Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sermon for Christmas Eve, 24 December 2011

The Rev. Paul J Cain
Matthew 1:18-25
Keep Silence
The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Eve, 24 December 2011
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, WY

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal, have mercy on us. Amen.

We need more than “Christmas spirit” this Christmas. We need more than mere wishes of a Merry Day or Happy New Year. We need more than just morality, more than religious repetition of the same old stuff. We need the heavenly peace of the Holy Infant, Jesus, born to die for you.
1          Silent night, holy night!
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and child.
Holy Infant, so tender and mild,
    Sleep in heavenly peace,
    Sleep in heavenly peace.

In contrast to “Silent Night,” one of our favorite hymns, the hymn “Let All Mortal Flesh Keeps Silence” sounds so strange to modern ears.
Why is that? Both are true, but both are different somehow. Allow me to propose a solution: There is more to Christianity than Christmas. Christmas is supposed to be all about Christ. Because Jesus and His salvation are gifts to us, we give gifts to others. Because Jesus is the Light of the world, the Light no darkness can overcome, we light our homes and bring lit trees indoors. Christmas is only part of the story of Christ, a narrative that continues every Sunday and especially on Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and Pentecost Sunday.
C. F. W. Walther, the first President of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, gets to the heart of our confusion tonight in his lectures on Law and Gospel.
He proposes this simple idea: you must present all the articles of faith in accordance with Scripture, yet [you] must also rightly distinguish Law and Gospel[1].
“Sure, Pastor, it only makes sense that pastors and Christians should follow the Bible!” and in thinking that or saying those words to me, you’d be right. Unfortunately, we all know that this is not always the case in real life. Walther assumes for the moment that Christians do teach in accordance with Scripture. And he also asserts that you “must also rightly distinguish Law and Gospel.” And that’s the missing piece! This is the difference between “Silent Night” and “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” law and Gospel.
“Silent Night” is such a comforting hymn to us because of its Gospel-filled text and its lullaby-like tune. “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” jars us out of our complacency with a text from the fourth century AD and a French medieval folk melody. And, the text has both Law and Gospel. Does the Law of God have a place on Christmas Eve? Yes. Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal, have mercy on us.
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence     LSB 621
1          Let all mortal flesh keep silence
    And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly-minded,
    For with blessing in His hand
Christ our God to earth descending
    Comes our homage to demand.

The words “fear,” “trembling,” and “demand” in stanza 1 all bring to mind the law. The Law is unpleasant, for it limits our behavior and points out our sins and how we have failed to obey God perfectly. Habakkuk 2:20 says, “Let all the earth keep silence before Him,” and so we should, because we are all equally guilty before Him.
Consider the medical parallel. If your medical doctor gives you bad news, is that the end of the story? Hopefully not! He or she will likely recommend tests or give a diagnosis and then prescribe a treatment for your benefit! Medically speaking, that is good news. Spiritually speaking, we are to put worldly things out of our minds because Christ descends from heaven to earth with “blessing in His hand.” He comes to give you forgiveness, life, and salvation. The same tiny hands of the babe in the manger would be nailed to the cross for you and your salvation. Then, as our response of faith, doesn’t it make sense for the God who created you, the God who redeemed you, the God who makes you holy to expect, even demand, homage, reverence, respect, honor, service and worship? Can you hear both Law and Gospel in this hymn text?
Stanza 2 echoes the complexity of Matthew 1, tonight’s Gospel reading, in the context of all Scripture and salvation history, helping us meditate on the mystery of the incarnation, God taking upon Himself human flesh:
2          King of kings yet born of Mary,
    As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords in human vesture,
    In the body and the blood,
He will give to all the faithful
    His own self for heav’nly food.

The King of kings and Lord of lords vests Himself miraculously in human flesh, body and blood. He, Jesus, is revealed to Mary’s husband, Joseph, as the one who will save His people from their sins, for He is conceived of the Holy Spirit (and not immorality as Joseph may have suspected). Our Lord gathers people to Himself to hear His Word, to feed on it as on Jesus Himself, as well as receiving the forgiveness of sins according to Jesus’ Words and Promise in the Sacrament of the Altar. “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” is not merely an ancient hymn, but a hymn to prepare for Holy Communion in the Liturgy of Saint James.
[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.]
Jesus wants to gather you and your family here / regularly / to be fed by His Word and Sacrament. He feeds you Himself! And He delivers His gifts to you far more often than every Christmas—He does so every Sunday and every day. He gives you your daily bread. And since man does not live on bread alone, He feeds you His Word. He gives you Himself.
And when the Lord gathers people to Himself, we join all the company of heaven and all the angels in praising Christ the Lord:
3          Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way
As the Light of Light, descending
    From the realms of endless day,
Comes the pow’rs of hell to vanquish
    As the darkness clears away.

Life in this world can be confusing. Soldiers know this. Confusion on the battlefield is called “the fog of war.” Jesus comes to vanquish the powers of sin, death, and the devil. He, the Light of the world, clears away all the powers of darkness and death. And we join with the angels in crying, Alleluia! Praise the Lord!
4          At His feet the six-winged seraph,
    Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence
    As with ceaseless voice they cry:
“Alleluia, alleluia!
    Alleluia, Lord Most High!”

There are two kinds of fear, the “being afraid” kind of fear, such as we all feel under the condemning law of God, and the “fear, love, and trust in god above all things” kind of fear, the reverent awe of faith fed by the Gospel.G
Christianity is more than Christmas, more than morality, more than gifts you love or would rather return. Christianity is more than what you do for God or what you are expected to do for your neighbor. Christianity is Christ serving you in His birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection. God has good gifts for you in Christ Jesus our Lord.
“Sleep in heavenly peace” is more than a description of the infant Christ by a pious hymnwriter. Heavenly Peace is a Gospel gift to you from the Prince of Peace.  
We are awed by the birth of Christ, so with the Christians of old, we observe silence in humble repentance and faith, reverent awe. God grant you and your household a silent night, comforted in the heavenly peace of Jesus, peace which the world cannot give. Amen.
Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal, have mercy on us. Amen.

Cherubic Hymn:
Let all mortal flesh be silent, and stand with fear and trembling, and meditate nothing earthly within itself.
For the King of kings and Lord of lords, Christ our God, comes forward to be sacrificed, and to be given for food to the faithful.
And the bands of angels go before Him with every power and dominion, the many-eyed cherubim, and the six-winged seraphim, covering their faces, and crying aloud the hymn,
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

[1] Ferdinand, Carl; Walther, Wilhelm (2010-07-02). Law & Gospel: How to Read and Apply the Bible (Kindle Locations 1497-1499). Concordia Publishing House. Kindle Edition. (Thesis II)