In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This is a very strange thing: one of the greatest mysteries of the Christian faith—maybe the greatest—that the eternal Son of God, by whom all things were created, would take on human flesh. That God would come down in order to raise up humans. That the infinite God would willingly confine Himself to the finite stuff which He Himself had created. What greater mystery could there be than this? Who has ever claimed to understand it or be able to explain it? And yet, because we are confronted with this mystery year after year after year after year, it has ceased to be a mystery to our tired and weary eyes and ears. It has become a commonplace, a cliché, a creche in my yard. And what could I possibly say that you have never heard? What could any preacher say? Maybe that’s why many of the Church Fathers explain nothing; they simply turn the mystery about so that as many facets as possible can catch the light. They gather together all of the pieces and throw them out like snowflakes, each one unique and unrepeatable in its context. Because, the more familiar the text, the harder it is to peel back all of our assumptions and presuppositions and see the core. The harder it is to see with the presuppositions of the Prophets and the assumptions of the Apostles. Or, at the least, it is difficult to make the light flash off a neglected facet of the diamond. The difficulty is that we want to hear something new and, at the same time, for it to be exactly the same as we expect it to be.
It’s interesting because in the first seven verses of Luke 2, we hear nothing surprising, nothing out of the ordinary, nothing that would not have applied to who knows how many people in Bethlehem that year. I have no idea how many people came back to be enrolled in this census; no idea how many pregnant women there might have been; no idea how many young couples looking for a place to stay with distant relatives. But there is nothing strange in those first verses. Not even that they laid the new baby in a feeding trough. Most houses in Palestine would have had two or three main rooms: either a large main room, and a smaller room for the animals to stay in during the night; or, a main room, a room for the animals, and a guest room. Mary and Joseph were not looking for a place to stay in an inn, they were returning to Joseph’s ancestral home, in which he and Mary probably still had relatives, in a culture that strongly emphasized hospitality. It’s almost impossible to believe that no one would have taken in someone of the “house and family-line of David” and his very obviously pregnant wife. No, the more likely scenario is that there was no room in the “guest-room” (which is normally translated “inn”), because there were so many relatives visiting; and so they had to stay in the larger, common room, which usually had two feeding troughs at the lower end of it, for the animals to eat out of when they were in the house for the night. Nothing strange, then, about Mary putting her baby in one of those troughs after He was born. There are strange things going on, but they are not what we can see, not what we hear on the surface of these very ordinary things, such as taxes and giving birth.
We do not hear of anything strange until we get to verse nine: out of the blue, literally, an Angel of the Lord appears and the heavens are opened so that the glory of God’s own Presence engulfs some poor (in both senses) shepherds. They are, indeed, “sore afraid.” Terrified. Speechless. Falling-on-the-ground, covering-their-faces, scared to death. The Angel says, as all angels say, “Don’t be afraid; look, I have a good message, a great-joy message, which is for all the people. Today, to you, is born a Savior who is the Lord Christ, in the city of David. And this is the Sign to you: you will find the infant wrapped up and lying in a feeding trough.” Wait. What? This is the sign to them? That they will find the infant wrapped up and lying in a feeding trough? No star guiding them to the place, no light shining out of heaven into a hole in the roof, just a baby. Nothing to do but to start looking. They don’t know where their Savior is going to be, but they know the Sign, they know what to look for. So in a town not much bigger than Fisher, those shepherds look until they find Mary and Joseph and the infant lying in the trough. And the shepherds tell the people in that house everything the angels had said. Mary, we are told, gathered, stored up, all these words and considered them, pondered them, tried to put all the pieces together.
In the midst of all the things you have going on during this season of holidays—really, holy days—and maybe even more so in the ordinary, normal, commonplace, where do you find Jesus? He is still just as hidden as He was when the Shepherds went looking; He was hidden then, and He is hidden now, for the sake of mercy. As Yahweh said when Moses asked to see His glory, “’I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘Yahweh.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,’ he said, ‘you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.’ And Yahweh said, ‘Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen’” (Exodus 33:19-23). We poor sinners still cannot see the full glory of God and live, so He hides Himself, to be gracious to you and show mercy to you. He hides in the womb of a Virgin, He hides in a feeding trough, He hides on a cross. There is a place near the Creator of all that exists, near your Creator, and as His glory passes by in flesh and bone, a baby and a man, He puts you into the Rock of Ages, cleft for you: and that Rock is Christ. You do not have to go to Bethlehem, or to Calvary, or to heaven, to find Jesus. He has already come; He finds you. Right where you are, right in the middle of all the things in your life that clash with bright lights, and warm homes, and the manufactured material that masquerades as joy and peace and love. Right in the middle of your sin, and your death, that’s where you find Jesus; that’s where He was in Bethlehem, that’s where He was on the cross, that’s where He still comes: to sinners, only to sinners, only to those who know and hate what they are and what they’ve done. Only to you, only to me. And this will be the Sign to you, that today a Savior is born to you: you will find Him wrapped up in words and swaddled in the Sacraments; you will find Him where He has promised to be. “Truly wonderful is the whole chronicle of the nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken. For this day paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused and spread on every side—a heavenly way of life has been implanted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and we now hold speech with angels. Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven…” (St. John Chrysostom).
On this most holy night, when your salvation was born, when the Virgin sang her first lullaby, take these things and store them up in your mind and heart. Consider, ponder, gather the pieces of this mystery. Turn them around, tumble them over in your songs and prayers. This, this is Christ the king, whom shepherds guard and angels sing. Good Christian, fear, for sinners here the silent Word is pleading. Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, the cross be borne for me, for you. Hail, hail the Word made flesh, the babe, the son of Mary! (LSB 370).
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). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/23/11