Listen to it:
“Insignificance and Immensity”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“She wrapped Him in cloths and laid Him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the lodging” (Luke 2:7). Even here, at the birth of the eternal Son of God, there is no place for Him. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” Jesus says (Matthew 8:20, ESV). “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…did not receive him,” (John 1:10-11, ESV). Really, has anything changed since that day? Who makes room for the Lord? Who sets aside a place in homes and schedules, between hockey and homework, in the midst of meals and making money and the messes of men? But even that way of putting the question makes it sound as if we could just carve out a few minutes for our religion each week and call it good. But the Christ is not one among many, not one part of our lives, not one more thing to fill in calendar squares along with everything else. He will not be satisfied if you can fit Him in sometime next week, or next month, or as a well-intentioned resolution for 2009. He will not sit quietly in the waiting room until we say, okay, Jesus, I can see you now. But that is the way of sinful humans. While Caesar goes about his business of counting and registering all that he can see of the world, God comes. While people rush headlong into travel preparations to return to the cities of their ancestors, there is Jesus in the midst of them, one they do not know and cannot see. Such insignificance surrounded by the immensity of human endeavor!
But beneath it all are holy immensities hidden in all the human insignificance. Phrases, words; small things that nevertheless hold within themselves hints of the One who found no place among His own. So a decree went out from Caesar Augustus; literally, a dogma went out. And this dogma was that “all the world” should be registered. Now we modern citizens-of-the-world realize that this did not include all nations on earth, only those under the governance of the Roman Caesar. But the word “all” is used six times in our Gospel lesson, which tells us not so much about the census, but about where the concern of this Gospel is: with the whole world. So the angel says to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid, for behold, I announce a good message of great joy to you, which shall be for all the people, that born to you today in the city of David is a Savior, who is the Lord Christ” (Luke 2:10-11). This is no isolated happening in the backwater of Judea: this is the Savior, the Lord, the Anointed One Himself who is born for those shepherds and for all people. And so we hear in verse 18: “All who heard were amazed concerning the things that had been told to them by the shepherds” (Luke 2:18). No doubt some, even many, were amazed into mocking them; while the chosen few were amazed into faith. Even so, this Child is literally born for all the world, and His realm makes the realm of Caesar look as insignificant as Bethlehem within the Roman Empire. Hidden in the insignificance of one newborn in one little town lies the immensity of a salvation meant for every person in all the world.
So it happened that while they were there, “the days were fulfilled for her to give birth” (2:6). Within the ordinary insignificance of those nine months lay the immensity of the fulfillment of all time, all days. As St. Paul put it, with whom Luke traveled, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5, ESV). Time does not consist in what we make of it, in our hours and days, in our schedules that will not last beyond the day of our dying. We self-consumed sinners cannot help but try to eclipse the immensity of God’s days with the insignificance of our days. But time is not ours. Time is held in the hand of God, who began it with a Word. And time as we conceive of it will end at the second coming of that Word, without whom our time is meaningless. With those thirty-odd years on the face of the earth is bound up the entirety of human history. If they are insignificant, then how much more so are your years? But if He held in the years of His perfect life all the years of your sin-filled life, then there is nothing more significant for your life than that you recognize that fact. “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:21-22, ESV).
And then there are those shepherds. We usually do not, but perhaps we should ask, why shepherds? Why does the angel bring to shepherds a good message of great joy, which will be for all people? Why are they the first to fear, the first to see, the first to rejoice, the first to tell? But perhaps we should not be surprised after everything we have heard and seen in Luke’s Gospel. We would not have begun this story with a barren, old woman; with a poor, young virgin from Nazareth; with a town whose name means “the House of Bread.” Nor would we have entrusted this task to shepherds. Why not give the word to someone who had connections, who could publicize the message, text it to the major news networks? But shepherds it was, and we should begin to hear echoes of Psalm 23. Perhaps even more, Yahweh’s words through the prophet Ezekiel should give us pause: “For thus says the LORD God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all the places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness…And I will set up over [my sheep] one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd” (Ezekiel 34:11-12, 23, ESV). To faithful shepherds, vigilantly guarding the sheep entrusted to them, the Lord gave the good message that He was now among His scattered sheep, that He had come to be their ever-faithful Shepherd. Around people groping in the clouds and thick darkness of sin and death shone the glory of the Lord. Into the valley of deep darkness burst the infant Light of the world. He, born into the House and line of David, is the promised, new David, feeding His sheep with His own broken Body and His own shed Blood. In the insignificance of an announcement to shepherds lay the immensity of the sign of the Good Shepherd.
So it happens in these days: into the immensity of our plans and preparations, the large visions of ourselves that block out everything else, comes the insignificant Christ. Or so He appears to us. And we have no space, no time, no silence, within which to hear His still, small voice. Only faith can empty our lives and hearts and make our immensities insignificant next to the insignificant immensity of God in human flesh. Repent, then, of your exaggerated immensity, which is really the immensity of your sin. Sinners, left to themselves, cannot and will not make a place for the Christ; you and I, with our crowded minds and hearts, should know that well. So He made a place for Himself; He carved out, not a few minutes for you, but a whole life: first in the womb of a virgin, then in the city of David, then in the womb of death; now He makes room for you in the resurrected life of a new creation. He fractured the darkness with His light, and the darkness has been receding ever since. Today it recedes in you, as you hear the forgiving Word of the infant Priest, echoed in the words of the angel: “Today, for you, has been born a Savior, who is the Lord Christ.” “Thou Christian heart,/Whoe’er thou art,/Be of good cheer and let no sorrow move thee!/For God’s own Child,/In mercy mild,/Joins thee to Him; how greatly God must love thee!” (LSB 372, st. 4). You will not see angel choirs rupturing our midnight sky, but you sing the holy, holy, holy with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven. You do not have Jesus in visible flesh, but you come like trembling shepherds to bow and receive Him in bread and wine. So it is and so it will be, until He comes in His flesh, with those armies of angels who sang His birth. And so we continue to wait, on this holy Mass of Christ: “Saints before the altar bending,/Watching long in hope and fear,/Suddenly the Lord descending,/In His temple shall appear. Come and worship, come and worship; Worship Christ, the newborn King” (LSB 367, st. 4, refrain).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/23/08