Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It’s the Second Sunday of Epiphany, the season of showing and seeing. Where we see Jesus shown for who He really is. And today’s text is full of that kind of language. There are a lot of synonyms in the original Greek for our English word, “to see.” And almost all of them are used by John the Baptist today.
There’s βλέπω, which means “to see,” or “to look.” As in, “The next day, [John] saw Jesus coming toward him.” There’s ἴδου, “to behold,” or “to pay attention to.” “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” There’s θεάομαι, “to see, to experience the optical vision of.” “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.” There’s ὁράω, “to see a particular thing.” “I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” That example also includes μαρτυρέω, which means “to bear witness,” another sight related word. And finally, there’s φανερόω, “to reveal, to make seen.” “for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” In fact, perhaps the only Greek synonym for sight we don’t have from John’s account is επιφαινω, where we get our word epiphany from.
But the point is made. You’re supposed to look, see, take in with your eyeballs, know, grasp, understand, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He’s right there. You can’t miss Him. The sacrifice. The final sin offering, final burnt offering, and final thank offering. Here is the one who doesn’t just baptize with water alone, but in His baptism He gives the Holy Spirit. He gives faith. See and bear witness with John. Because here before us all is the Son of God.
But then we have to ask, do we really see Christ? Do we actually get to look at Him? Can we possibly behold Him? Does the sight of him come into our eyes? Can we actually say that we are eye witnesses of Christ? Or is this the time we turn to the end of John’s Gospel and take hold of the words of Jesus to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.”
Perhaps then, we should lower our standard here. Maybe we don’t see Jesus Himself, but rather, we see how Jesus works in our lives. Okay. But really, what are the kinds of things we actually notice? Where do we confess His presence the most? Where do we see Jesus? “On my way in, every traffic light was green, God must really be with me today.” “I was going to pick up some lunch, and I just happened to fid a coupon for the very place I was going, God is really watching out for me.” “I lost my keys, and I prayed to God to help me find them, and guess what, I found them, with His help.” These are the kinds of things we use as proof of God’s involvement in our lives. And while I don’t deny that, God is certainly there in those places, it really doesn’t say as much as we think it does. Because we make it sound like God’s main purpose in our lives is to make our lives better, easier. And maybe that’s what we actually believe?
But if these are the prime places we see God, how in the world will we possibly have an answer when life happens? “The company managing my retirement went under, and now I have nothing left. Wasn’t God there for me?” “My grandchild is dying, and I’ve been praying to God, but nothing’s changed.” “I’m afflicted with cancer, and every day is pain. Where is God in any of this?” What do we say to those people? What can the God we’ve been looking for do about this suffering? What use is a God who can’t actually make our lives better? If we look closely, what do we see?
That’s a huge problem for Christianity in America right now. Because this life improving god is what Christians buy into, thinking it’s the same God of Scripture. They believe that “God” is there to help make things easier in this life. Popular Christian music sings this. Popular Christian books write this. Christian gifts and knick-knacks proclaim this. “God” will surely make this life better. This is what we choose to listen to. This is how we talk with each other. How we encourage one another when things go wrong. This is the depth of our evangelism efforts. And it crumbles to nothing in the face of true suffering. We have nothing to say. Because when that kind of suffering begins, we get to see just how true a god who makes life better is. And it’s not.
So then we’re left with two choices. Abandon what we’ve built on that god. Or lie. Lie to others, lie to ourselves. That despite the suffering, the good things of this life are enough. And since we mix up this false god with the true one, we don’t dare abandon our god. We’ll close our eyes. We’ll blind ourselves to the truth. We will not see.
At this point, you might say to me, “Okay wiseguy. Just what do you say to those who have lost their livelihood, their loved ones, and even themselves? What do we say to those who suffer?” We say, Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
What did Jesus come to do? What’s the job of a lamb in a sacrificial culture? Our God became human just like us so that He could suffer right beside us. Apart from Christ, there is no good to be found in suffering. We think that because suffering is bad, it is therefore a separation from God. To hurt is to be rejected by God. To be in pain is to lose heaven. And why wouldn’t we think that? After all, Hell itself is nothing but suffering. Therefore it must be the same on earth as well. But then Jesus suffered and died. And since Jesus did that, He changed the nature of suffering forever.
