In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
I really enjoy Christmas lights. Who doesn’t? But just ask Linda, and she’ll tell you what I say at the sight of every Christmas light display as we drive around. We try to set aside an evening around each Christmas to go look at the lights, and I found a “new” area to take her Friday night! I love the white lights, both warm white and cool white, and I love the colored lights. They’re all equally beautiful. I have seen the Plaza lights this year, including some lit-up horse-drawn carriages, on a very busy Saturday night while making a hospital visit. I also found that, as I waited through numerous traffic light cycles at one intersection, the decorative lights had less of my attention.
Last week I was visiting one of our members who is now in hospice care. In her little apartment, she had lights on the wall, some light-up glass decorations, and a tabletop tree. The lights on the wall were in the shapes of an angel and a cross—fitting reminders of the “beginning” and the “end,” so to speak, of the Story, the whole Story, of Christmas, of the Christ-Mass, the Festival of the Christ, from the announcement by an angel of His Incarnation and then His birth, to the very reason for His becoming flesh, being made man, His death on the cross for our salvation. You may have noticed that the lights in the chancel, the candles, have been arranged to do the same: the Advent wreath with its greenery, the white Christ candle proclaiming His birth, standing near the processional cross; on the other side, the white Paschal candle at the font, signifying His death, flanked by the torches to resemble the crosses on Calvary, standing near the green tree.
Visiting with that dear lady, I remarked about the lights, and she offered a heartfelt “Oh, I love the lights,” to which I replied, “So do I.” She told me that the tree lit up and rotated. With her permission, I turned on the tree. It was one of those fiber optic trees, on which even the ornaments are lit and the tips of the tree needles glow. We just watched the tree turn and the lights change colors while we visited. It was a wonder-filled, rest-filled, peace-filled time to share this gift of light, a reminder of our Savior Jesus Christ, the Light of the world, and then to share in the Sacred Meal of His body and blood.
We often associate Christmas lights with the festive sounds and activities of the Advent and Christmas seasons: the caroling and other music, parties and family gatherings, the special services of the Lord’s house. We think of the appearance of that angel to the shepherds on the first Christmas night: “And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them” (Lk 2:9). The glory of the Lord lit up the pastures outside Bethlehem. Our putting up of lights pays homage to that. What would Christmas be without all of those things? Remember the shepherds’ initial reaction? “And they were sore afraid,” filled with fear and trembling. Their fear didn’t last long, as the angel said, “Fear not”; but for many of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world, this time of year indeed has its joys, yet there are still the everyday fears for them, fears of persecution and oppression because they are Christians. In fact, the persecution often intensifies during these holy feasts and festivals of the Christian year. For example, for Christians in China who don’t belong to one of the state-sanctioned churches and who live away from the major cities like Shanghai, their experience of Christmas may feel more like St. Matthew’s account of the Nativity, with warnings of danger, than St. Luke’s account with the singing angels and joyful shepherds hastening unto Bethlehem. Some of our fellow Christians in China have to be careful as they gather for worship, so that they don’t attract the attention of the police. The hanging of bright lights and the loud singing of carols are avoided for the same reason. Forget about nativity scenes! In many parts of the world, being a believer in Jesus can be dangerous.
Yet there are the “good tidings of great joy” for the Chinese and for all peoples everywhere: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” (Lk 2:11). Our Christmas Day Epistle tells us that God the Father appointed His Son, this same Jesus, “the heir of all things, through whom also He created the world,” (Heb 1:2), and in our Christmas Day Gospel, St. John declares of the Son, who is the Word of God and is God, “All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made” (Jn 1:3). All things made certainly includes mankind, all people, beginning on the sixth day with our first parents, Adam and Eve. After the Rebellion of mankind against God by hearkening to the Tempter’s words and eating the fruit of which God had said not to eat—an act of false worship and of robbery, robbing God of His glory and honor—the LORD God made His first promise to men of their Savior from sin and from rebellion, as He told the serpent, the Tempter, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel” (Gen 3:15). The One through whom God made all things, the Seed of the Woman, is come and is born “for all people,” and He is named Yeshua, Salvation, just as the Prophet Isaiah foretold in our Christmas Day Old Testament Lesson, “The LORD has bared His holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see” the Yeshua, “the Salvation of our God” (Isa 52:10). The eyes of all nations, all the ends of the earth, shall see Him.
He says, “I AM the Light of the world” (Jn 8:12a), so there is no avoiding seeing Him. In order to see, you need light, and here He is, “the Light of the world,” “the radiance of the glory of God,” and “the Life [who is] the Light of men”! But why would anyone want to avoid seeing Him? Because He also says, “And this is the judgment: the Light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the Light because their deeds were evil” (Jn 3:19). His Apostle St. Paul reminds us, “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of,” are excluded from, “the glory of God” (Rom 3:22b–23). When we come into the Light of Christ, our shortcomings, our evil deeds, and our inborn rebellion against God are exposed. Before one another, we can easily avoid the whole matter, because we’re all in the same boat. We are all natural-born rebels against God, every one of us a natural lover of self and self-worshipper. We are much more comfortable talking about the weather; oh, there’s nothing inherently wrong with talking about the weather. We can’t do anything about the weather; only God can—yet another a reminder of the distinction between Him and us, and of our limitations as creatures. As sinful creatures, we are reminded that we cannot see the glory of God—certainly not in its fullness, lest we die—and we cannot do anything about our sinful state. Only God can.
