Sermon for Christmas Day 2008
“Heaven in the Manger: Revisited” (Isaiah 52:7-10)
READ TEXT – Isaiah 52:7-10
All during Advent our theme has been “Away in a Manger.” We talked about how Jesus came to us in the manger of Bethlehem, how he will come again in glory, and how he comes to us today in Word and Sacrament. The manger is never really empty, because Christ is always present with us.
“Away in a Manger” was always a favorite when I was a child. But now that I no longer think like a child and reason like a child and have given up my childish ways (1 Cor. 13:11), the hymn which has become my favorite in adulthood is Paul Gerhardt’s “O Jesus Christ, thy manger is my paradise at which my soul reclineth.” Heaven in the manger. That was our theme last night, and we revisit that theme this morning.
If you knew nothing about the Christmas story, a manger is the last thing you might think of when you hear the word “heaven.” A manger is a feeding trough. You find them in stables. And stables are full of smelly animals and other by-products from smelly animals. Stables are waste places.
Likewise, this world in which we live seems far from heavenly. It all started back in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve sinned and were cast out of paradise. The world became a waste place. Weeds. Toil. Trouble. Pain. Sinful human nature passed on from generation to generation. The world continued its downhill slide until it go so bad that God decided make it into a global waste place. He sent a flood, yet still graciously saved Noah and his family so that his promise given to a newly fallen world might one day be fulfilled ... the promise to send a Savior through the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15).
Isaiah looks into the future and sees Jerusalem as a waste place. The city would be besieged. The walls would be broken down. The temple would be destroyed. The residents of the city would be slaughtered and the rest taken into captivity. But the Lord promised that a day would come when the city will rise again from the ruins and break forth into jubilant song.
Our world does not seem like a waste place ... especially at this time of year. Greens are hung in homes and businesses and churches. Christmas trees are decked with ornaments, tinsel, garland, and lights. Nativity scenes and carefully arranged. And there are sweets galore ... cookies, fudge, pies, fruit cake. And there’s nothing quite like coming in from the snowy, frosty weather and getting warmed up by a fireplace with a cup of hot cocoa stirred with a peppermint stick.
But all the holiday decorations temporarily cover over and distract us from the conflict, unhappiness, and loneliness that lie just under the surface of our celebrations. And the sweets serve to soothe the sourness and bitterness that exist because of grief and guilty consciences. Our hearts often seem like waste places. Sin separates us from God and from each other. And with everything going on around us, it seems as if God is indeed far away. There is no comfort and joy for us at Christmas. There are many things that bring us dismay.
The prophet Isaiah also foretold the return of the people to Jerusalem. Like a strong man preparing for a fight, rolling up his sleeves, and showing his muscles, the Lord would bare his holy arm. His saving might would be shown when he would bring his people out of their exile in Babylon and resettle them in the land he promised them. Once more, the temple would be rebuilt and his presence would dwell on Mt. Zion.
All this eventually happened as Isaiah foretold. But none of it compares with the way in which God rolled up his sleeves and bared his holy arm in the manger, in miracles, and at Mt. Calvary.
The Lord bared his holy arms in the manger of Bethlehem. Instead of sleeves on a robe covering those arms, it was swaddling clothes for a baby. Instead of a muscular arm, it was the tiny, frail arm of an infant. But the arms of that baby were the arms of God himself. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God ... And the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:1, 14)
The little Lord Jesus grew up and bared his holy arms in the miracles he performed. He showed himself to be the Creator who could turn water into wine and who could tell the wind and waves to cease their raging. He bared his mighty arm and showed himself to be the one who would restore the brokenness of creation when he made the blind to see, the deaf to hear, the mute to speak, the lame to walk, and the dead to live. He bared his mighty arm and showed himself to be the one who had all power and authority over all evil spiritual forces when he cast demons out of people and stood up to the temptations of Satan.
And finally, the Lord Jesus bared his holy arms at Mt. Calvary. This time, however, he didn’t roll up his sleeves. This time, he allowed someone else to do it. They tore his sleeves off of him and drove nails into his divine hands. But it was exactly in this display of weakness through which the Lord redeemed his people. At the cross, Jesus bore your sins and mine and redeemed us from our captivity to sin, death, and hell. Three days later, Jesus bared his holy arms once again, showing them to the disciples with the marks of crucifixion still there, proving that he had risen from the dead.
The Lord had returned to Zion when the exiles returned from Babylon. But the Lord returned in an even greater way some 500 years later when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. That was heaven in the manger at that very moment. Heaven came down to earth in the flesh of the Christ Child. “O Jesus Christ, thy manger is my paradise at which my soul reclineth.”
“Go, tell it on the mountain,” the old spiritual goes, “that Jesus Christ is born.” The birth of Christ is a message that must be proclaimed loud and clear. But not just because it’s such a sweet, peaceful scene, with the precious baby, Mary and Joseph, shepherds and lambs, and Wise Men kneeling in adoration with gifts fit for a king (besides, the Wise Men weren’t at the manger, anyways ... they showed up later after the Holy Family was living in a house). The birth of Christ is a message that must be proclaimed because he was born to be the Savior of the world.
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news,” says the prophet, “who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” The birth of Christ is about peace. The death and resurrection of Jesus would bring peace between God and man. Mankind’s sins would be atoned for. In Christ, God’s favor is upon us, as the angels sang to the shepherds on the hillside, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:14 NIV)
The birth of Christ is about happiness. Although we live in a world full of grief and sorrow and sadness, Christ brings us true happiness and joy. It’s deeper than just a smile on your face. It’s the blessedness of knowing that we have a God who loves us, cares for us, provides for us, watches out for our welfare, and promises to work all things out for the good of those who love him and who are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28).
The birth of Christ is about salvation. Jesus was born in order to die so that we might live. He suffered the penalty of our sin so that we might be saved and given the gift of everlasting life.
Our God reigns. The manger of Bethlehem became the throne of the Prince of Peace. From that lowly throne, the tiny hands of the King of Kings reached out for his mother, yet at the same time held the world in his hands.
Like Jerusalem at the hands of her enemies, this world is a waste place because of sin and death. But our Lord Jesus entered into this waste place in order to renew it and recreate it through his almighty power. He gave us a foretaste of this in his earthly ministry, bringing wholeness and healing to sin-broken people. On the Last Day, when he comes again, he will bare his holy arm once again and bring about a new heaven and a new earth, a new paradise to be enjoyed forever by all who have been baptized in his name and who have trusted in his saving work.
In the meantime, Jesus comes and dwells in the waste places of our sinful hearts and turns them into fruitful places of faith and trust and love. The Good News is preached to us, and the Holy Spirit breathes new life into our hearts. Christ comes and takes up residence within us. Forgiven, God now declares us to be “beautiful” ... righteous in his sight. He gives us beautiful feet which take us out into the world to publish the Good News of peace, happiness, salvation, and the reign of God ... the God before whom we bow and adore in the manger of Bethlehem ... heaven in the manger, our paradise at which our souls reclineth.