Luke 2:8-17 (Christmas Eve—7:00 p.m.)
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT
December 24, 2010
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text is the Gospel Lesson from Luke 2:
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of 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.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.
The region surrounding Bethlehem was ideal for raising sheep. Not only was there good grazing land, but the hillsides contained numerous caves which could be used by shepherds for shelter. Furthermore, there was an excellent market in nearby Jerusalem for these sheep. Many of Bethlehem’s sheep were raised for sacrifice at the Temple. During the special feast days in Israel’s religious calendar, thousands of Jews would come to their holy city from all over the Roman Empire to offer sacrifices. Rather than transport their sacrificial lambs from distant homes, they would buy them in Jerusalem. By law, the sheep slated for sacrifice had to be without blemish or defect. Thus the shepherds in the region of Bethlehem kept close watch over their special sheep.
Imagine with me the joy of a Bethlehem shepherd at the birth of a perfect male lamb. We know how adorable baby sheep are. This one is perfect in every way. The soft bleating pleases our ears. The shepherd rejoices to add this lamb to his flock. It will receive his love and care and protection. He will lead it to green pastures and let is drink by still waters. He will laugh as it romps and plays with the other lambs. All the while he knows that the day is coming when this little lamb will be sacrificed at the Temple for the sins of the people. This lamb, without spot or blemish, when it is a year old, will be a Passover Lamb.
At the Temple, at the time of the Passover sacrifice, priests blasted three times from their silver trumpets. All along the Court up to the altar of burnt-offering the priests stood in two rows, the one holding the golden, the other silver bowls. In these bowls the blood of the Passover lambs, which each Israelite killed himself, were caught up by the priest, who handed it to his colleague, receiving back an empty bowl, and so the bowls with the blood were passed up to the priest at the altar, who threw it in one jet at the base of the altar.
What might it have been like to be a shepherd, raising lambs for sacrifice to God? While shepherding was considered a menial task, would not it have been an honor to serve God and God’s people by caring for the sheep that would one day be offered as a sacrifice of atonement to cleanse the sins of the people? Under God’s first covenant, this sacrifice was completely necessary to bring “at-one-ment” with God, to cover over the breach between God and His people caused by sin. Yet, there must have been a sense of sadness to know that you were raising lambs whose purpose in life was to die on behalf of people to grant their forgiveness.
On a crowded night in the village of Bethlehem, the City of David, 2000 years ago, THE Lamb of God was born. No, this Lamb was not to be found out with the flocks and the shepherds. This Lamb was found, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, because there was no room for Him in the inn. This Lamb was the firstborn son of Mary, a virgin from Nazareth, who had conceived the Son of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. This Lamb’s name was Jesus, true God who became flesh and dwelt among us. His purpose in life was to die on behalf of all people, to suffer their punishment for their sins, and to win forgiveness and eternal life for the world.
What must it have been like for Mary and Joseph when the Bethlehem shepherds arrived and shared their message with them? “The angel of the Lord appeared to us and told us good news of great joy that is for people everywhere. We have come to see the Savior, Christ the Lord! And here He is, lying in a manger, just as the angel told us!” Luke tells us that Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.
What might have been going through Mary and Joseph’s minds when Simeon met them at the Temple and blessed them? He said to Mary, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:34-35)
What thoughts would have gone through Joseph and Mary’s minds as they named their child Jesus, the name given to them by God through the angel? “He will save His people from their sins.” As they raised Jesus, the one John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, would call the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” did they consider the words of Isaiah 53? “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. . . . he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.”
What would it have been like for Mary and Joseph to raise Jesus, the Savior of the world, who would give up His life as a sacrificial lamb for them and for you and me? Did they feel the honor of serving God and God’s people by caring for the Son-of-God-Incarnate who would one day be offered on the altar of the cross for the sins of the people? Would they have experienced some of the feelings that Bethlehem shepherds did as they watched a newborn lamb take its first steps, as the little lamb romped and played, as the lamb grew up, all the while looking to the lamb’s purpose, knowing what was to take place and that it was to die for sinful people?
The message of Christmas is that God loves you and me dearly, sinful people though we are. He sent forth Jesus to be the once-for-all sacrificial Lamb for your sins and mine. We are flawed, lacking the perfection that God demands. We are flawed in our relationship with God, which is broken by our sinfulness. Satan has turned us against God. He has planted selfishness, envy, self-righteousness, pride, lust, and arrogance in us. So many people, including at times you and me, trudge off, sad and lonely, trying to keep cheerful by numbing our minds with meaningless things as we think we can solve our own problems and cover up our sins and failures to do good.
But Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, was born for us. As God’s perfect Lamb, Jesus took on Himself all our imperfections, all our blemishes, and all our flaws. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. As Jesus hung on the cross and bore the sins of the world, yours and mine!, God turned His face from His only Son. He turned in horror from His beloved one. He abandoned His Son of the cross because He was bearing the unholiness of all people.
Jesus was forsaken on the cross, suffered the full punishment of hell for our sins, and died in our place because God loves you dearly. “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” (1Cor. 5:7) The Child of Mary born in a wooden manger, suffered death on the wood of the cross, shedding His blood to make us clean from all sin and unrighteousness. “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.”(1 Peter 1:18-19) By the blood of Jesus, we are forgiven. We are set free from sin, death, and Satan’s power. Covered in Christ’s blood and righteousness, there is nothing about us that God doesn’t like, nothing that is less than perfect in His eyes. Christ has been our Lamb, our substitute, taking our imperfections on Himself, and through faith, giving us His perfection and His holiness that makes us true children of God.
What joy filled the hearts of the shepherds that first Christmas as they heard the Good News and saw God’s promised Savior, the Lamb of God, lying in a manger! What joy filled the hearts of Mary and Joseph at this wondrous, miraculous birth of Jesus, the Christ, who would save His people from their sins and set them free! What joy the birth of Jesus the Lamb of God gives to you and me! Jesus birth among us means that God loves us dearly. Celebrate with the joy of Christmas—“Glory to God in the highest, and peace to His people on earth!” Celebrate with the joy of the angelic hosts and the Church in heaven—“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:12) Celebrate with your brothers and sisters in Christ, with your families and friends—for to you is born a Savior, the true Lamb of God, Jesus Christ the Lord! Amen