Our Preposterous God
December 25, 2017 / Christmas Day / Pastor Richard Holmer
First Reading: Isaiah 62:6-12 / Second Reading: Titus 3:4-7 / Gospel: Luke 2:1-20
Our Preposterous God
In this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, it seems appropriate to hear a bit from some of Martin Luther’s Christmas sermons. Luther contemplates the very human details included in the gospel narrative, as well as the profound spiritual implications of Christ’s coming as a helpless baby. Listen, then, to what Luther has to say – and then reflect on how his words speak to us today.
Let us, then, meditate upon the Nativity just as we see it happening in our own babies. I would not have you contemplate the deity of Christ, the majesty of Christ, but rather his flesh. Look upon the Baby Jesus. Divinity may terrify man. Inexpressible majesty will crush him. That is why Christ took on our humanity, save for sin, that he should not terrify us but rather that with love and favor he should console and confirm.
Behold Christ lying in the lap of his young mother, still a virgin. What can be sweeter than the Babe, what more lovely than the mother! What fairer than her youth! What more gracious than her virginity! Look at the Child, knowing nothing. Yet all that is belongs to him, that your conscience should not fear but take comfort in him. Doubt nothing. Watch him springing in the lap of the maiden. Laugh with him. Look upon this Lord of Peace and your spirit will be at peace. See how God invites you in many ways. He places before you a Babe with whom you may take refuge. You cannot fear him, for nothing is more appealing to man than a babe. Are you affrighted? Then come to him, lying in the lap of the fairest and sweetest maid. You will see how great is the divine goodness, which seeks above all else that you should not despair. Trust him! Trust him! Here is the Child in whom is salvation. To me there is no greater consolation given to mankind than this, that Christ became man, a child, a babe, playing in the lap and at the breasts of his most gracious mother. Who is there whom this sight would not comfort? Now is overcome the power of sin, death, hell, conscience, and guilt, if you come to this gurgling Babe and believe that he is come, not to judge you, but to save.
St. John begins his gospel by telling of Christ’s incarnation: how the Word became flesh. Luther likewise encourages us to focus on the humanity of Jesus: think of Jesus as “one of our own babies,” he says. Christ came as an infant so as not to terrify us with awesome, divine majesty – but to comfort us with tender vulnerability. Luther sees the baby as God’s invitation to draw near in faith. “Laugh with him,” says Luther! And “Trust him! Trust him!” Remove all the trappings of shepherds and angels and miraculous stars – and the essential truth is what matters: “Christ became man, a child, a babe.” For both St. John and Luther, what makes all the difference is the grace and truth of God coming among us as a human person. What is asked of us is faith to believe “that he is come, not to judge you, but to save.”
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The centrality of faith is never far from Luther’s mind. Throughout his many Christmas sermons, he marvels at the faith of those first believers. For Luther it is a minor miracle that a virgin should conceive and bear a son. This is not difficult for God to manage. What amazes him is that Mary believes it! Her faith is the wondrous thing in the story!
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Luther explores the theme of incarnation as a possibility for our lives: that Christ the Savior can also be formed in each of us – that his grace and mercy can find a home in our lives, that we might serve as “little Christs.”
Listen to another segment from Luther’s sermons. Notice what he says about how we are to listen.
For our sakes he has taken flesh and blood from a woman, that his birth might become our birth. I too may boast that I am a son of Mary. This is the way to observe this feast – that Christ be formed in us. It is not enough that we should hear his story if the heart be closed. I must listen, not to a history, but to a gift. If I tell you that someone on a certain mountain peak has picked up a hundred gulden, you will say, “What is that to me?” But if you are the one who has picked it up, you will be joyful. What is it to me if someone else has goods, honors, riches, and a pretty wife? That does not touch the heart. But if you hear that this Child is yours, that takes root, and a man becomes suddenly so strong that to him death and life are the same.
The notion of Christ taking flesh in our lives is expressed in the carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” We sing:
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
Luther would gladly sing such words!
In order to receive the richness of this promise, we need to open our hearts: “It is not enough that we should hear his story if the heart be closed.” You and I need to hear of Christ’s coming, not as dry history – but as a gift. Luther draws the distinction between someone else experiencing a blessing – and experiencing a great blessing yourself. To hear the Christmas story as a gift is to realize Christ is born FOR YOU! “When you hear that this Child is yours,” says Luther, “that takes root, and a person becomes suddenly so strong that to him death and life are the same.”
In a final excerpt, Luther reflects on how unlikely and unexpected God’s ways can seem to us. He calls the story preposterous – not at all how he would have done it if it had been up to him. And so again faith is called for to find meaning in a story that can seem illogical and strange:
Our God begins with angels and ends with shepherds. Why does he do such preposterous things? He puts a Babe in a crib. Our common sense revolts and says, “Could not God have saved the world some other way?” I would not have sent an angel. I would simply have called the devil and said, “Let my people go.” The Christian faith is foolishness. It says that God can do anything and yet makes him so weak that either his Son had no power or wisdom or else the whole story is made up. Surely the God who in the beginning said: “Let there be light,” “Let there be a firmament,” “Let the dry land appear,” could have said to the devil, “Give my back my people, my Christians.” God does not even send an angel to take the devil by the nose. He sends, as it were, an earthworm lying in weakness, helpless, without his mother, and he suffers him to be nailed to a cross. The devil says, “I will judge him.” So spoke Caiaphas and Pilate, “He is nothing but a carpenter,” and then in his weakness and infirmity he crunches the devil’s back and alters the whole world. He suffered Himself to be trodden under the foot of man and to be crucified, and through weakness he takes the power and the Kingdom.
God is amazing. The Babe is in a manger, not worthy of a cradle or a diaper, and yet he is called Saviour and Lord. The angels sing about him, and the shepherds hear and come and honor him whom no maid serves as he lies with an ox and an ass. If I had come to Bethlehem and seen it, I would have said: “This does not make sense. Can this be the Messiah? This is sheer nonsense.” I would not have let myself be found inside the stable.
Luther calls the Christian faith “foolishness” – yet along with St. Paul he realizes that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (I Cor 1:25)
The challenge for believers is not to find a way for God to make sense on our terms, but rather to make sense of our lives on God’s terms. As Luther states quite clearly in his Small Catechism, it is not possible for any of us by our own understanding or effort to believe in Jesus Christ. We depend on the Holy Spirit to fill us with the light of faith. By faith we can trust that the one whom Luther likens to “an earthworm, lying in weakness, helpless without his mother” – is in truth God come down to earth to save us.
Only a person of profound faith would dare to liken the Savior to an earthworm! Luther engages in hyperbole to describe the magnitude of Christ’s incarnation.
Christ in the manger/God in the flesh is beyond all reason, it’s inconceivable to the human imagination, it defies logical explanations. And this is our hope and our salvation.
God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are God’s ways our ways.
Thanks be to God!