Because now there’s a suffering that is holy. Now there’s a suffering that is good. There’s a suffering that is heavenly, righteous, and perfect. There’s a suffering that’s godly. Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The Lamb who has no earthly possessions to call His own. The Lamb who is betrayed by his closest friends. The Lamb who is mocked, beaten, and spit upon. The Lamb who is scourged by whips, and cut by His thorny crown. The Lamb who is nailed to a cross and whose side is pierced.. The Lamb who endures the entire wrath of God over all sin poured out onto only Him. The Lamb who suffers and dies for you. And it is good.
What is your suffering next to that? And that’s not saying that you should compare your suffering as if yours weren’t that bad. But rather to now really ask, what is your suffering in light of Christ’s? Look and see. Jesus Christ has taken your suffering, what you are enduring this very day, and He made it His. What you suffer right now is also at the cross. And because Jesus has taken it there, your suffering is now good. It no longer separates you from God. It’s not there to let you know that you’ve been rejected by God. It isn’t a sign that you’ve lost heaven. Just the opposite! The very root of your suffering, your sin, is what divides you from our Lord. But see now. Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He takes away your sin as well.
We would like to see. But as we asked before, do we really see Christ? Do we actually get to look at Him? Can we possibly behold Him? Does we get to see the sight of him come into our eyes? Can we actually say that we are eye witnesses of Christ?
Yes we do. That’s why Christ gave us sacraments. That’s why we have baptism and the Lord’s Supper. So that we can see Christ’s sufferings given to us. Not only do we get to physically see where we are united with Christ in a death like His in baptism, we are physically washed with it. Not only do we get to physically see Christ’s own body, given on that cross. Not only do we get to physically see His blood shed on our behalf. We get to physically eat and drink it as well. Why do you think we sing Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us, every time we have the Lord’s Supper? Because Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!
This is what John wants us so badly to see. This is the sight Epiphany reveals. Not some god who wants to make the small things in your life better, but is powerless with the big things. But rather God in the flesh, literally turning your suffering into hope, by taking all yours and making it holy through His.
Therefore, as St. Paul writes in today’s epistle lesson, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way [even in your suffering! In every way] you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge—even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end.” He does indeed sustain us, no matter what happens in our lives. And you are not lacking any of Christ’s gifts. You have them all. And they’re all right here. Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the World. Thanks be to God.
Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our text today is the Gospel lesson, where Jesus goes to John the baptist. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
Who are the kinds of people John baptized in the Jordan river? Who do we baptize today? Is it the ones who are already clean that need to be washed? No. Rather it’s the ones who need to repent. The ones who are born sinners. The ones who are unclean. And in baptism, we are made clean.
That cleansing is easy enough to see with water. Especially for us who have been raised in a place where clean drinking water is not only common, it’s expected. We can go to just about any tap in the country and find drinkable water coming out of it. But what if that water had something in it? Would we trust it so easily if we were in a third-world country? What if it came out of the tap brown or green? What if it came from the river, just down stream of the sewage spout? What if it were the water saved by the butcher after cleaning his cutting boards? Would we still look at that water in the same way? As something that could make us clean? Probably not.
And if we don’t trust that kind of water to make us clean physically, then it’s probably just as unlikely that we’d use such dirty water in our baptismal font. Because what sense would it make to be spiritually cleansed by becoming physically dirty? Because that’s what baptism does. “Be baptized every one one you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of all your sins.” “Baptism now saves you.”
We love baptism. Because Christ works in it for us. In it are the promises of Jesus. In fact, we see foreshadows of baptism all throughout the Old Testament. From the Spirit hovering over the waters in Genesis 1. To the flood in Genesis 6-8. To the crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus 14. To the water coming from the rock in the wilderness. To the crossing of the Jordan by Joshua and the people. To Jonah being thrown into the sea. And those are the ones the New Testament points us to. There’s also a prefiguring of baptism pretty much any time there’s a water reference. And, sometimes, even when there’s not.
So why don’t we spend more time on the one place in the Old Testament that looks the most like the baptism that Jesus uses in our congregations today? In Exodus chapter thirty, The Lord said to Moses, “You shall also make a basin of bronze, with its stand of bronze, for washing. You shall put it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and you shall put water in it, with which Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet. When they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to burn a food offering to the Lord, they shall wash with water, so that they may not die. They shall wash their hands and their feet, so that they may not die. It shall be a statute forever to them, even to him and to his offspring throughout their generations.”
Architecturally, the bronze basin is to our font, as the bronze altar is to our altar. Likewise, when we are washed in Christ’s baptism, we are made priests. That washing brings us into the tent of meeting, His Church. That baptism is the entrance rite that brings us near the altar to receive Christ’s body and blood. Our sins are washed away in that water and Word, so that we would not die. That baptism is ours forever.
