If you wanted a Sunday that captures all the Church Year, look no further than this Sunday after the Nativity of Our Lord. The Church, in her Propers for this day, has given us everything from Christmas to Holy Week, to Easter and the season after Trinity. Today gives us Crib, Cross, and Altar.
In the year 5,199 from the creation of the world, when in the beginning God created heaven and earth;
In the year 2,957 from the Flood;
In the year 2,015 from the birth of Abraham;
In the year 1,510 from Moses and the Exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt;
In the year 1,032 from David’s being anointed king;
In the sixty-fifth week of years according to the prophecy of Daniel;
In the 194th Olympiad;
In the year 752 from the building of the city of Rome;
In the 42nd year of the reign of Octavian Augustus;
The whole world being in peace;
In the sixth age of the world;
Jesus Christ, the eternal God, and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to sanctify this world by His most merciful coming, being conceived of the Holy Ghost, and nine months since His conception having passed, in Bethlehem of Juda is born of the Virgin Mary, being made man.
The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Ghost.
In what we have just heard, both Scriptural and secular history find their apex in the birth of Jesus Christ. At His birth, eternal Word was made flesh and bone so we could be restored. Last night St. Luke gave us the details. He gives us the Nativity Scene, the picturesque tableau of Joseph staring into the Bethlehem night, guarding his fiancée and step-son, Mary’s eyes closed in serene prayer, and the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay while shepherds gaze in awe.
After God freed the people of Israel from their slavery in Egypt, He did not give them a king like all the other nations had. Instead they had a prophet who ruled over them in God’s stead and served as messenger from God to the people and vice versa. The first of many was Moses. This system God designed was good. God ruled over the people and His prophets gave the people His Word for them. The final word was always God’s, and it was good. The handling of disputes between one another was the responsibility of the judges. In the beginning, the judges were good. But after the sons of Samuel the prophet became judges and were extremely dishonest in their affairs, the people of Israel demanded that someone keep them in check. They felt God wasn’t doing a good enough job, and Samuel was too old to be an effective liaison between them and God. It was time for Israel to have a king who would tell everyone just how things would be. Samuel went to God with this troubling news, and God’s reply was not good: “Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them” (1 Sam. 8:7). God knew this was yet another time Israel turned their back on Him. So through Samuel He warned them that a king, as good as it may seem, would eventually become evil and just as self-seeking as the judges had become. But the people didn’t care; they demanded their king and God gave them what they asked for.
There is a traditional English carol called “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day.” It’s a carol that tells the story of Jesus’ life, as told by Jesus. In its full version it takes you from the Incarnation through the Ascension. In the refrain at the end of each stanza, each piece of His redemptive work, Jesus sings “This have I done for my true love.” What we have heard tonight in Holy Scripture, what we have sung of together, is what Jesus has done for you, His true love. Tonight, you heard salvation history. You heard of the Fall into sin and God’s promise of a Savior from sin, and the death which sin brought with it. You heard that God’s Light will break into our darkness, bringing with it the Mighty God, the Prince of Peace. You heard that the Light will shine forth in little Bethlehem, the Son of a Virgin, conceived by the Holy Ghost. This has Christ done for His true love!
Today the CHurch commemorates Katharina von Bora Luther, the wife of Martin Luther. It’s fitting to remember her in this 500th anniversary year. So much attention has been paid to her husband, but it is good for us to pause and consider the helper suitable for him, the one given to him by God to be his wife. She is an example to us of faith in Christ that held fast despite enduring the awful situations this life can give to us.
We talk a lot about John the Baptizer being the Advent preacher par excellence because he unwaveringly preaches the message of Advent: repent. John is the last and greatest of the Prophets, the one who gets to truly prepare the way for the Messiah, because he is the Messiah’s contemporary. He was no longer prophesying a far-off person, someone yet to come. As we will hear next week, John is the most blessed of the Prophets because he gets to see, hear, and touch the one of whom his brothers could only dream. He gets to point with dripping finger to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. But interestingly enough, the first time the Lectionary introduces us to John the Baptizer he is in prison, near the end of his earthly life. Even in prison John does his prophetic work. Like a light hidden will find any crack it can through which is can shine, prison cannot silence John, nor can the sword of his murderers or the platter on which his head will be delivered to Herod. John the Baptizer is proof to all of us that we can rejoice in the Lord always, even when “always” means oppression and death and everything else that threatens to undo us.
The prayer of advent is “Stir up our hearts, O Lord.” Three of the four Sundays in Advent have that phrase as the opening of the Collect. What does it mean to be stirred up? It might come across as “make us excited for.” These collects in their original Latin begin with the word excita, so that seems natural. In Latin, excita means rouse or awaken. But the English Church has translated this as “stir up.” So, what exactly does “stir up” mean? As Merriam-Webster defines it, “stir up” means to cause something, usually something unpleasant, to happen. That’s a different take on the season, isn’t it? In Advent we pray that the Lord would cause something unpleasant to happen to our hearts. Now, that unpleasantness is understood from a fleshly standpoint. We ask God to make us uncomfortable with the status quo, to make us eager for a completely different situation.
Repetition is the mother of learning, the adage goes. God’s people have known that since the Creation. Adam and Eve told their children the mighty acts of God when He created the world out of nothing, simply by speaking. Noah told his children and grandchildren how God kept them alive out of His mercy when the rest of the world was evil and destroyed by the Flood. The people of Israel told their children what God had done when He led them out of slavery in Egypt and gave them the land once promised to their father, Abraham. The Exodus, was the chief event of the Old Testament. Jeremiah tells us that when he says that God is not known by His name, but by His action: “The Lord who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt.” We, living after Christ’s saving work, know that the Exodus, as great as it was, was merely a foreshadowing of the greater freeing that was to come. Christ has freed His people from sin, death, and the devil. That’s also why Jeremiah’s prophecy was so radical when he said that a day is coming when God will not be referred to as the God of the Exodus, but the God who gives righteousness. The Exodus would be seen as nothing, as something insignificant compared to what it foreshadowed. But until that Promised One would come, the children of Israel kept telling their children what God had done for them.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.