Keeping it Real
"Keeping it real" from what I can tell is what every pop star, icon, or artist is doing nowadays. Our text, one Greek sentence consisting of only 36 words is doing just that. Keeping it real.
It tells of a real important event. Here our trusty King James lets us down. Quite uniformly, King James translates a 2 word Greek phrase with 4 words "and it came to pass." This phrase emphasizes the event to be related. The Christmas Gospel starts this way. Our text begins this way, "And it came to pass that while they were there the days were accomplished that she should be delivered." The King James missed it translating "And so it was." Later it translates "and it came to pass" in reference to the angels departing, but that is a different Greek phrase. Nope, our text is the only event broken out for emphasis in the Christmas Gospel.
No wonder. For thousands of the years the Church has been waiting for this. What Cain killed Able over; what Abraham was glad at; what Moses predicted; what Isaiah saw was finally here. The Promised Seed of a woman that God drowned a world, confused language, destroyed cities, conquered nations to protect was finally born.
What has come to pass is a real important event. Yet nobody is there but Mary, Joseph, and the Baby. There's no room in the inn, and doesn't it sound personal? "There was no room for them in the inn." "We want no pregnant soon to be delivered woman in here." And a manger is the opposite of special. How it must have bothered or puzzled the carpenter Joseph to have to place his step-Son not in a fine wooden cradle made by his own skilled hands but into a feeding trough!
But God's just keeping it real. It's a real important event the real birth of God in flesh and blood - but it looks ordinary and so earthy. Translations tend to prettify this, but the Greek emphasize Mary bore, a Child. Literally, "And it came to pass while they were there the days were fulfilled for her to bear and she bore the Son of her." Mary hurt, cried, and bled with all the trauma of childbirth, and God in flesh and blood came into the world in the usual way.
Jesus came into the world this way because that's how we do, and we come this way because of mankind's fallenness. When our first parents sinned, God in judgment said, "I will greatly multiply Your pain in childbirth, in pain you shall bring forth children." Only by the grace of medicine is this pain treated. Mary had none of that. God in flesh and blood had none of it when Mary gave birth to Him.
Go ahead and stumble here. Many do, and if you don't at all you're probably not listening. I said God was born of a woman. The rabbis of Luther's day said, "'Since he was in the womb of his mother from his head to his feethow could he have been God'" (LW 8, 241)? Cambyses, king of Persia says to the Egyptian who believes his god descends into a calf, "Do you call that a god? Are your gods flesh and blood? . No doubt a god like that is good enough for the Egyptians, but you won't get away with trying to make a fool out of me" (Herodotus, iii, 29). Go ahead and stumble. C.S. Lewis did. He said Jesus in the flesh wasn't omniscient because a human brain couldn't be the vehicle of omniscient consciousness (The Problem of Pain, 134).
Go ahead and stumble but wonder at what the text says. Mary really gave birth to Christ the Lord. Lord is the Jehovah of the Old Testament. Jehovah, who walked with Adam in Eden, spoke with Moses and Elijah on Sinai, and who showed Himself to Isaiah is born of Mary. The text says literally, "She bore the Son of her, the Firstborn." Keep it real. This text tells of the real important event of the real birth of God who is the real Firstborn.
Read your Old Testament. Every firstborn belonged to God. The firstborn were either sacrificed to God or redeemed. Animals were sacrificed. People were redeemed. Until this Firstborn. The Firstborn. No lamb was offered to redeem Him, because He is the Lamb God sent to redeem all people. A late 19th century painting has Mary holding Baby Jesus in one arm and a lamb in the other. Even if she didn't know now, the choice was already made, and Jesus knew. Even now as this Baby is in the manger His head is turned toward Calvary. He being God in flesh and blood is after all omniscient.
Our text keeps it real. It records the real important event of the real birth of God as the real Firstborn, and this has real consequences. Here's where unbelief chimes in. We find it expressed well in the mouth of a liberal pastor in Elmer Gantry. If God really wanted to help the earth by taking human form he should have suggested sanitation when he was here; that would have saved millions from disease (Sinclair Lewis' 391). Doesn't that sound reasonable? By modernizing postwar Japan MacArthur saved 2.1 million lives. That's more than the Japanese lost during the war (American Caesar, 509).