The parallels are actually pretty amazing. And they’re there when we look at John’s baptism as well. The people are baptized into repentance. They are prepared for God in the flesh to come to them. They are washed from their sins. And yes, John’s baptism isn’t quite all what Jesus’ baptism is. But the people could see the parallels to the events at the temple, and understand. You’d think that this Old Testament text would be a great place to find baptism.
Though perhaps there is a reason we aren’t so keen to look there. The priests aren’t the only thing washed in the bronze basin. Leviticus, chapter one gave directions on how to prepare sacrifices. And verse nine tells us this. “But its entrails and its legs he shall wash with water, and the priest shall burn all of it on the altar.” And where was the water to wash the sacrifice with? The bronze basin. That’s actually kinda gross. Because what’s all over those insides is now in that basin. The same basin that the priests wash themselves with. Turns out that not all kosher laws were supposed to be for sanitary reasons. Because this is not sanitary. This is not clean. It’s as revolting as using dirty water in our baptismal fonts. How can it be clean?! There’s blood in the water!
And that’s precisely the point. There’s a reason why when John says to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus is the sacrifice. And as the sacrifice, Jesus needs to be washed at the basin. Jesus needs to be washed in the water. Because if we’re washing priests, there needs to be blood in the water. If we’re going to the tent of meeting, there needs to be blood in the water. If we’re going to be at the altar, there needs to be blood in the water. If we want to live, and not die, there needs to be blood in the water. If we’re going to have our sins washed away, there needs to be blood in the water. If baptism saves as Christ promises, then His blood absolutely must be in the water. And it is. That’s what it means for Jesus to fulfill all righteousness. Because every promise, both Old and New are completed by that blood.
From all our experience in the world, we want to cry out “unclean!” when we see the blood in the water. But It’s Christ’s blood shed for us. And, it is written, what God has made clean, do not call unclean. You have indeed been washed and made clean by the blood of the Lamb. You have dipped in your robes, and they have been made as white as snow. The blood has been shed for your sin. And forgiveness has been delivered to you. Through that baptism, Christ has opened heaven to you. The Father sees you, and says, “This is My beloved son with whom I am well pleased.” The Spirit comes and rests upon you. And the fulfillment of all righteousness has indeed been given to you. That’s what baptism does. That’s why it’s so very important.
That’s why we have our kids learn by heart the words from the catechism. “Baptism is not just plain water, but it is the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s word.” “It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.” Because baptism is as big as it gets. And that’s why we remember our own baptisms every day. For not only did Christ step into history two thousand years ago in the Jordan river, He steps in again and again for each and every one of us. Because it’s His blood in the water. And all His promises are there. Thanks be to God.
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It was yet another night that Herod couldn’t sleep. He paced up and down the hall outside his lavish bedroom. Angry at the servants who bothered him by simply being there. Angry at the servants who weren’t seeing what he needed. It had been a few weeks of this, and the palace staff were at their wits’ end.
They had been ever since the magi from the East had come, following that accursed star. The one that signaled the birth of a new king. How dare anyone try to usurp Herod’s throne. He had originally wanted to execute those astrologers on the spot. But his advisors thought it best to find this so called king first, just in case they were right. But no one knew exactly where to go from here. So he had turned to the priests and their infernal scriptures. And from them, he found out that there was the promise of a new king at some point. And that this rival would be born in Bethlehem.
Herod stopped pacing. He slammed his fist against the wall. “Captain! Where is the captain of my guard?!” Within moments, a just woken soldier appeared, trembling. “Y…yes, sir?” “Execute my advisors. Those magii never returned.” “At once, sir,” said the captain, as he turned to carry out his grizzly orders. But Herod stopped him. “And to make sure, put every child under two years old in Bethlehem to the sword.” “I’ll send my men out in the morning, sir.” “No. Send them now.”
And so, in the middle of the night, armed men charged into every house in the city and the surrounding area. And every baby to toddler boy that was found was cut down in cold blood in front of his frightened family. O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie, above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.
Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
We don’t always tell the whole story at Christmas, do we? We’re quick to include the magii showing up on Herod’s doorstep, following yonder star. We love our gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We even include these eastern sages returning via another route, in order to give Herod the slip. But then we stop. We don’t read the next verses. Because we don’t like what happens next. The story is too sad. And we don’t know what to do with it.
We should know what to do with it though. For over the last 1500 years, the Church has celebrated the Feast of the Holy Innocents. To remember their faithful witness, which is what the Greek word “martyr” means. Today, we confess with our lips that Christ Jesus is Lord. They confessed that very same thing with their deaths. And so they’re remembered with all the great martyrs of the Church.
