December 24, 2017 A+D
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Luke 2 lays out the great drama. Caesar Augustus sent out a decree for all the world to be taxed. This caused Joseph to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Bethlehem was too small to have any hotels. The word translated “inn” is misleading. It was Joseph’s relatives who had no room on the couch for Joseph and his expectant bride. Somehow they found themselves sheltered with the animals and Mary made a makeshift crib from a manger, a feeding trough. The angels then told the shepherds that the Messiah, Christ, had been born. They came and worshipped Him where He was laid in state in the straw and dung, wrapped in cloths reminiscent of burial robes.
This account is so well known among us that is almost like the liturgy. Luke 2 isn’t anyone’s personal property. It is not catholic or Lutheran or Protestant. No one dare claim it is his personal specialty or expertise. It belongs to all of us, indeed to all of humanity. Luke 2 is like an old friend. It is loved precisely because there are no surprises, no changes, nothing new. It is comfortable, predictable, and trustworthy. That is why we have to read it in the King James version. No one wants a single syllable to change.
And, yet, despite that, it also full of mystery, of wonder. This is the Word of God and no fable. The Word of God does not return void. It has something to say and something to do. This isn’t merely a story or an historic account. Here God speaks and, by this Word, God changes those who hear it with repentant and believing hearts.
We do well to cultivate such hearts, to contemplate these holy things anew, to remember not only what we’ve always known and loved, but also to allow the Word to have its way with us. Tonight I ask you to consider the account once again and to ask yourselves something a bit different. How many places in Luke chapter 2 can you see the hand of the devil at work? Where is our adversary, that ancient enemy of our race, among shepherds and angels and mangers?
I count six instances. We might be able to reduce it to three by combining a few of them and I might have missed a one of two, but six is a good number for the devil and that is what we’ve got tonight.
Number one: Caesar Augustus. Caesar is obviously a satanic figure, under satanic influence. He rules the world for his own gain. He murders the pious. He is impressive in many ways, powerful and clever, but ultimately, he is a tyrant and a dictator, who uses his citizens.
Next is the decree to tax. I am not against paying taxes, but we should recognize that taxes are always a burden and come both of greed and of necessity. If we lived perfectly according to the law of love, not only would we not have to worry about abuse and waste, but there wouldn’t be any need to tax at all. No one would compel us to give for the good of our neighbors. We wouldn’t wait for the government to help. We would simply do it naturally and with joy.
Third is the fact that there is no room in the inn. Bethlehem has very little sympathy for a young pregnant woman and her child. This is worse than barbaric: it is demonic. I’d like to say it is unthinkable, but we live in a country that uses taxes to murder babies and refuses to criminalize this most horrific of acts. It is perfectly thinkable among us though I pray one day it won’t be. For now, it is legal and is often thought to be a mark of freedom. At least the citizens of Bethlehem didn’t pretend that exiling a pregnant mother was somehow a medical act.
The fourth thing goes along with that. It is the unspoken reality in Luke 2 that childbirth is painful and dangerous, that Mary will be hurt by it and that the Baby will bring burdens and responsibilities for both Mary and Joseph. That, of course, is precisely why some people prefer to kill babies. They are always costly and often inconvenient. That is true even when they are loved, and all that is a direct result of the Fall and Satan’s influence among us.
The fifth is that the shepherds must watch their flocks through the night. They can’t just go to bed. There are predators that threaten the sheep. The world is a violent place and it isn’t just wolves and lions that threaten, it is also their neighbors and people from other villages and tribes.
Finally, the sixth thing, is that the shepherds are sore afraid of the angels. This is because they are not holy. They are sinners like us. When they are confronted with God’s glory they are rightly afraid of being destroyed. Woe to us of unclean lips!
Surely this present evil and the threats all around her are a large part of what Mary ponders in her heart. For the true merriness of Christmas is not some naive sense of well-being or the idea that we are okay because we have nice families and next year will be better. That is a crock. The true merriness of Christmas is that which is known even when all that the world celebrates is taken away. It is enjoyed even in the midst of sadness and disappointment. It is the merriness that is felt by captives when they are told they are about to be released, the joyous relief of the watchmen who have waited all night and now see hints in the sky that dawn has nearly arrived. The merriness of Christmas is the ecstasy of the condemned who are unexpectedly pardoned, of a man drowning in the ocean, snapped at by sharks, suddenly thrown upon the shore alive to breathe pure air once again.
Christ comes not only in winter but also in darkness. Satan is most certainly present in Bethlehem. This is the darkness that did not comprehend Him but which, nonetheless, surrounded Him, filled His lungs, and put Him to death. This itself, the darkness, has been undone in that very sorrow. Christ finished it for us. He was born to bring peace and He brings it to the Upper Room on Easter Eve. After He had died and risen, He breathes the peace promised to shepherds and sends the Apostles to ends of the earth with that same peace. God is not our enemy. The ransom has been paid. Justice has been satisfied. The criminals are pardoned and shepherds are welcomed in the court of the King.
The darkness that did not comprehend Him, but which did kill Him, was overcome. Yet it still endures. It clings to us, choking us, lying to us. We need to remember the darkness tonight lest we get the false and romantic impression that all was peaceful and quaint in Bethlehem and that Luke 2 is the set up for a feel good story meant to inspire and comfort us right where we are. That is not accurate. God is never interested in keeping us as we are. He is interested in redeeming us and redeeming us means that He moving us from one place to another.
Some think we don’t need to be reminded of the darkness. We all live in the pain and disordered frustration of the darkness and death and Satan. All of us face tomorrow’s festivities with dysfunctional families and broken homes, at least, all of us do who are fortunate enough to have families. Those that have families will have people missing and people misbehaving. All of us will suffer unmet expectations.
