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You should expect nothing less from a pastor.
You know the story, yes?
It’s the chronicle of a joyous event which resonated throughout the land in that day, everyone in the kingdom rejoicing in celebration.
The word has gone out that under the plenty care of the kingdom’s finest doctors and maids, the young mother, Mary, has given birth to a son, the heir.
We are swept away to the majestic palace high atop the hill, sturdied by brick and mortar, its towers raising high above the earth, adorned in smooth limestone carvings and gilded with gold trimmings, massive and mighty in posture against the horizon; the only proper and suitable location for the birth of the King of Kings, to be sure.
We are enjoined with our city – neighbors and kin, thousands upon thousands, as we pass through the ranks of legionnaires encamped near the city wall in tribute and honor, the rumbling of hooves and steeds clad in sterling armor. We travel past these regiments and through the grand arches of the forecourt gate, the palace walls lifting high, mounted and carefully guarded by parading soldiers looking down upon the crowd with readiness to keep order, men who will serve the will of this new King. We are carried along like a river to the palace door, being pressed on all sides by a populace excitedly awaiting with great hopefulness to get only a glimpse of the One who was born and will reign with Divine supremacy and strength.
Very few are privileged to press into and through the palace entrance. Only the clean, only those who are worthy, well-dressed, with unsoiled clothes and boots. Only the finest will be satisfactory. Each of these in acceptable form are allowed in, pressing and taking eager positions within the vastness of the ornate vestibule swept clean with no traces of dust or filth, pauper or pest.
Looking up we see the partitioned ceilings soaring into the sky, painted with images and revealing chandeliers of fire and diamond gildings that glisten. The walls shout silently with colored flags and banners unfurled. The throne room hall is festooned for the new King.
The throne chancel before us is ready. In its apse the minstrels are playing. The steps are sided by trumpeters in blazing red coats, prepared to sound the call of honor and prestige with fine-tuned blasts of exquisite harmony. The cathedrae for the joyous mother and father are stately and fine, indeed. Each seat is plush with purples and velvets. Solid gold and hammered silver form their frames. The cradle for the newborn child holds it place in the midst of these. It is wrapped in regalia, garnished with rubies and emeralds and sapphires, steadied by a marble mount that must be hoisted by more than a man. It is flanked by the muscular brawn of royal guards whose swords are drawn and at the ready for their infant charge.
A few, only the best, the finest, the privileged, most noble and respectable in the kingdom – the ones who have sought the King’s favor by way of deed and treasure – only these are called forth by the court minister to visit and see.
But they are disappointed at their discovery.
Behold, the cradle is empty as are the cathedrae.
The guardians of this King of Kings will not sit in these.
The Son will not be found resting in this cradle.
This is not His story.
This was not God’s plan.
I am hearing the prophet Isaiah’s cadence drumming in my ears. His words describe the King’s birth, and yet they are absurd to my senses. They speak of lowliness and suffering, and by such modesty, the sketch begins, the payment for sin is wrought and there is forgiveness, there is peace: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a Son… The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death and light has shined… For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given… He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire Him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering… Surely He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered Him stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted. He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed.”
I am hearing the strangely tempo of the Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul, speaking with an astuteness sourced only by the power of the Holy Spirit: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”
There is no boasting in oneself before this newborn King. There is no pride to be had in one’s standing or one’s merits or deeds before this Son who comes lowly, who takes a place lower than yourself. This King you seek is found in the filth of an animal stable. No legions surrounding to fortify. No palace walls or guard towers. No archways or chandeliers – only the blackened deep of the sky glittered with stars; only a dim lantern and its flame flickering in the gentle breeze, bobbing and bouncing, casting lonely shadows on kindling thin walls.
And far from her home, in the lineage town of her new husband – a young girl – not a queen, but a virgin. She is pushing and sweating and crying. She is wrestling against the tears and sorrow and agony of childbirth. No family comforting her. No skilled doctors to aid. No handmaidens to give care. Her husband, a carpenter, not a king with an entourage at his beckoning. He is clutching her hand through the hours and aiding as he can, caressing her face, fetching her water, and praying to YaHWeH, the God of His forefather, David, for comfort and peace and wisdom to care for this little One who has been revealed to him as the Savior of the world.
And in the fullness of time, in the bloody mess of human birth, amidst the less-than-royal court of cattle, sheep and such, in the cool evening sheltered by the rickety roof, so little to protect from this world’s treachery, the child – Jesus – is born. He is the Son, the One whose Father is the eternal Creator. Here, the King of Kings is born. Here He may be found. He was not heralded by royal riders scattered through the countryside to gather the masses in joy to make haste to greet Him.
But soon it will be that a king sends his horsemen to find and kill Him.
Soon it will be that we hear the thundering hooves stampeding the streets of Bethlehem and taking the lives of the innocents while a heavenly provision is made for the Lord’s escape.
The Son came to that which was His own, but His own did not recognize Him. Here, in this throne room of humility, you will find Him. Trumpeted by angelic choirs to lowly, inadequate, undeserving, peasant shepherds who leave their flocks and travel across the plains of Bethlehem to discover their salvation. The first to visit and view Him – sweaty, sandals dirty, dirty fingernails, the animal stench, hands soiled from the grime of their trade – they kneel at the splintery manger in humility and faith and gaze into the eyes of this infant, hastily wiped clean and wrapped in swaddling clothes by an adoptive and nervous father, lowly and resting in a bed of hay. This is the sign they were given by the angel. And so they are now the first participants in that first, great Divine Service of worshipers who see and receive the incarnate God. These lowly, undeserving sinners hear and believe this Gospel of forgiveness and peace first preached by the angels, and they know without fear, they are beholding God in the flesh. And so they leave that grand and beautiful cathedral – the little stable – and they live and they breathe and they shout the message to all they find, only to return once more to the fields renewed.
This, now, is the story. It is your story.
It is this story that begins at Christmas and gives to you life.
It is this Gospel that rings out across the world on Christmas Eve in celebration of God’s great glory, wrapped up and seated in the wonderfully simple, mundane, less-than-spectacular, the scandalous event of Christmas.
Behold the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, Jesus Christ. He is the lowly King who is born this day to serve you and bring to you peace with God. He is the sinless Son who will withstand the temptations of the devil. He is the worker of great miracles. He will give sight to the blind and legs to the lame. He will raise the dead to life. He is the faithful preacher of the Gospel, the One who receives sinners, forgives them, and makes them new. He is the innocent lamb led before the Sanhedrin and Pilate, the lamb led to His slaughter. He is the gracious Savior who gives Himself over fully to death on a cross to accomplish what we in the filthiness of our sin could not. He is the valiant victor who casts the stone door away from the tomb and breaks forth from the shackles of death with great might, bearing the scars which declare that the veil of sin which covers this world in darkness has been lifted. He is the One who ascends into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father to rule over land, and sea, and air, and cosmos; all things within His domain.
May God grant to you the faith to bend your knees and kneel at the humble and crude cradle tomorrow night and Christmas Day, with a sure a certain hope that this child, born of Mary, was born for you.
O, come let us adore Him, Christ, the Lord!
— Reverend Christopher I. Thoma+