But maybe the reason we have such a problem with the death of these children is because our world doesn’t understand why. How could we possibly celebrate the death of kids? I mean, it’s not like we celebrate them dying anywhere else. The Church is a staunch opponent of the abortion industry. We’re the ones standing up saying that every human life is sacred. It’s in our Scripture where death is one of the three great enemies, along with Satan and our own sin. I’ve stood in this very pulpit and proclaimed to you that there is little worse than death. What then could possibly be good about today’s text? Except, we know something about death that the world doesn’t.
The world is scared of death. The world sees the dying, and looks away. No one wants to suffer. No one wants to be in pain. And the Old Adam in us does the exact same thing. As a result, we treat death as a friend. As someone to cozy up with. To be comfortable around. So when our death comes, maybe it will remember all those good things we did, and not let us suffer so much. Or maybe we’ll just take death into our own hands, hoping on faith alone that such a death will give us peace. Therefore, we’ll kill the unborn to keep them from suffering. We’ll kill the elderly and infirmed to keep them from suffering. Anything in the name of ending suffering. We’ll put all our hope in death itself. Even though there is nothing in the world that causes more suffering than death. And we have no assurance that death actually ends the suffering.
However, that’s not what we believe about death. We do treat death as an enemy, yes. But not as an enemy that can beat us. Not as an enemy that has any final power over us. “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” Death is no longer a threat to those who believe. When Herod wanted to put an end to Jesus, and put all those children to the sword, He was not able to stop Jesus. When those who wanted to apostles to stop proclaiming Christ killed them, it didn’t stop the proclaiming of Christ.
And yet, if we’re honest, death does have it’s victory over us. Death does has a sting. Death brings forth great suffering, even for us. But Christ’s victory doesn’t come from a lack of suffering. Jesus saves us, not from suffering, but by suffering. That’s why the symbol for Christianity is a cross. Therefore when we hurt, it is not a sign that God is far away. Instead, that shows that He is right by our side. Hurting with us. Suffering with us. Dying with us.
But Jesus has the self discipline to see us through to the very end where all His hard work bears fruit. Even when it’s hard. Even when that end includes his own death on the cross. Yet, death can not stop Christ Jesus. Because it already tried. It already placed its claim on Jesus at that cross. And for a moment, it looked as though death had indeed won. For Christ in fact died. However, the good news is that He didn’t stay dead. Jesus rose on the third day. And that ended death’s reign forever. For us, and for our loved ones in the faith.
Now, when our lives are threatened today for telling the world the good news of Jesus, what can they do to us? Yes they can hurt us. Yes they can make our lives miserable. Yes they can even kill us. But Christ’s resurrection is ours as well. That’s why we celebrate the death of those first martyrs, killed by Herod. Because they will not remain dead. The confession of their very lives given for Jesus is only a mirror of Jesus giving His life for them.
And we too. We are willing to surrender our very lives, even unto death, because Jesus has already done the very same thing for us. That’s the very reason Jesus was born in Bethlehem. That’s the whole reason God became man and dwelt among us. That’s the whole reason Jesus goes to the cross. So that His resurrection from the dead would also be ours. The Christmas story is also the Easter story. Our great enemy has fallen. Death no longer has any hold on us.
Therefore, even though the little town of Bethlehem faced the worst horror that death could muster, yet in thy dark streets shines, the everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. Here is Jesus. Bringing the light of His resurrection into the darkness of death. So this Christmas, let’s not forget the whole Christmas story. Because in it, we see the world giving us its worst. And it still cannot prevail over Christ and His resurrection. Thanks be to God.
Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. When I was real little, I admit, I was a bit scared of Uncle Gail. He was big, gruff, and a bit loud. But I’d always see him at Christmas and on birthdays, or at one of the big get-togethers at my parents’ house. And over time, I got to know that he was never as scary as I once thought. He was always willing to play pinochle. And he was always willing to talk about anything. He was always more than open with me on his views of politics, or the world. I’d get to hear about them whether I asked or not, so I figured I might as well ask. It was usually entertaining, in nothing else. Often because his sense of humor matched up pretty well with mine.
But there’s one thing we never talked about, and today, I regret that a lot. We never talked about Christ. Even while I was going to seminary. Even after becoming a pastor. I just never seemed to find the time. And so, unlike so many other things, I don’t know where he stood. And that makes my job here today very difficult. I don’t get to just preach him into heaven, even if that’s what everyone wants to hear, because I don’t know. Nor do I get to preach him into hell. Only God knows where Uncle Gail’s faith was. And so we leave him in His hands.
