Ever since the very first Christmas, people have been trying to capture the essence of Christmas. They try to capture it in a photo, a song, a movie, in decorations and traditions. Maybe the clearest example of this attempt to capture Christmas is the snow-globe – Christmas with snow and everything! But try as they might, all their attempts fail. One cannot capture Christmas in a mismatched sweater picture, a grainy movie, or a child’s toy filled with artificial snow. Only the words before us this morning, the inspired Words of Scripture have truly captured the essence of Christmas. When you get past the lights and the gifts, the family and the food, even the angels and shepherds, the stable and the manger; when you scrape away the sentimental music and the short-lived traditions and the less than ideal circumstances, this is what remains: the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
This baby lying in a manger is the same Word who was with God and was God in the beginning. (John 1:1) This baby is the wisdom of God that designed and engineered the universe – from the largest galaxies to the smallest atoms. This is the Word who called forth day and night, sun, moon and stars, land and sea, plants and trees, fish and animals – out of nothing. This is the Word that breathed life into a lump of clay and shared with mankind his image – his immortality, his holiness, his love. This Word has always been, ever is, and ever will be. That Word, when the time had fully come (Galatians 4:4), was conceived in the womb of a virgin and born to dwell among us. When you capture this, hold on to this, then you have captured the full and real and unchanging essence of Christmas.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. But what does this mean? We could spend every second of every day exploring and expanding on what this means and still not reach the end. The shepherds – who were there – could only repeat the things they had heard and seen. (Luke 2:17) Mary herself could only ponder things so far above her understanding that her heart must have nearly burst. (Luke 2:19) On that first Christmas, it took angels – those might messengers of God – to explain the meaning of all of this. And you and I? We can barely scratch the surface of this divine mystery.
No other religion in the history of the world has ever conceived anything even close to this Mystery. Sure, Greece and Rome had their myths of gods and goddesses occasionally “appearing” on earth. Sure, there is the false hope that someday humans will become immortal, all-powerful gods in Mormonism and secularism. All religions have prayers, miracles, commandments, creeds, codes of conduct, and worship. But only Christianity stakes the claim that God became man. You could not make such a religion up and get away with it, not even 2000 years ago. But it stands because it happened. In Bethlehem of Judea. At the time when Augustus was Caesar, Herod was King, and Quirinius was governor. It happened at a specific time in a specific place, with witnesses and consequences – just like any other piece of history. The Word became flesh.
Why? The Word became flesh because that’s what we are. Flesh. While we try to avoid and deny our flesh and all its limitations and implications and pretend to be “enlightened,” and “wise,” and “good,” and “true,” with our lofty ideals and supersized egos, but the Word willingly took on our humanity. We strive to be more than human, “supermen and superwomen” – to control not only our lives but the lives of those around us, but the God of the universe is content to become a baby; content to play in his mother’s lap and look into the eyes of shepherds. We are human, sinful humans – to be specific, fallen sons and daughters of Adam. The only-begotten Son of God became what we are (without the sin, of course) – because, left to ourselves, we are lost.
He came to be with us under the Law (Galatians 4:5), the holy Law of God that condemns us, that shuts our mouths, that fills our hearts with terror at the consequences of our sin, that keeps us awake at night and makes even Christmas anything but a wonderful time of year. But he came full of grace and truth. He came not to judge us but to save us; not to take us captive but to set us free; not to bring more rules for us to follow but to fulfill all the rules we haven’t. He came to save sinners – of which I am the worst…and so are you. (1 Timothy 1:15) He came to be your Shepherd and your friend, to lay down his life for you. (John 10:11; John 15:12) The Word became flesh to save you, all of you, your body and your soul by suffering the consequences of your sins and giving you eternal life as his free gift. (Romans 6:23)
John says: we have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John was not there in Bethlehem. He came to know and follow Jesus much later. He was an eyewitness to His transfiguration – that moment where Jesus revealed his full glory as God to sinful human eyes. (Matthew 17:1-8) With his own ears he heard the voice from heaven declare him to be the Son of God. He was there to see him die in the darkness of Good Friday. (John 19:26-27) And he was among the first to see him absent from the empty tomb. (John 20:3) He stood gaping as the Word made flesh ascended into the clouds to his Father’s right hand. (Acts 1:1-11) John witnessed Jesus’ glory, glory covered in humility, glory wrapped in our humanity.
In Jesus, the Word became flesh to reverse the spiral of history – to reverse what the first man had done. The image of God, so disfigured and tainted by Adam, is now restored. We are fully what God intended us to be from the beginning because he is fully us. At the hand of John the Baptist he was baptized into our place and when we were baptized, we were baptized into him. So as we follow the course of Jesus’ life through the Christian church year – from manger to tomb – we are actually tracing our life’s story. His birth, his obedience, his suffering, his dying, his rising – is our birth, our obedience, our suffering, our dying, our rising. Your sin became his. His glory becomes yours.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We may wish we could have been there. We may wonder what it was like that first Christmas. But there is no need for us to go to Bethlehem – unless you want to go as a tourist. You will not find the flesh and bones and blood of Christ there. But don’t worry – the Word no longer invites us to meet him in a stable; he invites us to meet him
in the Word we can read and understand, in, with, and under the bread and wine we can taste, in water we can see and touch. That’s where the Word made flesh encounters our flesh, where our sins are forgiven, where we die and rise to new life. Because the Word became flesh we don’t have to go groping about blindly for God on earth (as so many do) or in heaven (as if we could, anyway!) because he comes down to us to dwell with us still today. He dwells among us in Word and Sacrament to serve us. He dwells among us to save us. He doesn’t make his dwelling with the rich and the famous, the proud and the happy, the good and the righteous – in Fortune 500 boardrooms or White House situation rooms. He makes his dwelling with us: the weak and the lonely, the sad and the tired and the distressed and the dying. He comes here to serve us – and then he equips us with beautiful feet to bring the good news that the salvation of our God has come to others. (Matthew 20:28; Isaiah 52:10)
Long after the gifts are opened and forgotten, after the decorations are packed away, after the holiday joy gives way to a new work week – this is what endures. God is with us in this baby born of Mary. He dwells among us so that we too may see his glory, hidden then in human flesh and blood, hidden now in Word and Sacrament, soon to be revealed in power and glory. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. Whatever else you do today, hold on to this. Because this is Christmas. Amen.