The Third Sunday in Advent, December 15th, Year of Our + Lord 2013
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
Fear and rage, or wonder and rejoicing?
‘Baby Jesuses Stolen from Manger Scenes’ In standard sensationalist Drudge Report style, the headline on my computer intended to provoke a reaction. I felt discomfort with the awkward word that results when we try to make a plural out of ‘Jesus.’ Nevertheless, the desired reaction was achieve; I clicked to see the report of this most recent assault on Christmas. But I never got to the tab the article opened in, other Advent busy-ness drawing me away. Still, the headline stuck in my memory. So, even though it had dropped off into the oblivion of yesterday’s shocking news, I googled ‘Baby Jesuses Stolen’ to find the article. A click of my mouse revealed that stealing Baby Jesuses from manger scenes is not really news. Two different homes in the Pittsburgh area did have their Baby Jesus figures stolen from their Nativity scenes last week, but as I glanced through the first page of the 285 million results Google found, I realized that Baby Jesus gets stolen every year.
I don’t know why. Perhaps drunkenness and being a moron motivates some Baby Jesus thieves. Mindless, pseudo-rebellious cruelty and destructiveness certainly are a recurring bane of young male adulthood in America. Or maybe it is what Drudge wants to suggest, spiteful hatred of Christianity. Certainly of all the symbolic displays of Christianity in the world today, manger scenes are high on the list of most controversial. Crosses are the stuff of tattoos and extravagant jewelry worn to the wildest parties. The meaning of historic symbols for the Holy Trinity or the names of God, like those on the Chrismons on our Christmas Tree, are lost on most Church-goers, let alone the general public. I wear my baptismal pin almost every day, and most people think I have a dime magically clinging to my shirt. But put a manger scene in the wrong place, and lawyers-united-for-a-godless-holiday will descend with howls, celebrity spokesmen in tow, threatening to sue the stuffing out of anyone with the temerity to “force their religion down our throats.”
Unbelievers seem particularly offended, scandalized even, by depictions of angels and shepherds and a young mother, worshipfully kneeling around Baby Jesus in the manger. The story of Bethlehem creates wonder and joy in you, but the world rages, and seems afraid, like somehow the Nativity Scene might reach out and attack them.
And yet, sometimes I think the unbelievers get it, better than many Christians. I think sometimes unbelievers are scandalized by manger scenes because they understand precisely what they are, declarations that a baby born in Bethlehem two millennia ago was and is the Lord God Almighty, entered into human flesh in order to be the crucified Savior of sinners. Behold your God, proclaims the manger. I think sometimes that unbelievers resist public displays of Mary, Joseph and the Baby so strenuously because they are truly offended by these confessions of the Incarnation, these confessions of God in the flesh, in the person of Jesus Christ, which are a judgment on their unbelief.
When unbelievers take this kind of offense at the Baby Jesus, they are, in the midst of their fear and rage, at least understanding what the true Church says about Christmas. Indeed, they are not far from the Kingdom of Heaven, because Jesus must offend you, and judge you, if you are to be saved.
Jesus is always a judgment. The infant Jesus is of course a judgment on those who claim a woman has a right to abort her child at any time during pregnancy. For if God became an embryo, and the manger scene, along with the rest of Luke and Matthew’s birth narratives, loudly declare that He did, then God becoming an embryo declares that certainly life begins at conception, and is to be highly, highly valued. I mean, what more importance could God give to the unborn, than to join them in the womb? So Jesus in the manger is a judgment on the lies of the abortion industry, as well as the lies of those who find abortion distasteful, but support it because they really just want a license to be promiscuous, to sleep with whomever they want, whenever they want. Abortion is, supposedly, a way to have sex without any of the consequences. That’s pretty funny, imagining that we can avoid the consequences God has attached to abusing His gift, the gift God gave for the purposes of filling the earth with babies. It doesn’t work, God’s consequences can’t be avoided. And the consequences of abortion are profound, and heartbreaking, but people like to pretend.
But Baby Jesus is not just a judgment on the pro-abortion crowd. He judges all of us, does He not? Nails, spears, shall pierce Him through, the Cross, be borne for me, for you. Beautiful verse, seen through the joy of the Resurrection, but a judgment too. This Baby was born to die, in my place, for my sins. Because I am guilty.
Jesus is always a judgment. Even Miracle Worker Jesus, healing the sick, cleansing lepers, giving strength and vitality to the legs of the crippled, He too, judges. Miracle Worker Jesus makes a delayed judgment, because all those people He healed got sick again. For all the joy of healing, death and decay still surround us. Just go ask the folks over at Extended Care, if you dare. The frequency of faith is quite high in those rooms, but so is the bitter struggle of sickness and age, and the knowledge that no one escapes from the death which is part of God’s judgment on human sin.