But that doesn’t mean we go home empty handed today. Because no matter the question we can’t answer, we still are faced with the problem that brought us all here today. Since even if I could give you what you wanted to hear, that doesn’t change the problem of death. Death still took Uncle Gail. Just like it has taken, or will take all of our family and friends. The people we love die. And there’s nothing we can do to stop it. And no amount of pretending that death is normal, or that death is somehow okay, makes the grief any easier.
Maybe we’d like to blame God for death. It’s all God’s fault. If He hadn’t have put it in the world, we would never have had to deal with it. Except God didn’t bring death into the world. We did. You and me. The things we do that God calls sin, those aren’t just some arbitrary rules that someone made up. They’re not just merely suggestions for living a decent life. Nor are they put in place to keep you from having fun. The things God calls sin are the same things that tear apart the fabric of creation. And the holes that we leave are only death.
But we’re used to it. Aging is now normal. Cancer and disease are now normal. Dying is now normal. After all, everyone does it. And because this is so normal, many people simply give up on God.
However, God never gives up on us. Even when we stopped recognizing death as a problem, our Lord has not. That’s why he says through the apostle Paul that death is an enemy. God saw our death, and He did something about it Himself. Now, it wasn’t what we would have done. We would have just waved our hands and made death go away. In fact, we often pretend that we can do just that. God did something different.
He didn’t stand back and wave His hands at the problem. He didn’t wait for us to become good, right, or holy enough for Him to do something. He didn’t say, “Figure it out yourselves.” No. God became a human being in order to join us in this mess. That’s what Christmas was all about. God became a man. He was born into our world. A little over two thousand years ago. During the reign of Augustus Caesar. Smack dab in the middle east. That’s who Jesus is.
And Jesus was born to join us in this sin-torn world. The creator of all things became our brother. And even though He had no sin of His own, He took on the responsibility for all of ours. The death we created for ourselves, Jesus took it instead. Every world tearing sin, He shouldered each and every one. Being crucified under the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Shouting, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” And He shouted it for a reason. He forsook himself, abandoned Himself, so that we would not share the same fate. The death of Jesus is the forgiveness of each and every one of our sins.
Yet, joining us in death only goes so far. Having death as an enemy only matters in death can be undone. So on the third day, Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, rose form the dead. Eye witnesses saw Him. People risked everything to confess this impossible event. And people were willing to die rather than deny it. Jesus rose from the dead in history. Because even though He had died, Jesus lives. That is how our enemy death is destroyed. That is how we know our sin is truly overcome. That’s how we know that God truly has done something for us.
And so all these things, bearing our burdens, forgiving our sins, giving us His resurrection, these are all gifts that Jesus give to us today. He hands these gifts out for free. Not just to those who are good enough. Not just to those who do the right things or act the right way. It’s free for everyone. Given in the form of good news. And that’s the only news that can possibly bring us comfort in the face of death. Because death may take Uncle Gail, me, you, but death has already been beaten. Death is not forever. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Thanks be to God.
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The opening chapter of John’s Gospel is just packed full of all kinds of great theology. Here is where we see Christ as the Word of God. Here is where we find one of the great confessions of the trinitarian nature of God. We have creation. We have Christ as the life of the world. We have Christ as the light who shines in the darkness. We have the importance of being a witness, proclaiming Christ to the world. We have the reality of those in sin not recognizing their own creator. And we have faith coming to us. Not because our will did it, but rather because God gave it to us.
But do you know what we don’t have in our Christmas Morning Gospel lesson? There are no shepherds. There are no angels. There are no magi. There’s no star. There’s no Mary. Or Joseph. There’s no manger. There’s no swaddling clothes. There’s no baby Jesus. All those things that we’re used to seeing on Christmas, none of them are here. We’ve been hearing all about them from Matthew and from Luke. But John leaves them all out.
And yet, this is the perfect text for Christmas morning. All because of verse fourteen. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We could also translate more literally, and say “tented among us.” Or better yet, “tabernacled among us.” Because even though Christ had tabernacled among His people from the time of Moses, now He’s doing so bodily. The most amazing thing about Christmas isn’t the angels, or the shepherds, or the magi, or the star. The most amazing thing is that God became man. Jesus became a human being, just like you and me. Not just for the thirty three years of His earthly ministry. But Jesus became a man forever. And that’s great news! That’s what we celebrate today.
