Sermon for Christmas Day 2006
“The Lord Comes to His Temple: The Incarnate Word” (John 1:14)
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
I want to talk to you about a shepherd. No, not one of those shepherds on the Judean hillside. We'll get to them later. First, I want to talk to you about a man who tended sheep long before those fellows outside Bethlehem. This shepherd was born into slavery in Egypt and put in a basket on the river Nile when his mother could hide him no longer from the King's murderous threats. He grew up and renounced his royal adoption by the King's daughter and fled to the place called Midian where he took up the occupation of sheep herder.
When he returned to Egypt, he became a shepherd of a different sort...a shepherd of God's people. He led them out into the wilderness. And there, this particular shepherd would often leave his flock for a time. He would walk from the place where some were gathered and where far too many were straying. He would do this not because he didn't care for the sheep. He would do it precisely because he did care. At the appointed time, the shepherd would go over to one particular place. God had come down there and the shepherd would be in the presence of the LORD God Almighty. The shepherd could not ascend to God's glorious paradise. Therefore Yahweh himself—the great I AM— had come down in order that the shepherd might be in the very Presence of God.
This is how the Bible describes it: Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp, and he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the LORD would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp. Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise up, and each would stand at his tent door, and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent. When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the LORD would speak with Moses. And when all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise up and worship, each at his tent door. (Exodus 33:7-10)
While in the Tent of Meeting, Moses would hear God speak to him. In the presence of the LORD Moses heard the Word, who said, "My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” (Exodus 33:14) That was an amazing blessing...that the children of God could gather in the presence of the LORD and rest in His mercy and grace. The LORD was with them as they traveled in their exodus journey to the promised land, and the Word tented among them in the pillar of cloud standing at the door where eternity stood in time, even as the people of God dwelt in their aging tents. They were called to wait in the presence of Yahweh and to have faith in Yahweh. And one day, the time would come when one of their descendants would be moved by the Holy Spirit to write this Good News: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us."
The Tent of Meeting was a temporary place. There came a time when the new had come and the old had passed away. And so our shepherd under consideration moved from the one tent to the new and recently completed Tent of Meeting which came to be known as the Tabernacle. The shepherd inspected everything as God had instructed him and which instructions he passed on to all the craftsman, and he puts his stamp of approval on it. And the cloud moved from the old to the new. We read in Exodus 40:34-38, Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys.
The Ark of the Covenant rested in that tent. The Mercy Seat upon the ark covered the tablets of the Law that rested inside. Also before the tent was a basin filled with the Word's cleansing water and the bread of the presence set at the Lord's Table. With the promise of God's Word of Law and Gospel with them, the Church journeyed and lived in the very presence of the LORD, who tabernacled among them and was the Way for them.
But now, before I get to those Bethlehem shepherds, I want to talk about the son of another Bethlehem shepherd. This son's father was born in Bethlehem and grew up to be a shepherd. He once killed a giant with only a rock and a sling. Later on, he grew up to be King of Israel and handed his kingdom over to his son. This particular son of David oversaw the construction of the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. After seven years, the Temple was ready. On the eighth year the priests Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the LORD to its place in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the Most Holy Place, underneath the wings of the cherubim. (1 Kings 8:6-7) These artistically rendered angels spread their wings over the place of the Ark and overshadowed the Ark. It is as if these angels were announcing the coming Presence of the LORD. As Scripture says, "when the priests came out of the Holy Place, a cloud filled the house of the LORD, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the Glory of the LORD filled the house of the Lord." (1 Kings 8:10-11)
Listen to King Solomon's prayer as he stood before the altar of the LORD and in front of the congregation: ...have regard to the prayer of your servant and to his plea, O LORD my God, listening to the cry and to the prayer that your servant prays before you this day, that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you have said, 'My name shall be there,' that you may listen to the prayer that your servant offers toward this place. And listen to the plea of your servant and of your people Israel, when they pray toward this place. And listen in heaven your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive. (1 Kings 8:28-30) The forgiving Word is the Truth and he lived among his people.
Now, finally, let's talk about the shepherds whom you heard about in last night's Gospel reading and whom you sang about in two of this morning's hymns. These shepherds left their flocks and journeyed toward the House of Bread, which is what Bethlehem means. As they hurried there, they had only the Word of the Christmas angel, Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. (Luke 2:10-12)
And what did they find? David's greater Son. The Word made flesh. The Word among us. What Child is this? Emmanuel. That little baby boy is “God with us.” And the disciple whom Jesus loved would proclaim this Good News with these words, "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us."
In a world of pain and suffering, the Word became flesh in order to suffer the agony and divine wrath for all the sins of the world ... sins of thought, word, and deed ... sins of the past, present, and future. He came to take upon himself the penalty due the original sin of the Old Adam and his heirs. The Incarnate Son of God atoned for the sins of Cain and Abel ... Saul and David ... Jezebel and Mary ... Judas and Peter ... and you. In a land of death the Word became flesh in order to die the death deserved by the world. In doing so, Jesus gave Himself for the life of the world. On the third day, the Word that became flesh and tented among us rose from the dead. For forty days, Jesus tabernacled with His disciples and spoke about the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:3), then ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father.
Here's how the author of Hebrews put it: For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. (Hebrews 9:24-28)
In this building this morning, a shepherd and a flock congregate in this House of Bread. And what about us? Does the Word made flesh dwell among us? Indeed he does. That is his promise and he has given us his Word on this. He who is in heaven according to both his divine and human natures is also truly with us right now according to both his divine and human natures. We are in his presence and this humble sanctuary is where his glory dwells. His glory is here but hidden, not under the covering of a tent or in a cloud, but hidden and revealed in Word and Sacrament. It's hidden, but real, nonetheless.
Each shepherd of God is called to stand before the altar and lead the congregation in prayers, petitions, and thanksgiving ... called to teach all things whatsoever the Lord Jesus has taught, especially that Jesus is the Mercy Seat who has fulfilled the Law in our place. The Bread of the Real Presence of the Incarnate Christ is the feast that is served at the table in the Holy Place. Here, too, is wine to gladden the heart of man (Psalm 104:15)..."the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God" (Hebrews 9:14)...the Blood of Christ poured out "for the forgiveness of sins." (Matthew 26:28) The font stands at the ready, waiting for the watery Word of Life to be poured out and proclaimed...that men and women, infants and aged are baptized and forgiven in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Dear friends in Christ...the Word became flesh and dwelt among us saying, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) Therefore, gather in his presence, and rest in his mercy and grace.