Gift of Love

Text: Luke 2:1-2
Date: Christmas Eve + 12/24/12

Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord. Yes, that’s right, you heard it, “King.” The little baby Jesus was born in a humble stall, not in a palace. Nevertheless, He is royalty, born to be King of a Kingdom not “of” this world though “in” it. And unlike the temporary claims of this world’s autocrats, His is the everlasting kingdom, the King-dom of God. So, blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.

The pastor of my youth, Pastor Alton Wedel, wrote a lit-tle book called “Chin Up!?”  The second “devotional prelude to praise” is called “When Is Christmas?” He was getting at the personal meaning of Christmas, saying, “We are not in-terested in the date we celebrate as Christmas, for this we are familiar with, and by the celebration we cannot believe that this is Christmas.” Then he says, “When we understand that God has come to get beneath the burden of our human need, identify Himself with us in all of the realities of life, and save us from our sins—then is Christmas.”

But how are we to understand that God has actually iden-tified Himself with us “in all of the realities of life”? The claim of the Christian faith should also be “interested in the date” of Christmas for the reason that, either it really hap-pened or it didn’t. Now, of course, we will admit right off the bat that we do not mean to claim that December 25th is actu-ally Jesus’ birthday. It is the date chosen by the first Chris-tians to celebrate and confess the important doctrine of the incarnation. But it is important to say that Christ became a real human baby, born of an actual woman, born under the law, born, as the Bible says, “in the fullness” or “at the right time” (Gal 4:4; Rom 5:6) in our world, in a place you can zoom in to on Google Maps, in the historical records of the world.

The historical records! Tonight you heard the historic “Proclamation of the Birth of Christ” sung by the deacon be-fore the Divine Service of Christmas Midnight since ancient times. Interestingly, only since the Julian and Gregorian cal-endars came into effect do we care or even know when that “fullness” or “right time” of the birth of Jesus was relative to today. Before that people didn’t really count “years” as much as “eras” or “epochs.” In other words, they didn’t know that they lived so many years “before Christ” or so many since he was born “anno Domine” as a human.

Did you notice how imprecise the Christmas Proclama-tion is at the beginning? “Today,” it begins, “the 25th day of December” is “unknown ages from the time when God cre-ated the heavens and the earth.” Well, the Jewish calendar dares to tell us that today is the year 5773 since the creation of the world, which would make the first Christmas, what? the year 3761! The Proclamation continues counting, “sev-eral thousand years after the flood,” “twenty-one centuries from the time of Abraham and Sarah; thirteen centuries af-ter” the Exodus, “eleven hundred years from the time of Ruth and the judges; one thousand years from the anointing of David as king; in the sixty-fifth week according to the prophecy of Daniel,” “in the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad.” An Olympiad, as you know, is a period of four years, associated with the Olympic Games of the Ancient Greeks, as it is to this day, the winter and summer Olympics each two years apart. During the Hellenistic period, Olympi-ads were used as a calendar epoch. The first Olympiad was, according to our calendar, 776 B.C., which just happens to be exactly, as the Proclamation says, 194 times 4. (By the way, this year we call 2012 is the 697th Olympiad.) “AUC” is the abbreviation for the founding of the city of Rome, the birth of Christ being 752 years later. Finally, the Proclamation concludes, “The forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus.”

Now, if your eyes haven’t glazed over quite yet we should ask, why are such numbers important? Well, even St. Luke seems to think we should be interested in and know the details that the birth of Christ happened when “a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be regis-tered,” which “was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria,” namely, (as we count in today’s “cor-rected” Gregorian calendar) the year 4 B.C. Luke’s goal was “to write an orderly account” that we “may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3).

How certain are you of Christmas? I heard that a certain celebrity recently criticized the celebration of Christmas be-cause, she said, “we should not perpetuate the myth of Santa Claus.” Well, this person not only did not nail the real event of Christmas but emphasized that there is something about Christmas that is all balled up in myth, fantasy and fiction. She had no certainty in anything. And there certainly has been much myth and fantasy and fiction that has grown up around the ancient celebration. Unfortunately, this is all that many people know about Christmas, namely, the myth, fan-tasy and fiction. That we are celebrating something that really happened, namely, the incarnation of the Son of God into our human flesh, itself lives in the minds of many only in the realm of presumed myth, fantasy and fiction, hence our emphasis and insistence on the actual, historic event.

Now it is true that, as St. John put it, when “the Word became flesh” it was an event that changed the whole uni-verse, that exploded, if you will, the world view like a nu-clear explosion; that, as the Proclamation says, “the eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to sanctify the world by his most merciful coming, being conceived by the Holy Spirit, and nine months have passed since his concep-tion, was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary.” The eternal Father, God was born, it says!

Today we find things pretty much the same as when it originally happened—that is, no big explosions or celebra-tions or even notice of anything of importance happening. For, by itself, Christmas, even when properly understood, only tells the beginning of the story. What story? The story of nothing less than God’s love, the Gift of Love.

To tell the story of Christmas with the real drama at hand we need someone like English composer Edward Benjamin Britten who wrote the dramatic words and the even more dramatic music to tell the real story:

This little babe so few days old,
is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake,
though he himself for cold do shake;
For in this week unarmed wise
the gates of hell he will surprise.

That surprise was that His majesty, first, should look so vagrant for a time; that His holiness should look so “nor-mal,” that His victory should look of all things like defeat. Yet so it was and so it is. This night we announce to the world the arrival of the King of the universe. Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord. But we point peo-ple not to a palace or a joyful parade but to a little feeding trough, a “manger,” outside of an inn, in a stall for animals in the little, out-of-the-way town called Bethlehem of Judea.

He was always King, from crèche to cross. But He be-stowed the gifts of His kingdom by His obedience to God’s gracious will to provide the only atoning sacrifice equal to our need, the offering of the body of His Son on the cross of crucifixion. That’s what St. John the Baptist was looking for, the victorious battle of the Lamb of God taking away the sin of the world. But He took it away not with force or might in battle, but by shedding His holy blood. And He continues to take away your sin even as you receive His true body and blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.

It was by His birth that He began His journey and by His death that he rifled Satan’s fold and shook the very gates of hell. You know, the powerful text of Britten’s wonderful piece, “This Little Babe,” is almost impossible to hear as the melody piles up to a triple canon or round.

With tears he fights and wins the field,
His naked breast stads for a shield.
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows looks of weeping eyes.
His martial ensigns Cold and Need,
And feeble flesh his warrior’s steed.

His camp is pitched in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall;
The crib his trench, haystalks his stakes,
Of shepherds he his muster makes.
And thus as sure his foe to wound,
The angels’ trumps a-larum sound.

Then it concludes:

My soul with Christ
Join thou in fight;
Stick to the tents
That he hath pight.
Within his crib
Is surest ward;
This little Babe
Will by thy guard.

If thou wilt foil they
Foes with joy, then
Flit not from this
Heavenly boy!

No more flitting! But a joyful faith to welcome the King who comes in the name of the Lord.