Saturday, December 24, 2011

This Thing That Has Happened

The Nativity of Our Lord
Christmas Eve
December 24, 2011
 The shepherds talk in a very Lukan way. They talk about something that has happened. That’s one of the main things Luke sets out to do in writing his Gospel account. See, there were these things that happened and Luke set out to research them, to get the facts down on paper, to make them known to the world. The shepherds in the fields weren’t interested in that sort of thing. They were taking care of their sheep. But when something extraordinary happens, well, that gets their attention. And then they start doing a Lukan thing; talking about what happened. Going over to research it. Okay, for them it was more just simply seeing the thing that had happened. And then they did another Lukan thing and started telling people about what they had seen. And even that, that’s just a natural thing we do when we see something extraordinary.

You and I are here this evening because something happened. Specifically, this thing happened that everybody knows about but not everybody believes. Indeed, some of you here this evening may not even believe it but you’re here because one of the things people do at Christmas is go to church. Have you ever thought about those shepherds? Do you think all of them believed in God? Did the angels only appear to God-believing shepherds? Or did they just go to any old shepherds that were out watching their flocks by night? We can’t know for sure so there’s no need to speculate. But it doesn’t talk about their belief or unbelief. It does talk about their reaction to the news. Let’s go see it! Afterward there was definitely belief there. In seeing the little baby in that manger they had come into the presence of the Living God. They believed and glorified and praised God for all they had heard and seen. Luke then tells us the reason for this, it was just as it had been told them.

Now you and I are here tonight. We don’t see God wiggling around or cooing in a manger. It’s a very real temptation for us to say that we have not seen God. Apart from a relatively few people in history who lived at the time Jesus walked the earth for thirty odd years, no one can say they saw Jesus in the flesh, as a human being who walked and talked on this earth. What is it that we have to hold on to that is just as certain as what those shepherds had? Since we cannot see what they saw, can we believe with the same certainty they did? Can we praise and glorify God to the extent that they did even though we have not seen what they saw?

May I suggest to you that what we have to hold on to that is just as certain as what those shepherds did is the reason Luke gives. It had been told them and then they found it to be exactly as it had been told them. What is it we have? Well, we actually have something they didn’t. We have the Word of God in its fullness. We not only have the Old Testament, as they did, but we also have the New Testament, which they did not have at that time.

We have something that is along the lines of the angels making known to the shepherds what had happened. What we have is the Bible telling us something that has happened, and when we see it, we experience the same thing the shepherds did. We come into the presence of the Living God, Jesus in the flesh. What has happened is not just one event and they are not just one-time events. Jesus being born was a one-time event that made quite an impact on those shepherds. What happened to those shepherds afterward? Very likely they returned to the vocation of shepherding their sheep.

Did they continue to believe? Did they continue to partake of the riches of the grace of God by the regular hearing of the Word of God in worship? We don’t know, but it’s worth thinking about those shepherds and what they saw as the reason they believed. They saw the Living God in the flesh, it was exactly as it had been told them by the angels. But what was the reason they continued to believe? It could only be by the grace of God. They didn’t keep showing up to the home of Mary and Joseph so they could get another look at the cute little baby Jesus. It would only be by being in the Word of God and His grace that comes through the Word of God.

This gives us the perspective we need to see where we’re at and what it is that we can see that we have that gives us the same certainty they had. What is it the Word of God tells us that happened? First, it tells us exactly what we heard it say in the Gospel reading: Jesus was born. God came in the flesh. He was born of a woman and was raised in a family with Joseph and Mary His parents. He was born as we were born. He took on human flesh as we have human flesh. He did this because our being born in human flesh is being born into sin. He is God and without sin but has taken on our human flesh so that He could take on our sin. What the Bible tells us is that He has taken our sin onto Himself in suffering God’s punishment of sinners. It tells us this happened. Jesus took the place of every person in His suffering and death on the cross.

This is the Good News. It’s the greatest and most important event in history. It’s why Jesus was born and why we celebrate Christmas. But we haven’t yet looked at what exactly it is that the Bible tells us that has happened that we ourselves have seen and where we ourselves come into the presence of God in the flesh. It’s in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. When you have experienced these things you have experienced what those shepherds did when they were in the presence of Jesus lying in a manger.

In fact, what you have experienced is of even more consequence. This is not to take away the amazing event of being in the presence of Jesus as the shepherds had. It’s just taking the Word of God at its word. Peter says an amazing thing about us in distinction to the shepherds and everyone else who saw Jesus walking around: “we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed.” We don’t need to see Jesus lying in a manger. It’s not incumbent upon Jesus to show us Himself before our eyes healing someone or preaching the Word. What we need is what we see. We witness God in Baptism. We come face to face with Him in His Holy  Supper. We are in the presence of the Living God when we are making use of His Gospel in the Sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It’s through those things that we believe and in turn rejoice as the shepherds did.

This thing happened. Jesus was born. God came in the flesh. He lived and took our place on the cross. These things happened, although you and I never saw them. But we don’t believe because we have or haven’t seen them. We believe because that same Lord has come to us in the proclamation of His Gospel and in Baptism and in His Holy Supper. And just like the shepherds we can do a very Lukan thing and tell others what we have seen and heard and received.

Have you ever noticed how Luke concludes his Christmas Gospel account? He tells us that the “shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” This isn’t just an informational bit simply because it happened. It tells us about life. It tells us about who we are as Christians. It shows us that when God makes Himself known to you you have reason to rejoice, to glorify God and praise Him. And how do you do that? By living out your vocation, in all the many ways that manifests itself. As a father, as a mother. As husband, as a wife. As a neighbor, as an accountant, who knows, there may even a shepherd among us tonight. As a friend, as a teacher, as brother, as a sister, as a son, as a daughter. Simply, as one God has called to serve in many ways.

Just as it was with those shepherds, it is with you. They returned to serving God because what they had heard and seen was “as it had been told them.” It is with you as well. Amen.

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