But we are good at denial, at pretending that we live in magic winter wonderland and feeding sentimental delusion. So we need reminders pointed reminders that Christ was born “amid the cold of winter, when half-spent was the night.” This isn’t a winter wonderland with sleighs and frosty and snow angels. The Lord wasn’t born at a ski resort, favoring the rich and famous. He was born in a cold and dangerous place for babies and their mamas, for shepherds and their sheep, in a backwater village that snubbed Him, rejected from the beginning.
He comes into the darkness to dispel it. If the darkness ain’t that bad, then we don’t really need Him to dispel it but are just looking for a drinking buddy. He comes into death’s kingdom in order to save us and lighten the loads of the heavy laden. But, again, if death is just part of the circle of life and a benevolent dictator rather than a cruel tyrant, then Jesus is just an amusement.
That is wrong. The darkness is a threat. It isn’t our friend. The devil doesn’t keep his bargains. Death is relentless and without pity. The Lord knows our weaknesses. He knows that they are not simply circumstances, but that we have brought them upon ourselves by our own poor and selfish choices. He knows that we are oppressed and yet also that we are afraid of Him and uncooperative. Yet He does not turn away. He comes in meekness and gentleness, in the winter, in the darkness. And He sends the angels before Him specifically to say: “Do not be afraid.” He has come to lead us to the endless day, to the end of night and darkness, of predators and cold, of cancer and disease. He has come to shut the devil’s mouth, to dispel the darkness even from our own hearts.
We are rightly reminded to “keep Christ in Christmas” and to remember “the reason for the season” lest myths of Santa Claus and Rudolph and nostalgic love of family, along with all sorts of barely concealed lust for things and gluttony, overcome us and we become deluded, forgetting that Christmas commemorates the birth of Christ come for sinners not the coming of a friend to pat us on the back. Many cries have likewise reminded us to “keep the Mass in Christmas.” That, too, needs to be said.
But if I may be permitted to add one more slogan and to put it rather unconventionally, we must also keep the devil in Christmas. We must keep the darkness. We must keep Bethlehem’s neglect, if not its malice. We must keep the pain of childbirth and the dangers of disease in unsanitary stables. We must keep the coldness of hearts and the fear of the Shepherds and the wolves that threatened their flocks in Christmas. We must keep the devil in Christmas.
It is not simply that these things are integral to the story, necessary bad guys to be overcome to make things interesting, to make hero likeable. These things are the precise need that caused Christ to come then and now. They aren’t plot devices. They are the historical threats and sorrows that He endured and which are still our reality. They are the reason we need a Savior given unto us.
So keep the devil in Christmas. Keep a keen awareness of the darkness into which Christ came, and still must come, for our sakes. For then, in the context of our need, will our hearts be repentant and believing and we become capable of pondering who God is and what God has done. Then our hearts will receive Christ with merry and joyous gratitude and we will all be glad to leave behind the happiness of Christmas with family on earth for the eternal joys of the endless day.
Here is the thing. The inevitable imperfections and disappointments of our Christmases tomorrow, the family fights, the temper tantrums, and the sadness of missing loved ones, are the ruins and aftereffects of a great and ancient calamity. They are the darkness that we now endure. They are tokens of a disordered order. They are the inheritance of Adam that was forced upon us in the pains of childbirth. Sin, death, and Satan are the reason for the season but unto us a Savior is born.
He is born unto us in the darkness, in straw and dung. That is what we celebrate: the giving of a Savior for us who saves us from the darkness. That is what makes us merry. Keeping the devil in Christmas helps to lift the veil of illusion about who we are and what we were made to be and what Christmas “means” or should be. In the dark of night, in the cold of winter, when things were bad and we needed Him most, when we could not help ourselves and had no right to ask, despite the cost, unto us a Savior is born.
The entire cosmos has been transformed by this. God is not just a “man” as was Adam, taken from the clay and purely made. Rather He has deliberately joined Himself to us after the Fall. He was born in the darkness, in the winter, rejected by His people. He is not made from the clay. He is made from the fallen and vulnerable flesh of Mary, post-curse, under the Law. He Himself commits no sin, but He takes all the consequences of sin on for us.
He has done more than join our race: He has also joined our cause – in the cold of winter, when half-spent was the night, while shepherds watched their flocks in fear of the dark, while wicked Herod thought himself king and Caesar issued decrees. If the Father will not accept His Sacrifice for us then He, the Christ, will endure eternity in Hell with us because He is one of us, is for us, and is with us. Unto us a Savior is born. Nothing can ever be the same again.
And, of course, the Father does accept the Sacrifice. He sent His Son for this very purpose. He is the One who gives us Him to us as our Savior and even before it was done, He sent the angels to tell the shepherds: “Good tidings of great joy, unto you is born a Savior. Peace on earth, good will to men.”
The darkness does not yet go away. It still haunts us and threatens us. Shepherds must continue to watch and guard their flocks. But Christ the light can make even the bleakest midwinter, even the saddest home and table, into a landscape glistening with promise – not of chesnuts and sugar plums, tin soldiers and Mario kart, but of peace with God, of the beatific vision, of hope.
Unto us a Savior is born. God is with us. He won’t quit or stop until He has led us to the endless day. The dawn is breaking. Unto us a Savior is born.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.
This sermon was heavily influenced by and borrowed much from this wonderful article by William Clay God Rest Ye Merry On Celebrating the Darker Meaning of Christmas. Available at Touchstone Magazine’s archives on the internet: