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!
As glorious as this is, the version in our heads is far different from that first Christmas in Bethlehem. The birth of Jesus was not a nativity scene affair. It was laden with emotions of sadness and anger, whispered gossip, and conditions we can’t even imagine. But all of it shows the unfathomable depth of God’s love for you, how much He endured to make eternal glory yours, what God has done for His true love.
Before we can get to the stable and the manger, we have to back up nine months. Gabriel appears to Mary to give her unsettling, yet exciting, news. Without the intervention of Joseph or any other man, Mary will conceive in her womb and bear the world’s Redeemer. Mary, a devout, God-fearing woman, believes this. Upright Joseph, who knows he has never been intimate with his fiancée, is troubled, but believes when Gabriel confirms Mary’s story. But none of the rest of Nazareth was treated to an angelic visit. As soon as Mary’s returns from Zechariah and Elizabeth’s with a noticeable bump, rumors started to spread. Mary and Joseph had been improper, and to top it all off they tried to say the baby was the promised Messiah, the one carried by a virgin as Isaiah had prophesied. Not only is Mary whispered about as a woman of ill repute, but she is a lying lunatic on top of it all.
And then Caesar Augustus issues his decree for a census to make sure everyone was paying their fair share. Mary and Joseph are forced to go to Joseph’s ancestral home, Bethlehem. This is not a short distance—about 80 miles—and there is no Biblical indication that the couple had a donkey. Pregnant Mary was likely made to walk for a long distance, and late in a pregnancy this could have taken a week or more to complete!
Once they arrive in Bethlehem, there is no place for them to stay. Don’t be confused by the phrase “there was no room for them in the inn.” Bethlehem is beyond tiny. In our country, a city like Bethlehem would be lucky to have as much as a gas station. It’s not like the Holiday Inn and the Super 8 have put out their “No Vacancy” signs. A better translation would be “there was no guest room for them.” If you were staying overnight in Bethlehem, you stayed in a family member’s house. So that there is no room for the Holy Family is shameful enough if you put it in terms of strangers—no one would give even a corner of a room to a woman in labor. But don’t forget the details that St. Luke has given! They have gone to Joseph’s ancestral city. No one from Joseph’s family would even let the couple in. Since they had yet to receive a wedding invitation, they assumed the story of the baby’s conception was shameful, and not one aunt or uncle or cousin twice removed would allow Mary a shred of dignity with which to birth her child.
So Jesus is born in a shed, next to animals and their dung, while mice burrow into the straw to find a warm home and birds fly in and out of the rafters. Mary does not have a sterile hospital room, no epidural, no ice chips, no doctor to monitor mother or child. Joseph, a carpenter, takes on the role of doctor and nurse. Once He is delivered, Jesus is wrapped, not in a soft, clean blanket, but whatever rags the couple was able to assemble. And tired Mary is not given a bassinet or a few hours with the baby sent to the nursery for examinations and immunizations. She has to fill the manger, the animals’ feeding trough, with fresh hay so Jesus can have a place to sleep.
Into this scene come running the shepherds, the rednecks of the first century. The smelly, backwoods men who spent their days talking to sheep came with a message of an angel and a multitude of the heavenly host. And they don’t just visit Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. As St. Luke said, “And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.” An already displeased Bethlehem is now greeted in the middle of the night by shepherds with a story just as delusional as Mary’s story of a virgin conceiving.
This is just Jesus’ birth. You know well how the rest of His life will play out. He will live in poverty without a home to call His own. He will be rejected by the very people He came to save. And ultimately a murderer will be released from jail in His place so the Lord of Life can be put to death.
This is what Jesus has done for you, His true love. He suffered every indignity known to man all for you. It could have been different. God could have pointed a finger or spoken a word and undone the whole problem of sin. But instead He came to live with it all around Him. He came to be affected by it personally at every turn. He came to be one with you in your weakness, in your poverty, in your pain, in your sadness, in your anger, in everything. Jesus has come and endured all the same things you do out of love for you so you will never have to go the way alone. And even more, He has come to die so that you never will. He has tasted the cup of wrath poured out by the Father so that you will only taste the eternal wedding feast in heaven.
Salvation history is messy. It may not be as romanticized as an ornate nativity scene, but it is full of love. Everything that you have heard tonight, every story of Holy Scripture was lived out for your salvation, to bring you to the eternal joys of heaven. There you will experience glory and beauty and warmth that no earthly Christmas could ever bring or ever try to compete with. Christ is born, and He is born for you, to give you the only Christmas presents you’ll ever need: forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.
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.