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.
The crib is captured beautifully the Collect and the Old Testament Reading, pointing us to the Shoot of the stump of Jesse, the One whose Incarnation restored our human nature. By this we are transported back to Christmas Midnight. We, with Mary and Joseph, stand watch as the world’s Redeemer first reveals His sacred face. We watch Mary wrap Him in burial cloths and lay Him in the manger. The sinless Son of God has exchanged His heavenly throne for His new throne of the manger. Mary and Joseph marvel at all that has happened. The Angel Gabriel has spoken to both of them. The Virgin conceived and bore a Son without human action. The young girl has just given birth in the filthy barn. Shepherds come with haste, still shaking from seeing angels and hearing their hymn. The new parents gaze at the sleeping Infant, wondering what else must be lying ahead for them and Him.
But for now, this Child, born of a woman is born under the Law. So Joseph and Mary fulfill the obligations of the Law. They go to the Temple for Mary’s purification. An ordinary sacrifice soon turns into another event which will forever remain in the heart and mind of these holy parents. “The patriarch, Simeon, steps up, even though by virtue of age he can scarcely see his way, and with penetrating clarity of discernment recognizes and praises this Child as the Savior and Light of the World. All emperors, kings, and sovereigns are mere darkness, but this Child is the Light of the World. All the world is subjugated under death and damnation, but through this Child the world will obtain salvation. This Child is, in short, the One whom the Prophets foretold. … The other people who were in the Temple likely despised Simeon’s speech as the words of a fool, or they judged him to be drunk, or eccentric by virtue of his age, a foolish old man. How could this little Child be the Savior and Light of the World when He had nothing but ordinary swaddling clothes and His mother had scarcely a [penny] in her purse? No doubt the rest of the people would have disdained the words of aged Simeon as though he were merely beating the wind. But Mary and Joseph marveled at what was said of the Child” (Luther’s House Postil, 1531).
They marveled because what was said of the Child was that the cross lay ahead. Because of this Infant, many will fall and rise. He will be spoken against. He will be spoken against because He will not meet human expectations. He will be rejected by all until after His Resurrection. He is the stumbling block that causes divisions within Israel, and what causes men to stumble they seek to remove. The people of Israel will seek to remove Jesus as their stumbling block by crucifying Him. At this great sorrow, Mary’s own soul will be pierced as she watches her Son die for her and for all men.
But before His crucifixion, He will reveal the “thoughts of many hearts.” He will do this by the sword of revelation, namely His preaching. His preaching will reveal misunderstanding and ignorance, even from His own hometown. Jesus’ Words and actions will cause upheavals in Israel. It will be impossible to avoid Jesus and His Words. Many will be scandalized by Him and will be crushed. But many will also see Him as their Salvation and be saved. Ultimately His death and resurrection will be at the center of dispute for the rest of human history.
His death and resurrection are at the center of the dispute because of the reason they happened. They happened because we are all born in sin from which we cannot free ourselves. This message doesn’t just cause the fall and rising of many in Israel, but it causes the fall and rising of many today. Especially at Christmas, no one wants to think about sin and death. In fact, many have deluded themselves into imagining they don’t have any sin to be forgiven, or if they do, it’s likely minor and something they can work off. Others, hide their hearts, thinking God cannot see what lives there, what sins we want to commit. We fall into both of those ideas regularly. Repent.
Though you attempt to hide your heart, the Father’s heart is opened wide and His thoughts are clearly recorded. Though He is filled with righteous anger at sin, He is filled with a love that is greater than His anger. “If Our Blessed Lord and Maker hated men, would He then be of flesh partaker? If He in our woe delighted, would bear all the care of our race benighted?” (TLH 77:5) That is why the Christ desired the throne of the cross. He rejoiced in the Father’s plan of salvation and willingly became the Lamb who took away your sin. In all your affliction, He is afflicted, and in His love and pity He redeems you and carries you. He tendered His own life for yours, and by His grace made you fit for eternal glory.
That’s why this Sunday after Christmas also has Easter in it, as does every Sunday. Easter is found in those comforting words of St. Paul: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.” By Christ’s death for your atonement and resurrection for your justification, all the Easter blessings are yours! You were once a slave to sin, but by your Baptism into Christ you are a son and an heir of God! All of this lies wrapped in this infant in Simeon’s arms. That is why we sing with Simeon: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy Word, for mine eyes have seen Thy Salvation which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people.”
You, like Simeon, come face-to-face with your Salvation when Christ descends to His throne on the Altar. When Christ descends with healing in His wings, He gives you all that He is. Here is where you truly cleave to Him as He cleaves to you and your heart receives its true peace. Here, in Christ’s Body and Blood you receive joy beyond all gladness as He does away with all your sadness. He bids you come with all your sin and hands outstretched. There is nothing you can give Him that He needs from you! Instead He takes your sin and replaces it with riches without measure. By His Body and Blood given to you, you are clean and all your sin is removed forever. By these means, your heart is made His bed soft and undefiled, His throne and quiet chamber.
By this indwelling of Christ your actions are directed according to His good pleasure and you are given the ability to abound in God-pleasing good works. He keeps you in this grace—this Baptismal grace—until He calls you to life everlasting. Throughout this life God the Holy Ghost keeps before your eyes Christ’s crib, cross, and altar to remind you that Christ came for you, and to strengthen you and keep you in the one true faith. But ultimately, though your breath fail in death you shall not perish, but with Him abide forever there on high in that joy which can vanish never.
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.