However, today’s text also presents a problem. Yes, Jesus came. But, He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. That is the great tragedy of sin. And that tragedy is ours. Every one of us has embraced the darkness. Every one of us instinctively look inside ourselves, where there is no light. Every one of us call evil good because that’s how it looks to us. And try to justify ourselves with it before God. The light shone in the darkness, but the darkness has neither overcome it nor understood it.
We make ourselves so-called “children of God” by our own blood, and by our own will. We show God our own glory. We call our own works light. All the while widening the gap between us and God. All the while running headlong into the mouth of Hell. Or we would, if it were up to us.
That’s why it is so important that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We call Jesus becoming man the incarnation. It’s just Latin for in the flesh. But think about that. The infinite, all-powerful creator of the universe is now a human being just like you and me. He knows what it is to breathe. To eat. To grow fingernails and hair. He knows what it is to live. To work. To rest. He knows what it is to be rejected. To be betrayed. To cry. He has done it all.
And He did it all for your sake. By becoming a human being, He also took on everything that being human entails. He took onto His shoulders our sickness, grief, and pain. He bears our anger, our selfishness, our pride. He takes responsibility for our hatred, our lust, our murder. Jesus became flesh to bear the sins of our flesh.
And Jesus did this, so that the responsibility of all our sins would no longer be ours to pay for. He paid for them all instead. Jesus became flesh in order that by doing so, we would be made children of God. Born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. God’s will brought us into this family we call Church. Christ’s will forgave all our sins.
And we just saw that will carried out today. Little Henry was born today into the family of Christ Jesus. And He was born through water and the Word. The light of Christ has shone in Henry’s darkness. And that light will not be overcome. Henry is baptized into the death of Christ. And since Henry has joined Jesus in a death like His, Henry will likewise certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His. And that’s the same baptism you have as well. You are a child of God, not because you did anything so special, but rather because Christ did it all. Including the part where He has baptized you.
The darkness that Henry has. The darkness that you and I have. The sin we inherited from Adam. The sin we have since committed ourselves. No matter how bad. No matter how unforgivable by the world’s standards. Jesus paid for it all. The light of Christ shines in our darkness. Scatters that darkness away. And that same light creates the faith that receives Him. Creates the faith that holds on to all His promises. Creates a child of God. That’s what it means to be born again. That’s what it means to be born from above. And birth is what Christmas is all about.
And so, there’s nothing wrong with shepherds and angels, and magi, and stars. As long as all those things point to the Word made flesh. And they do. They point to Christ Jesus our Lord. He is with God, God the Father, and God the Holy Spirit. And He is Himself God, God the Son. And He is also a human being too. The creator became the creation. So that the creation would be with the Creator forever. That promise is yours. Sealed with water and the Word. In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It’s Christmas Eve. How should you be feeling right now? Merry? Joyful? Happy? That’s how all the carols and songs tell us to feel. That’s how every Christmas special on TV ends up. That’s why we went shopping. That’s why we cooked so much food. That’s why everyone is coming over. Because that’s what Christmas is supposed to be. A time when we feel good. In fact, that feeling is so sacred on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, that we’ll do things we’d never do any other time of the year. Stop and talk to strangers on the street. Give, or give more to charities. Smile at everyone we see. Sing out loud for goodness sake. Christmas is sacred. And the world actually treats it that way.
And yet because Christmas is sacred, it is also one of the most difficult times of the year. Because part of that sacred tradition is feeling the right way. We feel guilty for hurting. It feels wrong to be sad. Yet, Christmas can remind us of what we used to have. Remind us of what, and who is gone. We don’t live in TV Christmas specials. Some Christmases don’t get saved. When we look over at the empty chair. When we remember the day the bad news came. When we feel the pain as though it were yesterday. And it conflicts with the sacred notion of a merry Christmas.
So, we’ll put on a smile for everyone else. We’ll fake it so that no one has to feel bad but us. We don’t want to ruin anyone else’s ritual. We don’t want to be the Christmas villain. But there are some times when singing another round of “Joy to the World,” just isn’t cutting it anymore. Because,things are never the same. The ones we care about most leave. Our loved ones die. One more spot is left open at the table. And that makes each Christmas harder than the last.
As sacred as Christmas is, all the reasons we make it sacred are fleeting. The gifts. The food. The time together. Even the love we share with each other is fleeting. Because it won’t be until next Christmas we even have a chance to have all those feelings together again. And even then, every year we have less and less. The table gets emptier and emptier. Until finally, we’re left with nothing. This isn’t what Christmas is supposed to be, is it?