Among those born of women there has arisen no one with a clearer understanding of God’s righteous judgment than John the Baptist. John came to prepare the way of the Lord, to prepare the way for his cousin Jesus, God in the flesh, born of Mary, come to fulfill God‘s judgment. John as the Lord’s prophet understands sin, and God’s just wrath against sin. “You brood of vipers,” John preached, “who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” John is a preacher of forgiveness ultimately, but he expects wrath first, and so Jesus, miracle-working Jesus, good news-preaching Jesus, confuses him. From prison John sends a question: “Are you the One, the Coming One, the Lord coming to judge and bring in the new Kingdom of God? Or should we look for another, since you don’t really seem to be very much of a judge?”
John the Baptist understands the rage and anger of the world against the Lord and His prophets. This fear driven anger and hatred toward God and His way is what has landed John in prison, and will eventually cost him his head. So, now that the Lord has come into human flesh, John fully expects Him to return rage for rage, to fulfill the fear of the wicked, to finally, once and for all, pour out His judgment on sinful humanity. But as he hears of Jesus healing the sick and preaching good news, bringing wonder and joy to the downtrodden, John doubts.
Jesus reassures John, in the best way possible, by preaching the Gospel, preaching good news to him. You remember, don’t you John, what Isaiah said about the Messiah, the Christ of God,? “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me." Don’t be offended, John, don’t be scandalized by what you see as a lack of judgment. All things, in due time. I, the Lord, am judge, of all, and judgment will come. Trust me.
John was the greatest ever born of women, but the least of those in the kingdom of heaven are greater than John. That is to say, of those born on earth, descendents of Adam and Even, born under the law, bound by their sin to dread the judgment of God, no one understood it better, no one preached it more clearly, than John. But the very least of those born from above, the very least of those made new by faith and the Holy Spirit and Holy Baptism, they are greater than John born of a woman, for all those born from above are set free from sin, and the law, and judgment.
And so, we rejoice. We rejoice, because, like Paul, now, after the Cross and Resurrection, now we understand how it can be the very best news that “the Lord is my judge.” “No one on earth can judge me, I don’t even judge myself, and no earthly judging matters,” rejoices Paul, “because the Lord is my judge.” That is to say, the Lord, Jesus Christ came to Paul on the road to Damascus, displaying His victorious, glorious, dazzling, scar-bearing body, and suddenly Paul understood what John could not quite yet understand from prison. Jesus is our judge, and since He has borne our judgment in His own body, His verdict on you is “Not guilty.” Innocent. Pure. Just, righteous, holy. However you want to describe it, Jesus, for the joy of having you for His very own, has done the work and paid the price and endured the agony, of your judgment. Judgment was indeed coming, as John doubted in prison and Jesus wandered the countryside, healing and evangelizing, comforting and restoring. Judgment was coming, for nails and spear would pierce Him through, the Cross be borne for me for you. Hail, hail the Word made flesh, the Babe the Son of Mary. Rejoice, for He is your judge, the greatest and mightiest wonder of all.
Confess your sins. Confess your guilt. Do not try to hang on to your own righteousness, because the life and deeds we naturally think are righteous are not. Whatever you have done or failed to do, confess your personal unrighteousness, and rejoice in wonderment, that God in Christ would exchange your guilt for Jesus’ righteousness, God taking your sins away, and giving you Jesus in return. No matter that you are sinful from conception and so have lived under God’s judgment from your very beginning. No matter that your sinfulness has been manifest in so many failures. Sins large and small, from laziness to abortion and adultery, drug abuse, cruelty, greed, even self-righteous pride, all of these should disqualify you and me from the Kingdom of Heaven, and apart from Jesus they will. But the Lord Jesus is our judge, the only judge who can declare us not guilty. And He has. And He does, again today, gathering us together to forgive us again, even feeding us with His righteousness, given through the Body and the Blood.
The world will always rage and fear over manger scenes. The likelihood is great that our freedom to display them in America will continue to erode. But in whatever ways the Lord allows us, through Nativity Scenes and church services, through sermons, or conversations with a neighbor, or bedtime stories with a child, however we are able, let us pray the Lord to give us the boldness to proclaim Jesus, God in the flesh, knowing full well the reaction we will get. We can handle the world’s angry judgment, because the wonderful truth is the Lord Jesus is our judge, and nothing else matters.
And also remember this: In His timing, in the midst of the rage and fear, the Lord will be opening eyes and hearts, creating faith and turning enemies into new brothers and sisters in Christ. Rejoice in this too, for there is nothing better on this earth than to be present at the new birth of a new child of God.
God in the Babe of Bethlehem reveals His judgment, of forgiveness and life, and we rejoice in wonder. A Merry Christmas indeed. Amen.