Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Birth of Jesus - God With Us

The Nativity - Lucas Cranach the Elder
"In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them" (Luke 2:1-7).
 
These first several verses from the second chapter of Luke's gospel are my favorite of the Christmas season. These verses always wound up being my part in the Christmas Eve Sunday School program. It's a good thing, too, that I always seemed to get more or less the same verses every year. I wasn't then, nor am I now, one who could memorize things easily. I was always quite nervous right up through the time all of us Sunday school kids were marched up to the front of the church. I didn't like speaking in public, and it was all I could do to not flub my part. 
 
In fact, I never really liked the Children's Program when I was a child with a part to memorize. I remember spending what felt like endless hours in the sanctuary going over, and over, and over again just exactly where to stand and how to hold the microphone when we were lined up in front of the church. It was excruciatingly boring to sit in the pews waiting for our turn to line up, and nearly impossible to pay attention to anything that happened in the front after our group had finished speaking and sat back down. And, to cap it all off, when we had finished running through the entire program, we'd have to line up in the fellowship hall to march in again for another go-around. Not my idea of a good way to spend three hours, and I always enjoyed church-stuff.
 
When I look back on those times, being many years removed from them, I was a little surprised to see that two of my absolute most favorite things about Christmas come as a part of the Christmas Eve Children's Program (at least at Immanuel - Hodgkins): singing Silent Night in German by candle light, and hearing the first seven verses of Luke chapter two.
 
I didn't even realize that I still had them memorized until I started teaching at a Lutheran school and had to prepare a Christmas program myself. Then, as I looked deeper into those words which my childhood pastor and Sunday school teachers had inscribed into my brain, I became profoundly thankful that The Lord had allowed me to grow up in the way in which He did. By requiring us to memorize those gospel verses our Sunday school teachers were giving us the gift that we celebrate on Christmas - the gift of Immanuel, "God, with us".
 
Faith comes through hearing, and hearing comes through the word of Christ we are told in Holy Scripture. By having us children memorize the words of the gospel, our teachers put those faith-creating words into us. The author of Hebrews tells us that, in these last days, God has spoken to us by his Son. It is through Jesus, his Son - the Word made flesh - that God deals with mankind. He does not wish to deal with us in any other way than through his word and sacraments, which are God's word and promise coupled with a physical element of water, bread, or wine.
 
By the means of those words of the gospel the Holy Spirit worked faith in our hearts according to his good and gracious will. I am particularly thankful for the words of Scripture I was taught to memorize. Through the years since Sunday School God has continued to teach me and grow my faith through them.
 
The words recorded by Luke in the beginning of chapter two of his gospel may seem like the standard introductory passage. In television specials about the life of Jesus it usually takes up no more than a few moments of the opening credits to visually portray what Luke has written. His words, however, express something more important than just the desperate attempt to find shelter for Mary in the crowded village of Bethlehem.
 
Luke's words, "In those days," tell us that the events he relates have taken place in the midst of human history. They do not happen in his imagination, once upon a time, as though this is merely some fairy tale. The story of Jesus is a story that can be pinpointed in time. It happened "in those days", when Caesar Augustus issued his decree. Furthermore, the events of the gospel did not take place in some mythical kingdom far, far away. They happened in a real location to which one can point on a map, and even visit, if one was so inclined. Quirinius was (or was about to become) the governor of Syria. Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem, the city of David. It was there, at that definite time and place that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
 
This is in contrast to other so-called mystery religions that flourished in the Middle East in the first and second centuries, and to the heretical off-shoots of Christianity that so intrigue people today, forming the basis of such popular entertainment as "The DaVinci Code". These religions were clearly built on fantastic stories written in the manner of the pagan myths of antiquity and meant to be taken as allegory.
 
For example, Mithra, god of the Roman Mithraic mysteries, is depicted as being born from a rock. He is shown as emerging from a rock, already in his youth, with a dagger in one hand and a torch in the other. He is nude, is wearing a Phrygian cap and is holding his legs together. An example from heretical Christianity is a resurrection account of Jesus from the non-canonical gospel of St. Peter which features a gigantic talking cross.
 
Jesus' birth account recorded in Holy Scripture, by contrast, is set against the backdrop of real people and places. There is, of course, debate as to exactly when Luke meant. But it is clear that he was being as precise as he possibly could be in establishing the foundation for his gospel account. While there might be some confusion as to which Quirinius Luke is referring, or which governing office he held, or which census (provincial or empire-wide) is meant, archeology has clarified and upheld Luke's Gospel consistently, and there is no reason to think it will do otherwise in the future. Luke's stated purpose for writing was to compile an orderly account of those things which he followed closely, namely the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Though many today would like to count Christianity simply as the mystery religion that won out in popularity and influence in the Roman Empire, it is clear to those who read its scriptures and study its history that Christianity is not merely a Mithra-clone. At the birth of Jesus we witness the God who created the universe clothing himself in human flesh and stepping into human history with the specific goal of being the sacrifice to atone for the sin of mankind in order to reconcile man to God.
 
In fact, that is what Jesus' name means. Jesus comes from the Jewish name "Yeshua", which is translated, "The Lord [YHWH] saves." Matthew records that, when the angel of The Lord appeared to Joseph to explain just who Mary was carrying in her womb and what he was to be named, this was in fulfilment of what the prophet Isaiah had written, "Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel." Immanuel means, "God, with us." To put it another way, the LORD God [YHWH] who saves, is with us.

Mankind needed a savior because he, and all creation along with him, was infected with the disease of sin. Since Adam and Eve's first sin, when they disobeyed God's command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, sin entered creation. All people born since then are born suffering from this disease of sin. We are all born without true fear or trust in God. We are all born with the inclination toward sin, to commit actual sinful acts, and away from God. There is nothing we can do to rescue ourselves from this dreadful condition, or reconcile ourselves to God. The disease is terminal. This is why the Lord himself had to save us. This salvation he effected by taking on human flesh, being born under the law, living a sinless life, going to the cross to suffer and die as punishment for mankind's sinfulness, and rising from the dead three days later as the conqueror of sin, death and Satan.
 
After his death and resurrection, before ascending into heaven to be seated at God the Father's right hand, Jesus promised that he would be with us to the very end of the age. He is our brother, as the Lutheran Confessions declare, "and we are flesh of his flesh and bone of His bone. He has instituted His holy Supper for the certain assurance and confirmation of this, so that He will be with us, and dwell, work, and be effective in us also according to that nature from which He has flesh and blood" (FC SD VIII 79).

Jesus came to dwell among us and be the sacrifice to atone for the guilt of our sin on that first Christmas about which Luke writes. He came to us at a specific time, in a specific place. He is no fairy story, but the central focus of all of human history. He comes to us and remains with us in his holy word, preached and read, and in his holy sacraments, properly administered. What good news for fallen, sinful humanity. May it bring great joy to all who hear it. For unto us is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.