There wasn’t a whole lot of feeling merry, joyful or happy coming into that first Christmas either. Joseph being uprooted by Augustus Caesar’s tax, and sent to Bethlehem. He’s really the only one taking care of Mary at this point. As the pregnancy out of wedlock would have brought shame on the whole family if they let her stick around. Even Joseph’s extended family in Bethlehem wont take them into the house. I know in King James, we call it an inn, but the correct translation is the family guest room. So Mary’s stuck with the animals, nine months pregnant, and in labor. Because room will not be made for them.
What was there to be happy about that first Christmas night? Where was the joy? It was just rejection after painful rejection. Their own family had turned them away. And the only place they had to go was a barn in a unfamiliar town miles away from home. And there, they were all alone. No one to help deliver. No one to help take care of mother and child. No place to set the baby when he was born, except the feeding trough. It just goes to show that Christmas has never been easy.
Couldn’t Joseph just put on a happy face? Couldn’t Mary bring some of that Christmas spirit? If Jesus’ birth were a Christmas special, Mary and Joseph would have been welcomed inside at the last minute, surrounded by love and cheer and joy. Their Christmas dinner table would have every spot filled. It didn’t happen. All that showed up that night? Some strange, smelly shepherds gawking at the baby. And, depending on how the chronology worked out, possibly some Afghanis who spoke a completely different language bowing down. I’m not real sure where they got the gold and fragrances from. Or why they left them here. Hope they’re not stolen. All in all, this just might have been the ickiest Christmas ever.
Yet, Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. Why? Because that’s what you do on Christmas? Because things were in reality going great? Because she managed to manufacture her own happiness and joy? No! That was a night one would have to go to the therapist for today. What made Christmas, what makes Christmas is not what we do. It’s not how much work we put in. It’s not the feelings we bring to the equation. It’s not how full the dinner table is. What makes Christmas is Jesus.
Our joy comes from Jesus. Because on the day Jesus was born… No, earlier than that. The day the Angel Gabriel came to Mary and said, “You shall call His name Jesus.” From conception the Almighty and Everlasting God, who created all things, became a human being just like you and me. We call this the ‘incarnation.’ God in the flesh. An insane idea. The infinite contained in an embryo.
And at Jesus birth, Mary and Joseph were able to see Jesus for the first time. Hold Him in their arms. Kiss Him on the forehead. Change His diapers. How weird is that? But here is God. This close. Family. The abstract doesn’t do this justice. This is more than a communication of attributes. This is more than the assumption of humanity into the divine nature. This is more than the humiliation and exaltation of God. All those things are true, and vitally important. But they’re all just concepts.
What is real is Jesus. Taking a place at your table. A place He’s not going to abandon. A place He’s not going to leave. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. That’s where the merry feeling comes from. That’s where our joy is. That’s what makes us happy. God became man, so that your table will never be empty. Because you are that important to God. You are loved that much by God.
So that when empty seats start showing up around your tables, Jesus does somethnig about it. Jesus takes on all our sin. Jesus confronts death head on at the cross. Jesus wins forgiveness by His blood. And Jesus defeats death forever in His resurrection. So now those who have died in the faith will not be gone from the table long. All of us have that resurrection to look forward to. But in the mean time, Jesus is always here with us. We’re never abandoned. We’re not alone.
And even when you leave your own table, even when you die, Jesus is still with you. Because God was born in order to die along side you. Die while sharing your sins, griefs, and sorrows. Die while shouldering your pain, sickness, and loss. And because He is at your table in death, you are also at His table in resurrection. Because they’re the same table. That’s what the incarnation does. Makes God’s table and your table the same one.
But, you know all those empty seats this Christmas that make you sad? Here, tonight, they aren’t empty. Here, tonight, we sit together with our loved ones who have died in the faith. We are one body. One Church. Whether here on earth, or waiting in heaven for the resurrection. Jesus brings us all together right here. Not even death can separate us from the love of Christ. Because in this Church are our grandparents, our parents, our spouses, our brothers and sisters, our children, our loved ones, with Jesus. A full table. There’s our joy. It’s in Jesus. All because of the incarnation. All because of that one sad, icky Christmas day in Bethlehem. Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. Merry Christmas. And thanks be to God.
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Matthew quotes the words of the Lord given through the prophet Isaiah. Words we’ve heard every Christmas. Behold, the virgin will conceive and shall bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. And we all know that Isaiah is talking about the birth of Jesus. We know that, not because we picked it up from Isaiah, but because Matthew’s Gospel told us so.
