Christmas Sermon on “O Jesus Christ, Thy Manger Is” (TLH 81)
St. Luke 2:1-7
Christmas Day 2011
+ Jesu Juva +
“Let us comment... on the incarnation, which is the greatest of all works and the most glorious of all miracles and such a benefit toward the human race, that we would die of joy if we could comprehend and measure the greatness of its benefits in our souls.” Thus wrote Martin Luther in his popular Christmas Book, which I hope some of you found under the tree this morning. Luther is the great theologian of the incarnation among the Reformers. See the facing hymn, TLH 80, for one of his two priceless Christmas hymns, along with “From Heaven Above.” But the greatest hymn writer on the incarnation is certainly Paul Gerhardt, whose hymns on the incarnation include today’s Hymn of the Day, “O Jesus Christ, Thy Manger Is.” It is appropriately paired with a fine tune from arguably the greatest tune writer in our heritage, Johann Crueger. From Luther’s foundation to Gerhardt’s poetry to our own singing this morning, our hymn meditation will preach the good news that the Word has indeed been made flesh to dwell among us.
1. O Jesus Christ, Thy manger is / My paradise at which my soul reclineth.
For there, O Lord, Doth lie the Word / Made flesh for us; herein Thy grace forth shineth.
This stanza emphasizes the place where Christ is. It may seem pretty basic – Jesus is in the manger, of course! But the question, “Where in the world is God?” is very important to the Christian faith. In Luther’s day, folks were asking, “How can I find a righteous God?” In our day, however, people are simply asking, “Where is God? Where was God on 9/11? Where is God when my loved one suffers a fatal disease? Where is God in my loneliness, illness, and despair?” In Luke 2, He is in the manger. He has contained His entire Godhead in a little Baby Boy in a cow trough, appropriately born in a cow town. And how important is this manger to the Christmas story? “Thy manger is / My paradise at which my soul reclineth.” Wherever Christ is, there is God. Wherever Christ is, there is paradise, for God and man are only united in Christ. There is a parallel case here for the President of the United States. The President usually rides in Air Force One. However, should he ride in a single-engine prop plane in an emergency, that plane would become Air Force One. And so wherever Christ is, there is paradise. For He left the kingly mansions of heaven and laid aside the glory and power of the Godhead. He stooped down to your level and became like you, except without sin. His manger is our paradise, “For there, O Lord, Doth lie the Word / Made flesh for us.”
2. He whom the sea / And wind obey / Doth come to serve the sinner in great meekness.
Thou, God’s own Son, With us art one, Dost join us and our children in our weakness.
You all know the following phrases from our standard Christmas repertoire of hymns: “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see / Hail! Incarnate Deity!” and “hail, the heav’nly Prince of Peace! Hail, the Sun of Righteousness!” and again, “True Godhead incarnate, omnipotent Word.” These are all rich phrases, proclaiming the good news that God is incarnate in Christ. But this phrase from this very stanza might be the best of them all: “He whom the sea and the wind obey / Doth come to serve the sinner in great meekness.” We think, for instance, of the following early Christian hymn from I Timothy 3[:16], “[Christ] was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” It all happened for you and for your salvation. The One who created the heavens and the earth by the simple power of His Word; the One who told the sea to be calm and it was calm; the One who ordered 153 fish into the disciples’ net and it happened; yes, the One who created and ordered all that exists was manifested (literally “epiphanied”) in the flesh. He is God’s own Son, yet by becoming man He has joined us “and our children in our weakness.” Christ has come to share your weakness, your frailty, and even your mortality. He has come to take your sin, suffering, and sickness into His own body, as we learn from st. 3.
3. Thy light and grace / Our guilt efface, Thy heav’nly riches all our loss retrieving.
Immanuel, Thy birth doth quell / The pow’r of hell and Satan’s bold deceiving.
This stanza reminds us of the early baptismal hymn in John 1[:1-14], where we read that the Word was in the beginning with God, that He was the light and the life. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (1:4). Christ is our Light and our Life. As this stanza puts it in the original language, “Light and Salvation” (Licht und Heil). Both images of the work of Christ – light and salvation – draw our attention to the cross and the battle between good and evil. Regarding the light, He has come to dispel the darkness of sin. Again, from St. John, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (1:9). On our own, we are lost in the darkness of sin. Without the light of Christ, we are condemned to die in spiritual darkness and eternal death. But the light has broken upon us once again this Christmas, chasing away the darkness of sin and eternal death. Regarding salvation, the root word suggests saving someone who is in danger of death. And so Satan came into this world, seized our souls, and kept them for his own. But Christ entered Satan’s domain by becoming man, defeated Satan by His death on the cross, and made us His own through Holy Baptism. And all heavenly riches, especially light and salvation, are restored to us in Christ.
