he is your Savior, that he is God most High, and still believe that God wishes evil against you. Christ's birth in Bethlehem expresses God's deep love for you.
St. John writes, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us." The angel banished the shepherds' fear by proclaiming God's love for them through the child of Bethlehem. And so he seeks to banish your fears. God loves you. It is clear to see!
That God became man also changes your perspective of your neighbor. Are you angry with someone, even hate someone? Know this, God shares that person's flesh and blood. The blood that flows through that person's veins flows too through the veins of your God. Your God has a human body and soul just like that object of your hate. How can we hate our neighbor, whom God loves so much to join himself to so intimately?
Indeed Christ's incarnation should spread peace among all members of our race. That it doesn't, that people still hate and slander, that they even kill, that babies (a group of people Christ joined without shame) are slaughtered in the name of progress demonstrates how desperately we need this baby Jesus. But you Christians, who love this Christ Child, who know that God shows his love to you through him, should also love your fellow man. You know that this message of joy is for all people. You know that we are one family. You know that Christ has joined our one family to be with us forever.
Christ became man to save us from sin, death, and hell and give us peace with God. Yet the fruit of such peace with God through faith in Christ is peace with all people. And though we don't achieve this peace of ourselves, we know God does. And he will. So even in our imperfect lives we strive to live in peace by forgiving those who sin against us, repenting of our sins, and putting the best construction on those for whom God became man.
The angel said, "Fear not, for behold I bring you a Gospel of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." Joseph and Mary could have had a much quieter night had the angel not made this announcement. Christ the Savior of those shepherds could have lay sleeping in his manger just a couple miles from them and they could have been none the wiser. But when the angel announced it to them, everything changed. Then the shepherds knew of the great treasure that had come to them that night. It's like if you had a billion dollars in some hidden bank account somewhere, but you had no idea it existed. Would it do you any good? Of course not. Not until that great treasure were revealed to you.
And so it is with you today. You have a great treasure. In fact this treasure is for everyone, even those sad souls who won't come to hear this good news this Christmastide. But if you don't hear that Christ is born in Bethlehem it doesn't do you any good, does it? If you don't hear that God has made peace with you, that he has expressed his love in the most amazing way for you, it doesn't matter to you. You're still lost! God's love is hidden from you.
"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them a light has shined." But to those who have not or will not hear the message of the angel, the darkness remains black. Without the Gospel being preached to you, you who sat in darkness will remain in the dark. And in the darkness fear, of the common things of this life and of the judgment of God, will reign.
Everyone needs to hear this news! God became man for all humans. He died for you personally. God accepts Christ's death in exchange for yours. Yet the eternal life earned for you by Jesus can only be received by faith. And faith can only come by hearing the Gospel. There is no other way. The Shepherds glorified and praised God for what they had heard and seen. But had they not heard and seen, they would not have glorified and praised God.
"And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths lying in a manger." The Shepherds believed the angel, sought the sign, and found their Savior. We can't just run over to Bethlehem. And if we could we wouldn't find the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths. That sign was for the Shepherds to seek, but for us to believe. But God has given you a sign, for you to see and feel and glorify and praise God for having seen it. Christ gave his Church Baptism. Through this washing we are joined to God in a spiritual way, which washes away our sins and makes us God's children. Christ has given us a Supper in which we find our Lord. As that young child was wrapped in swaddling cloths, so too Christ is hidden in this sign. We see plain bread and wine. But Christ says, "This is my body and blood." It is our sign. Our sign that God became man and was born in Bethlehem. That that man gave his body to be pierced and his blood to be shed to take away your sins. It is a sign of God's love for you.
So as the Shepherds dispelled of their fear at the angel's voice and ran to see this sign, which had been made known to them, so you are invited to cast off your terrors. God puts an end to them. And you are invited to come and see the sign of God's love for you, Christ's very body and blood, come, eat and drink and have your sins forgiven. Glorify and praise God for what you have heard, seen and tasted. Christ is born for you. He gives his life for you. He gives you his body and blood as a foretaste of the eternal life he has won for you.
Merry Christmas my brothers and sisters in Christ. Now let us go and see this thing, which the Lord has made known to us. Amen.