Because something else is going on in Isaiah, chapter seven. If you were here for Lent, you might remember hearing about King Ahaz. One of the descended kings of David. But not so great a guy. He did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord. He treated the false gods of the region as equal to the true God. He even burnt his own son on one of their altars. But when the enemies of Judah started amassing at the borders, Isaiah records that the heart of Ahaz and and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.
So Ahaz hatches a plan. A plan to save himself and his kingdom from the alliance of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and Syria. He planned to take all that was in the treasury of the house of the Lord and send it to Assyria. He was willing to submit the entire kingdom to be a vassal-state. All in the hopes that Assyria would save his bacon.
Despite all of that, the Lord said to Isaiah, “Go out to meet Ahaz, you and Shear-jashub your son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Washer’s Field. And say to him, ‘Be careful, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, at the fierce anger of Rezin and Syria and the son of Remaliah.
In other words, you don’t have anything to fear, Ahaz. The enemies threatening you will soon be nothing. There’s no need to to sell yourself out. No need to run somewhere else. The Lord has everything under control. You have God’s promise on this. He will save you, so you don’t have to.
In fact, Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz: “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” You want assurance? You want to know that I’m carrying through on this promise? You got it. Ask for anything you want. You want God to come out of heaven and see you face to face? Sure thing. You want someone to rise from the dead? No problem. You name it, it’s yours. All to show you that I really can save you.
But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” Why would Ahaz say such a thing? It’s not because he’s being so pious. It’s because he doesn’t believe. He’s already made up his mind. He’s going to go through with the alliance. He’s going to save himself. He has committed himself to rejecting the Lord and embracing sin. And talking with Isaiah and the Lord is only going to slow him down.
What would you do if you were God in this situation? Let Ahaz see just how well saving himself is going to go? Abandon Ahaz to his own devices? Let him flounder in that sin? Die in that sin? After all, you gave him every opportunity to turn away, and He didn’t. But what about when that’s us in that exact same situation? Do we want the Lord to leave us to find out how well saving ourselves is going to go? Do we want God to be leaving us to our own devices? Do we want Jesus to let us flounder in our sin? Die in our sin? After all He gave us every opportunity to turn away from that sin, and we didn’t.
But God sends a sign to Ahaz anyways. A child is born to the son of David. Ahaz is given a son who will bring the Lord to His People. And this happens in Ahaz’s lifetime. Because the son born is Hezekiah. The King that reminds the people who their God truly is. The one who will be righteous in the eyes of the Lord because of faith. You see, if a prophets words do not come to pass, then he is a false prophet. But the one who speaks the Word of the Lord speaks the truth. And so, the sign is indeed fulfilled. Before Hezekiah grows up, the kings Ahaz fears will indeed be conquered, never again to return. So it is with us. Even though we turn away from our Lord daily, He still gives to us. He still saves us from our sin.
But don’t have a problem. If Hezekiah is the fulfillment of the promise in Isaiah 7, then why does Matthew say Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise in Isaiah 7? But that’s the thing about our Lord. Everything He promises in the Old Testament He delivers on. The promise to Adam and Eve, the promise to Cain. The promise to Noah. The promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The promise to Moses. The Promise to David. They are all fulfilled before their eyes. And yet every one of those promises is also fulfilled even more completely in Christ. So that Jesus can say to the disciples on the road to Emmaus that all Scripture is about Christ.
It’s the same with this promise as well. Hezekiah foreshadowed Jesus. Because now in Jesus, the young woman is now a virgin. The sign is as high as heaven, because that’s where Jesus is. The sign is as deep as Sheol, because that’s where Jesus goes. And Christ Jesus is literally Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus came to save us where we cannot save ourselves. Came to destroy our enemies of sin and death, of which we are very afraid. Jesus came to die on our behalf, and to rise again on the third day.
And Jesus does this for us, even while we are still in our sin. Jesus saves us while we’re still trying to figure out how to save ourselves. Jesus forgives us, even while we’ve still made up our minds to go our own way. Jesus steps in the way and keeps us from destroying ourselves. For while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
So even though we’e a lot more like Ahaz than we would like to admit, the good news is that Jesus still came to Ahaz. And He comes to you as well. Bring you His cross in order to overcome your enemies. Bringing you His own blood in order to wash you, and make you clean. Bring you His death in order to forgive your sin. And bringing you His resurrection in order to destroy death forever. For Christ Jesus is indeed Emmanuel, God with us. Thanks be to God.