Christmas Eve, 2018
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit
People sometimes speak of the Christmas service and festivities as a birthday party for Jesus. And I can understand the desire to try to explain the holy day in a simple way like that to little children. But that’s not really what’s happening here. It’s not as if we need to add another candle to the cake for the Eternal Son of God; it’s not as if His humanity ages like ours does as He is seated now at the right hand of the Father. We are celebrating Jesus’ birth, but birthday parties are for the one who was born, and this celebration is for you. You’re the one who gets the gifts. What did the angel say? “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” What causes rejoicing at Christmas is that the birth of the Son of God is for you to save you from your sins and restore you to peace with God. We’re not here to give anything to Jesus except our praise and thanksgiving. We’re here to open the empty hands of faith and receive the real Christmas present, the Christ-child Himself, wrapped in swaddling cloths. We’re not here to wish anyone happy birthday; but the birth of Jesus does bring the greatest happiness and joy.
The true meaning of Christmas is that God joined our humanity to His own divine nature in Jesus, and in so doing He sanctified our human nature and made us holy in Christ, the Son of God. That is the mystery we revel in each year. God and sinful mankind are reconciled and brought back together, because God and man have literally come together in this Christ-child. That’s truly a mind-boggling thing to consider. The One through whom all things were created, Mary’s maker, now willingly lies weak and helpless in her arms. This Jesus is true God, begotten of the Father from all eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary.
The theological word we use to describe this is “incarnation.” In Spanish, the word “carne” means “meat.” And that helps us to get at what’s going at Christmas. The Son of God has been “carne-d”; He’s got meat on Him. He was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, enfleshed in her womb and given birth in Bethlehem. The Son of God took up your flesh and blood so that He might die in the flesh and shed His blood for the forgiveness of all of your sins. As a true human being like you, He is your substitute under the Law; He can take your place and suffer the judgment against sin on your behalf. And as true God His sacrificial death will be limitless, sufficient to cover the sins of the whole world–mercy abounding and running over. This everlasting, divine love is here for you in the flesh.
Or think of it this way: the incarnation of the Son of God means that He has become your blood brother in the human family, and so your enemies are now His enemies. By uniting your humanity with His divinity, God has made your cause to be His own in Christ, and He has the power to do something about it. Whatever the devil did to us, He has now done it to the Son of God, too; and that simply won't stand. Jesus is your elder Brother who defends you against the bullying of the evil one. He stands in for you and fights for you so that sin and Satan and the grave are conquered.
We see already here in the Christmas narrative that the way He will win this victory is not through a glorious flash of power but through humility and lowliness. And this is revealed particularly in the location of Jesus’ birth. Now our English translations can be a little misleading on one key aspect of this. Most translations say that there was no room for them in the inn. And so we conjure up in our minds an evil innkeeper who turns away a pregnant mother about to give birth. But that almost certainly didn’t happen. Bethlehem was a little village; there wouldn’t have been anything like a hotel there. Mary and Joseph would have been staying with family along with all the other relatives that were returning to the town of their lineage for the census.
The Greek word translated as “inn” simply means a place of lodging and usually referred to an upper guest room in someone’s home. The exact same word is used to describe the upper room where Jesus observed the Passover and the Last Supper with His disciples before His death. So a better translation would be that there was no guest room available for them. The place was already full to the brim with other relatives and their little ones who arrived before Joseph and Mary did. Perhaps some of you can relate to that with family and relatives pushing the limits of the homes that you gather in for the holiday.
In these first century homes, the sleeping quarters and guest room would usually be upstairs, up some steps or a ladder, and the main living area would be downstairs at ground level, where the cooking and the indoor work would happen. And toward the back of this main level of the home would be a place to keep animals at night. It was common practice to bring the important animals indoors into the house and into these pens for protection overnight.
So consider this scene: in a house filled with sleeping relatives there is a first time mother ready to give birth. Joseph and Mary likely had their bed set up in the main living area downstairs, where they had been sleeping out of necessity, back near the animal pens. And the time came for her to be delivered–no real privacy, right in the middle of the clutter and chaos of life. And she gave birth to her firstborn, a Son, our Lord Jesus, and wrapped Him in strips of cloth as was the custom, and laid Him in the nearby manger, a cattle feeder full of soft hay.
What an unexpected way for the King of kings to be born! But what a marvelous message it sends to us. For it shows us that our Lord Jesus truly is Emmanuel, God with us–right in the middle of the ordinariness and messiness of our lives. He’s not a royal elitist carefully avoiding the life of the common folk. He doesn’t keep a safe, antiseptic distance from us. He’s with us right in the middle of our untidy existence and our less-than-perfect families and our strained relationships and our anxiety and fear and sin and brokenness. He humbles Himself to share fully in your human life so that through faith in Him you may share fully in His divine life forever.
That’s the glory of the incarnation; that’s the heart of Christmas that we celebrate today. He's the most important one in the house, and yet he takes the lowliest place in order to raise you up to a new life. Jesus lies with the animals in order to rescue us from our beastly sin and inhumanity, and to make us fully human again in Him. Among the animals we are now given to see Jesus as the new Adam. For just as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. He is placed in a feeder to be holy food for you, the very Bread of life, even as He is born in Bethlehem, the “house of bread.”
So hear the message of the angel once more in all its beautiful clarity and take it to heart: “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” You will find Him wrapped no longer in swaddling cloths but in bread and wine, and lying on the altar. He is humbly mangered for you here to bring you forgiveness and new birth. Let us with Mary treasure and ponder these holy mysteries in our hearts. And let us with the shepherds glorify and praise God for all of the things that we have heard and seen, just as it has been told to us.
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit