Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Creston, Iowa
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Mt 1:18-25, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Well, now the time is really getting close. In my house we’ve finally got the tree set up and there are all those pretty packages under it. In just less than a week we’ll tear our presents open with “unbridled avarice” (to quote one of one of my favorite Christmas movies). I know, I know, we all say that Christmas is about giving. We all say that the true joy of Christmas is in giving gifts, “it’s better to give than to receive.” But just ask any kindergarten kid who has spent any time salivating over the presents under the tree and they’ll tell you what Christmas is really all about. Christmas is for getting. “It’s better to receive than to give.”
Sometimes, giving is a tricky prospect anyway. Just ask any husband who’s made the fatal mistake of buying the wrong gift. In Reader’s Digest, Herb Forst gives hard learned advice on giving your wife a gift: “Don’t by anything [for your wife] that plugs in, it’s seen as utilitarian. Don’t buy anything with sizes, the chances you’ll get the size right are one in seven thousand. Don’t buy anything useful. Don’t by anything that involves self improvement or weight loss. These things are seen as suggestions. Don’t buy jewelry. You can’t afford the jewelry she wants and she doesn’t want what you can afford.” If the gift wasn’t really important we wouldn’t even think that was funny. (Maybe some of you don’t!) We all know that our hearts are set on the things that we will receive on Christmas. It’s about the getting. An American Express poll showed that “no gift” was preferable to a gift of fruitcake. In our minds “it’s the thought that counts” doesn’t really add up. A gift of clothes given to a child is opened with greater enthusiasm if it is given in a hard box.
Today I want you to set aside all the things you have to do, you know the last minute shopping and the like. I want you to think about what you’re getting for Christmas. Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood. I’m not saying that giving is unimportant. It’s just that really if we get right down to it, the real meaning of Christmas found in what we give, it’s found in what we have received. So, I want you to forget, for a moment, that you will be giving gifts to other people in a few days. Forget about all the buying, and the wrapping and the shipping and the delivering. Today, I want you to think about a gift, for you.
You see, that’s what the text today tells us about. It says, Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. With just that opening phrase we see it already in our minds: The wooden shed, the cattle and sheep, shepherds, Mary and Joseph, and the Gift, a baby in a manger. But, the gift of Christmas isn’t that we now have a quaint story about an unusual birth to delight children of all ages. The birth of Jesus Christ is about something much more. The gift of Jesus is that God became human flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:1ff). The gift of Jesus comes out clearly in the text where we read a different name for Jesus. The name is Immanuel, which means “God with us.”
Joseph almost missed it himself. He had to be told about Jesus. The angel appeared to him and cleared it up. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. That’s what “God with us” was coming to do. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (Jn 3:16, ESV)
In 1946 at the Los Alamos atomic laboratory, Dr. Louis Alexander Slotin and seven co-workers were doing experiments with plutonium. These pieces were harmless unless they were put together in the wrong way. Anciently that’s exactly what happened flooding the room with dangerous radiation. Dr. Slotin acted at once yanking the pieces apart with his bare hands. He knew what he was doing; he knew that he was exposing himself to an overwhelming dose of radiation. But by reacting so quickly he saved the lives of his seven colleagues. Nine days later he died.
When God became Immanuel—truly, physically, with us as the Son of a virgin—he didn’t come into the world as a safe laboratory experiment. He didn’t come here to see how things were going. He became a part of our world—our sinful, corrupt world, dangerous and dripping with death. He came, God with us, to save us from our sin, by taking on himself the poison of it. He came, as our gift from God, to expose himself to the lethal dose of our punishment. He gave his life for ours. (from an illustration by Scott D. Johnson, Conover NC, Concordia Pulpit Resources, Vol. 15, No. 1).
God came among us, in Jesus, to shed his blood on the cross, to suffer and die for the sins that you and I live in every day. As joyful as the season is suppose to be, it’s easy to see our sin as the holiday stress sneaks up on us: A short temper; a misspoken word of hurt; the “Holiday” excuse for neglecting our regular daily tasks; selfishly looking over our gifts with “unbridled avarice”; pushing the limits of credit without means to pay. Leave it to a holiday to bring out the worst in people. But it only brings to the surface what’s deep inside. To be a sinful human is to live with a selfish heart. To be a sinful human is to struggle to do the right thing when you want to do the wrong thing. To be a sinful human is to live every day with the knowledge that we don’t live up to even our own expectations for ourselves. To be sinful human is to know that the only thing that is ever going to bring all that to an end is death. That’s the nature of sin. Its hold on you, its power over you, is in the fact that it brings death. Old Satan whispers it in your ear every chance he gets. “You’re a sinful person and you deserve to die. God can’t stand sin so he can’t stand you.”
But that’s what the gift of Jesus is all about. “God with us” came to deal with sin in the only way it can be dealt with. Born in that manger was a man who was God, human in every way except for sin. His perfect life and innocent death was given for your sin. The author of Hebrews says it like this: 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. (Heb 2:14-15, ESV) Sin hasn’t any power over you any more because Jesus death for sin is your death for sin.
And there’s more. “God with us” isn’t just talking about the baby in the stable. It’s not only that Jesus walked and talked and healed and feed people who live at the time when he was born. His perfect life and death weren’t just for people who lived when he lived. He is still with us, today. He talks and heals and feeds us every day. I know you’ve heard about the gift that keeps on giving. Well, “God with us” is just that, because his gift didn’t end with his death on the cross. He rose again from death. He was dead and buried in the grave, but “God with us” came alive again to be with us always.
God is with us here in his living, breathing, Word. It’s not just a story about Jesus. It’s not just a tale about his birth and death and resurrection. It’s the truth about what God has done to deal with our sin. When the Word about Jesus fills our ears, the Holy Spirit fills our hearts and minds and gives us faith to believe, and faith to hold on to what Jesus has done. “God with us” is the power to believe.
God is with us here in his sacraments, too. They aren’t just empty actions that we do. In fact they are nothing that we do. They are nothing less than “God with us.” When a human pours water on another persons head and speaks God’s Word of forgiveness, God is there making the promise of forgiveness true for that person. Again the Holy Spirit creates faith. Again God is the power to believe. And how much more can God be with us than in the Body and Blood of Jesus. Even though we can never understand how it is true, we receive the precious gift of the very blood shed, and the very body beaten for us in the Lord’s Supper. There “God with us” brings forgiveness of sins as we open our mouths and eat and drink.
So that’s what I mean when I say I want us to think about what we are getting at Christmas. That’s what I mean when I say that Christmas isn’t about what we give but what we receive. So, as the day approaches think about Jesus, think about Immanuel, “God with us.” And look forward to getting something wonderful for Christmas. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.