Christmas From Below

Christmas From Below

“Whoever wants a gracious God must not bypass Jesus Christ, the proper mercy seat (Rom. 5:25); whoever seeks God apart from Christ will end up meeting the God, not of mercy but of wrath, as described by Moses as a ‘devouring fire’ (Deut.4:24).[1]

If we look back on his body of work during this season, we find Martin Luther’s Christmas preaching is strikingly earthly. Commenting on the Magnificat, Luther speaks of God’s work in the womb of Mary as a work done in the depths: “Thus God’s work and His eyes are in the depths, but man’s only in the heights” (AE 21:301). Christmas wrecks all attempts to penetrate God’s hiddenness and seek Him out in Heaven. He comes to us clothed in our humanity. In obscure Bethlehem, God demonstrates His favor for sinners, “by stepping down so deep into flesh and blood” (AE 52:12). The eternal Word of the Father is made flesh to dwell among us. The incarnation is not a sign that points us to an absent deity, but the Creator of all things now Himself a creature without ceasing to be Creator!

This is no theoretical incarnation as if the message of Christmas was simply that God is like Jesus or that Jesus is a window through which we see God more clearly. No this boy in the manger is God. More than that, He is God for us. If John the Baptist was the great preacher of Advent, then the angel of Luke 2:10ff is the first and greatest preacher of Christmas. “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

Preaching the Gospel always hangs on the “for you.” This simple phrase saves hearers from being subjected to merely a lesson in history or chided with moralistic exhortations to strive for more joy or give more generously. Preachers imitate the angel announcing that the Savior born in Bethlehem, wrapped in swaddling clothes and resting in a manger is for you.  The boy lying in a crib is the Word made flesh for you.

In the fullness of time, God did not send a book, an ethicist, an action plan, a mystical experience, a liturgy or a church.  He sent the Word.  Hermann Sasse helpfully explains, “the consummation of revelation, the incarnation of the only Son of God is described in this sentence: ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory’ (John 1:14).The characteristic feature of biblical revelation is that it is historical revelation.”[2] In Christ, God “the King of kings and lord of lords, who alone has immortality” steps out of His dwelling “in inapproachable light “ where no mortal can ever see or know Him (cf. I Timothy 6:16) to be born of a woman located in what Martin Franzmann once referred to as “garden variety history” when Caesar Augustus ruled Rome (cf. Luke 2:1).

The preaching of Christmas brings us not to God in His majestic and terrifying hiddenness forever out of reach, but to God hidden in flesh and blood to reveal Himself as our Savior. God condescends to be Emmanuel among and for sinners. Luther observes that if God were out to destroy us, He would have not taken on our flesh. “He has the power to cast us into hell, yet he took soul and body like ours… If he were against us he would not have clothed himself in our flesh”[3]. In the weakness of Mary’s baby and in the poverty of a cattle shed, the glory of the glory is revealed in the flesh of our flesh to see, touch, and hear. Christmas is more than an object lesson or an iconic illustration of God’s good will; it is God coming in the flesh to die for those who despised Him. The crib and the cross are of the same wood, as Helmut Thielicke quipped.[4] The Lord takes on flesh and blood to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of world by making Himself the once and for all sacrifice for sin. He was born to die and through His death we are reconciled to our Creator (cf. II Corinthians 5:18-6:2).

The heavens were opened above the prairies of Bethlehem, not to give the shepherds a glimpse into the celestial sphere, but to announce to them the birth of Him who was given for them and for us. God grant us preachers who mimic the angel in proclaiming the Savior as the Father’s gift for you.

———————————————————

[1] Dennis Ngien, Luther’s Theology of the Cross: Christ in Luther’s Sermons on John (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2018), 44.

[2] Hermann Sasse, “The Church and the Word of God” in The Lonely Way, Vol. I (1927-1939), ed. Matthew C. Harrison (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2001), 154. This is a very valuable essay for preaching as Sasse demonstrates how the Word made flesh is never to be separated from the revealed, proclaimed, and written Word. Just as the Son of God becomes man without ceasing to be God, so, “the Word of God spoken in history becomes a human word, and yet it does not cease to be God’s Word” (154-155).

[3] Cited from a Luther sermon of 1527 (WA 23:731) by Norman Nagel in “Heresy, Doctor Luther, Heresy!” in Dona Gratis Donta: Essays in Honor of Norman Nagel on his Ninetieth Birthday, ed. J. Vieker, B. Day, and A. Collver (Manchester, MO: Nagel Festschrift Committee, 2015), 307.

[4] Helmut Thielicke, Being a Christian When the Chips are Down, trans. H. George Anderson (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), 101.

Print Friendly and PDF
Gospel: Luke 2:22-40 (Christmas 1: Series C)

Gospel: Luke 2:22-40 (Christmas 1: Series C)

Talking Shop: Preaching Christmas

Talking Shop: Preaching Christmas