Yes, what earthly good came from God taking on flesh and blood? Did disease stop? How about wars, hatred, or any of the hundreds of way man's inhumanity to man is expressed? You'll counter with. God in flesh and blood defeated sin, death, and the devil. O yeah? Did you not sin today? Think death is defeated? Open a paper; it still has death notices. And the devil? Defeated? After Christmas, after Calvary, after Easter, after the Ascension, Scripture itself says the devil is a lion looking for someone to devour.
So what are the consequences? Augustine points to two things that God taking on flesh and blood shows that would be enough even if there were no other consequences. The first is that Divinity cannot be polluted by human flesh. The second is that demons are not to be considered better than us because they have no flesh (City of God, IX, 17). These are big.
Human flesh and blood aren't vile and evil in themselves. They fell to this point. They were polluted when Adam sinned in Eden, but that flesh and blood aren't ignoble, unheavenly, in themselves is shown by God taking them on Himself. And what most science fiction and all eastern religions teach is not true. A bodiless existence is not superior, and isn't our goal.
God descended into human flesh and blood to redeem this flesh and blood. He sweated, bled, cried and died in this flesh and blood to pay for the sins of all flesh. When He rose He took this flesh and blood out of the grave and when He ascended into heaven, even then He didn't leave it behind. Yes, your flesh and blood that you know every mole, hair, and freckle of has been redeemed for everlasting life by the Man who is God, Christ Jesus.
The real consequence of the real birth of God from a virgin's womb has even more delights. Homer has the goddess Hera saying, "gods revealed are hard to look upon" (Iliad, XX). Pagan gods were and are. Try getting up close and personal with Kali, with Allah, with the Supreme Being of blinding light, and see what happens. Semele, mortal lover of Jupiter, is tricked by Jupiter's wife into asking him to appear in all the splendor he wears in heaven. He doesn't do that but appears in "his lesser panoply." When he enters her room "Her mortal frame could not endure the splendors of the immortal radiance. She was consumed to ashes" (Bulfinch's, 160).
A real consequence of the real God being born of a woman is that God shows Himself tenderhearted, forgiving, and welcoming of sinners. He comes not in terrors, thunder claps, or lightening strikes, but in a manger, in Mary's lap. "On one of the last days of his [Luther's] life, he wrote in a Bible that the Father was not angry, for he let himself be perceived in the sweet words of His Son" (Brecht, III, 372).
The true God is not hard to look upon in the Person of Jesus. The unrevealed God, the hidden God, the God who brings tragedy, death, and damnation is very hard, impossible to look at. You try and you will either go crazy or worse arrogant. You'll turn away from Him as Steve Jobs did at age 13 refusing to worship a God who didn't alleviate the suffering Jobs thought He should (Blumenthal, 21). You'll find yourself worshipping at the altar of "Why?" And having a question for your god is to have no answers.
You don't have to worship at the hidden counsels of God where there are questions that could kill you. God invites you instead to come to Him in the Person of His Son. And when the Son visibly walked the earth He told you He could always be found in Waters that touch your body yet wash your soul. In Bread that is His Body and Wine that is His Blood. In Words that you hear with ears yet clean consciences.
That's one more real consequence of the real birth of God to a virgin named Mary: A good conscience. Ben Franklin said in his Poor Richard's Almanac "a good conscience is a continual Christmas." He got it backwards. A continual Christmas is a good conscience. The ancient creed confesses that Jesus "for us men our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary and was made man." This happened for us. For us sinners, for us doubters, for us unbelievers, for us blind, dead, enemies of God. Jesus said He comes for the sick not the healthy, for the blind not the seeing, for the sinful not the holy.
Regardless of how bothered, troubled, or guilty of a conscience you came in here with, you can go out of here in Jesus' name with a good, forgiven, clean one. You know the saying, "Had Christ a thousand times,/ Been born in Bethlehem,/ But not in thee, thy sin/ Would still thy soul condemn?" That's from the poem of a 17th century mystic, and bases the consequences of God becoming Man on your subjective response. The real truth is that even if Christ was born a thousand times in you but never really in Bethlehem your sins would still condemn you. Because without a real birth there is no real Law keeper, sin bearer, or real atonement for sins.
But God was really born in Bethlehem. So take the child from Mary's real neck and put Him around your own. He was not given only to Mary but to you (LW 58, 140). Embrace Him with real hugs and real kisses for He is a real Baby, and He is really your God. Keep it real this Christmas. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Christmas Eve (20131224); Luke 2: 6-7