Text: Matthew 1:23
Date: Advent IV + 12/23/07
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI
My only brother was born (nearly ten years before me!) on December 25. As Christmas and Birthdays are both occasions for gift giving I always wondered if as a child he ever felt short-changed because of that. Or was it I that felt a little jealous because he got the extra attention at Christmas? Honestly, I don’t remember feeling jealous. (He happened to call me this past week and so, all these years later, I asked him about that. He said, the interesting thing was that everyone was concerned that everyone else would combine Christmas and his birthday, so everyone tended to provide double gifts. It was quite a “racket”!)
I mention this to draw your attention to a similar double-celebration for your congregation, The Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word. In Europe it is a long tradition to celebrate not only a person’s birthday but also his or her name day. The reformer Martin Luther was named Martin because he was baptized on St. Martin of Tours day, November 11. So, St. John’s Lutheran Church would celebrate their name day on December 27 for St. John, Apostle and Evangelist, Trinity Lutheran churches on the variable dates of The Holy Trinity, St. Matthew’s on September 21 and so on. So it would seem most appropriate for the Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word to celebrate as your name day the festival of the Incarnation or Christmas! And what does the Incarnation say about a congregation called by that name?
The Incarnation of our Lord is what Christmas is all about. But, whereas we all have birthdays, of no one else than Jesus do we use the word “incarnation.” “Incarnation” means the embodiment of a previously existing spirit or quality. “In” means “in.” “Carne” means flesh or meat, as in Hispanic neighborhoods the “Carnecia” would be a meat market. The uniqueness and true miracle of Christmas is this: that the Second Person of the Triune God, The Logos, The Word, God the Son, took on human flesh of the Blessed Virgin Mary. From the moment of His conception in her womb, God took on our human nature to Himself never to give it up again. It is a mystery, beyond our understanding, how there can be only one God and yet this one God is a Trinity of Persons. The even greater mystery, beyond our understanding, then, is that now, in Jesus, the Word, the Son of God has two natures in one Person, divine and human. To this day and to all eternity Jesus is 100% God and, at the same time, 100% man. “Jesus” is the name of His human nature. “Son of God” is the name of His divine nature. And those two natures are personally united and joined in such a way that now, in Christ, what is said about God is said about Jesus, and what is said about Jesus is said about God. In Jesus, Mary is “the Theotokos,” the “Mother of God.” In Jesus we can say that God died on the cross. In Christ’s Ascension we can say that there is now a Man running the universe! And the purpose of it all is that, by faith in Jesus, much of what is said about Him can be said about you.
The significance of Christmas, of the Incarnation of the Son of God, and, by extension, of this congregation called by that name, is in the reason or purpose for which God took on our human nature, that the Creator would blur the lines by becoming part of His creation. And that reason and purpose is nothing less than the main message of the Gospel, the central, fundamental, main teaching and doctrine of the Bible, namely, salvation; or as we Lutherans like to say it in its most complete form, the justification of the sinner by God’s grace through faith in Christ alone without the works of the Law. It is how God determined to win back or reconcile Himself to His creation from the devastation of sin and death, namely, by taking all sin and death into Himself, away from us, swallowing it up in order to restore life the way He originally intended it to be, namely, eternal life. In order to do this He brought together His own life-giving power with the frailty of our human flesh—so that the debt of sin might be paid in full and yet His power of life might prevail.
Because of this purpose of salvation, and because it required God coming to us as one of us, the crib of Christmas and the cross of Calvary are of one piece, made of the same wood. In order to suffer the ravages of sin and to die for us it was necessary for Him to be born in flesh and blood like us. This is what the Book of Hebrews says so clearly when it says,
“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” [Hebrews 2:14-18].
Now it is because of that last part that the Christmas message is one of comfort and hope and joy and peace. “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.” “Glory to God in the highest,” sang the angels at His birth. Why? Because the Incarnation means “Peace to His people on earth.” The Incarnation proclaims comfort for all who are downcast.
The Christmas celebration, you know, is a challenge to many. For many Christmas is a real downer. For, instead of comfort and joy it brings to the minds of many loved ones who have died, losses we have experienced, and disappointments. Christmas can even accelerate depression for many. Just singing, “Joy to the world” doesn’t make it happen. That’s why God through His prophet identified the Savior not only as the son of the virgin but also with the words, “they shall call His name Immanuel.” “Immanu,” “with us.” “El,” God. God with us and not against us.
Christmas, the Incarnation is all about how God came and comes to show his good will to all in Christ Who is our Emmanuel, our brother, our flesh-and-blood, our Savior, and all of that whether you feel it or not. Apart from Christ God is only a consuming fire. Take away the humanity of Christ and all that is left is the majesty that terrifies. As God said to Moses, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Ex. 33:20), “for the Lord your God is a consuming fire” (Dt. 4:24; Heb. 12:29), and so Moses saw with his eyes only a burning bush and had to veil his face when he spoke with God. So also Isaiah cringed in terror when he saw the Lord in the temple (Is. 6:5), and Jacob, after wrestling with the angel, worshipped God, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered” (Gen. 32:30). So in Christ, true God and true Man, “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9). But in Christ the majesty and wrath of God is harnessed by His love. The inner group of disciples briefly saw his glory in the Transfiguration and they all “fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and have no fear.’ And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only” (Mt. 17:6-8). Only in Jesus can you dare to see God and live. The disciples’ hearts burned within them as the risen Christ spoke with them on the road to Emmaus and He made Himself known to them in the breaking of the bread (Lk. 24:30-35). So to this day, as in His humble beginnings in the feeding trough of a barn, He continues to come to us in, with and under the humble forms of simple bread and wine, saying, “This is my Body, this is my Blood, for you, for the forgiveness of sins.” In each generation He takes on new flesh and blood as He lives in His body on earth, the Church. He speaks through His authorized ministers according to His promise, “Whoever hears you hears Me” (Lk. 10:16). He welcomes, heals and renews people through the works of mercy and love of His Christians toward their neighbors according to His promise, “I am with you always to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:20) and, “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Mt. 25:40). In Christ we live in the hope of Job of old who confessed, “after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:26), the hope of the resurrection as the Apostle Paul said it, “for now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12).
The Incarnation of the Son of God. The Incarnate Word. This is the Gospel. This is the mission and message of the Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word. Happy Name Day! As the Word became flesh and dwelt among us at Christmas (John 1:14), and as He gives us His glorified Body and Blood in each Eucharist, may His grace be incarnate in your flesh.
O holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in,
Be born in us today. [LSB 361:4a]