And thanks be to God, He has done something! This Day we celebrate the holy birth among us of God the Son, “Word made flesh, whose birth among us / Hallows all our human race” (LSB 842 st. 1.3–4). Yet in this Day’s Holy Gospel and Epistle we hear not of His birth on earth, but of His eternal preexistence and His eternal begetting by God the Father. His birth as one of us in our flesh and blood, one with us, was willed by God from all eternity, within the counsel of the Holy Trinity. If you are tempted to wonder, “Why would He provide for a Savior if He created everything to be good? Why not just prevent sin from entering the Creation in the first place?”, then direct your thoughts instead to wonder, “Why would we turn away from this good God and His glory to follow a pack of lies?” That is a mystery, which ought to lead us to sorrow and repentance, that we may be ready to receive the greater Mystery, God the Word made flesh, that by His Holy Spirit through faith He may be born in us, born afresh in our flesh, today.
Earlier I mentioned the persecution and oppression of Christians in China. Because of the official ‘religion’ of the ruling Communist Party, atheism, many in that land are atheists. For many years before, other religions and philosophies, such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, held sway. Every nation has had its various religions with more or less knowledge of the truth, but never the fullness of the Truth of God. Forty years ago, our own Concordia Publishing House published a book, The Discovery of Genesis, by Ethel C. Nelson and Dr. C. H. Kang, and later another coauthored by Nelson, Genesis and the Mystery Confucius Couldn’t Solve. In these books, and many other studies and publications since, these authors and others have shown that the Chinese writing system, which goes back thousands of years, predating Moses, tells the story of the Creation, the Fall into sin, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, and the promise of the Savior from the early chapters of the Book of Genesis. So if you’ve been wondering why there is a table of Chinese characters in the bulletin, there’s your answer. Many scholars have studied this, and have compiled more and more evidence that this is so. It is a wonder to realize and behold! God’s Good News for the Chinese, and for all people, has not been lost, but He has preserved it, even as He has preserved the human heart’s longing for life with Him, as Ecclesiastes says, “He has put eternity into man’s heart” (Eccl 3:11).
[Illustrations from Nelson and Kang, The Discovery of Genesis.]
You can see how the character for “to create” is made of “speak” (with a mouth) plus “dust” plus “life” plus “walk,” a description of God’s creation of man. Several of the characters for God show three mouths, representing three persons—why is that? The wicked deception of the “tempter” in Genesis 3 is shown by a character composed of “devil,” who is the “secret man” in the “garden,” who was under “cover” of “two trees.” The character for “fire” includes the character for “man, person.” Nelson and Kang suggested that this might be a reference to man’s original created appearance as fiery, that the first humans had a glory, the glory of God, which was lost through sin. Pastor Kettner remarked, “That presents a problem for the secularists.” I think it was the Christian apologist Josh McDowell who told of reading about the creation of man and woman to his young daughter. When he got to the last verse, “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Gen 2:25), he thought that she might not understand that. So he asked, “Honey, do you know what that means, why they were naked and not ashamed?” “Of course, Daddy,” she said. “They were clothed with God!” Out of the mouths of babes! Made in His image and likeness, we had the radiance of the glory of God, but gave it up; Christ Jesus “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint, likeness, character, of His nature” (Heb 1:3).
This Jesus was conceived and born in a miraculous, mysterious way, even as His being begotten of the Father is a mystery. Yet He was born as one of us, flesh and blood, in order to suffer and die for us, out of His and His Father’s great love for us, to restore us to that likeness, to restore us to the Triune God’s fellowship and family. You see that the Chinese characters “hand” and “lance, spear” are combined to form “I, me.” In my hand is an instrument of death, of sacrifice and the shedding of blood. “I, me” plus “sheep” combine to make “righteousness”! “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29)! Baptized into this Jesus by the Power of the Holy Spirit, you are one of God’s beloved and holy ones who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14b). You have been newly begotten by the Father into His life, so “put off your old self … and … be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and … put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:22–24). Here is His manger wherein He is laid for you, His Holy Word. So hear Him call to you. Here is His manger wherein He feeds you with His own crucified flesh and blood, the same conceived by the Spirit and born of the Virgin. Food, Light, and Spirit—all are Energy, His Power, making you alive again in Him, truly alive! He feeds you with His substance, His glory, to continue remaking you in His image and likeness and righteousness, to restore to you day by day the glory He intended for you to have. Indeed, this very Jesus who says, “I AM the Light of the world” also says to you, “You are the light of the world” (Mt 5:14). Don’t hide your light, don’t hide Him, but show Him forth. Let your heart and mind be His manger, and let His light of life shine in and through you, that others may see Him and have that Light and that Life restored in them.
And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds by His Spirit in ✠ Christ Jesus. Amen.