4. Thou Christian heart, Whoe’er thou art, Be of good cheer and let no sorrow move Thee!
For God’s own Child, In mercy mild, Joins thee to Him; how greatly God must love Thee!
Here we sing of the good news that everything that is true of Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, is also true of us, the baptismal sons of God. “God’s own child... Join thee to Him.” Christ is not just a distant Deity. And He is not just another Man. Rather, He has joined Himself to your flesh and blood, including your sorrows and trials, by becoming one of us. Think of it this way: He did not just take on any flesh and blood, but your flesh and blood, as sure He died for your sins and took your sorrows into His own body. Again, from Martin Luther’s Christmas Book: “No power of eloquence can explain in words, indeed, no thought of the human mind can grasp this highest benefit and mystery, that the Son of God deigned to become man and my brother.” Think of the good news that Christ is your own brother (“blood brother,” as some German hymns put it). He is the only natural son in God’s family. Yet all that is true of His status before God the Father is also true of your relationship to God. In Christ, God the Father looks as you and He only sees a perfect child, one who is redeemed, restored, and forgiven.
5. Remember thou / What glory now the Lord prepared thee for all earthly sadness.
The angel host / Can never boast of greater glory, greater bliss or gladness.
Today the Gloria returns after its usual absence during Advent. It rings out anew this morning and we sing, “Glory be to God on high / And on earth peace, goodwill toward men” – words drawn from the Christmas story in Luke 2 (v. 14). In the general scheme of things, we think of God’s glory as involving angelic hosts, heavenly hymns, and the ongoing “Alleluia!” in heaven. This much is true. However, the good news of God’s glory at Christmas is the truth that God’s glory has dropped down to earth in Christ. St. John said, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:14). Scholars have long debated whether St. John’s reference to seeing God’s glory was talking about the Transfiguration, the incarnation in general, and maybe something else entirely. But it is safe to say that St. John was talking about God’s glory on earth. Just like the Gloria, isn’t it? Glory be to God on high, i.e., glory to God in heaven. But, through the incarnation, God’s glory lives on this earth with you. And He brings the peace of sins forgiven and life restored. Indeed, even the angels who proclaimed His birth in Luke 2 can never boast “Of greater glory... bliss or gladness.”
6. The world may hold / Her wealth and gold; But thou, my heart, keep Christ as thy true Treasure.
To Him hold fast / Until at last / A crown be thine and honor in full measure.
See the contrast in this stanza between the fleeting treasures of this world and the true treasures that Jesus brings. I am always struck in Luke’s Gospel by the contrast, for instance, between the “quiet faithful” in Luke 1 and 2 versus the passing references to Augustus and Quirinius. In Luke 1, in preparation for the birth of Christ, we read of Mary, Elizabeth, and Zechariah. In the birth narrative itself, we journey with Mary and Joseph, and with the faithful shepherds (2:1-14). Just after the birth of Christ, we read of Simeon and Anna (2:22-38). But suddenly, in the midst of these pious and faithful believers, comes a Roman census and two Roman leaders. Caesar Augustus, for whom our month of August is named, was the first and arguably the greatest of the Roman emperors. He ruled the great empire sine fine, the empire without end. Even this census, the first of its scope, was his way of measuring his worldly kingdom. His subordinate Quirinius was a pawn along the way, sent to govern Syria and keep order for the Pax Augusta, the peace of Augustus. It is safe to say that none of the secular rulers knew anything of the birth of Christ, or especially cared as they pursued the world’s wealth and gold. But we learn from the quiet faithful to leave aside the treasure of this world and keep Christ as our true treasure. While Rome expanded, the faithful in Luke 1–2 gave all their time and attention to two pregnancies, longing for the birth and ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus. Some two thousand years later, ancient Rome is a case study in decline and fall. But the baptism and preaching started by John and Jesus continues in our midst, giving gifts that know no end. For in Him will “a crown [will] be [ours] and honor in full measure.”
Thus is fulfilled in our midst today the church’s longing prayer of Advent IV, Rorate Coeli, “Drop down, ye heavens.” This timeless hymn on the incarnation proclaims the good news that the heavens are dropping down in Christ. His manger is the paradise where faithful souls recline. His cross and empty tomb are the places where life is restored and paradise regained. And the altar is the place where the paradisial union between God and man is enacted once again, as He gives us the body broken and the blood shed... for you.
Blessed Christ Mass!
+ In Jesus’ Name + Amen.
Rev. Brian Hamer