The Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord
December 24, 2009
Text: Luke 2:1-20
Dear Friends in Christ,
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. (Exodus 40:34-35) Here is the climax of the book of Exodus, what the whole book has been leading up to. The Children of Israel complete the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant. Then Christ descends from Mount Sinai and take up residence in the Tabernacle and enthrones Himself between the cherubim on the top of the Ark of the Covenant. But the glory of Christ is so intense and so consuming that not even Moses can enter the Tabernacle. Nevertheless, Christ was now enthroned in the midst of His people.
This seems an odd place to start, especially on Christmas of all times! But this really is what Christmas is all about. We must start with the reality that God is holy and righteous. Christ is a righteous judge. We confess this in the creed when we say that Christ judges the living and dead. His holiness is consuming and dangerous to us sinners. Not even Moses was allowed to see the face of Christ. For this is what we must understand. Moses was dealing with the pre-incarnate Christ on Mount Sinai. He was not dealing with God the Father. He was dealing with God the Son. And we see at Mount Sinai just how holy, just, righteously vindictive Christ is. He is to be greatly feared. This is particularly true for those of us who are sinners. How do we know who the sinners are? Just look around and ask yourself, who among us will one day die. There is your answer. All those who will die are sinners. Death is the consequence of sin. Without sin there is no death. So all who will die are sinners. The last I checked that means everyone.
Luther describes what happens next as Christ putting on a mask. It is a mask of human flesh. He puts on this mask so that He can deal with us in grace. The mask is a barrier to protect us. He makes it possible for us to be in His presence, without the terror of Mount Sinai.
Now listen again as you ponder Christ in all His glory and righteousness at Mount Sinai. And she gave birth to her firstborn Son and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths and laid Him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. Mary just took the Lord of Sinai, wrapped Him in strips of cloth and laid Him in a feeding trough. Just an aside here. Mary and Joseph were not, I repeat, not poor. They were common. Sleeping in stables was a common practice at that time and in fact up until recent times. Back to Mary and her Son, the Lord of Sinai. The angel said to [the shepherds], "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." Christ, that is God’s Anointed One, is born and you are not to fear. In fact, He’s not just the Anointed One, He is Yahweh Himself, He is the Lord. Not only is the Lord come into the world, but He is come as your Savior. What are the signs? He’s the Baby in a stable, laying in a manger. The One who spoke from Mount Sinai in a great fiery cloud of power and might is a baby laying in a manger. They found it just as the angel had said. People wondered at the report of shepherds. The Lord of Might is now a Baby?
At Mount Sinai Christ took up residence in the tabernacle. It had been specially constructed for Him from the finest materials. He was enthroned atop the golden Ark of the Covenant. At Bethlehem Christ took up residence in a stable, which was very probably a cave used as a stable. He was enthroned in a manger. No one could enter the tabernacle because of the terror created by the glory of God. The shepherds freely entered the stable and saw what Moses was not allowed to see - the face of God.
So tonight I ask you, which would you rather have, the Christ of the Tabernacle or the Christ of the stable? They are one and the same. But they represent two completely different ways that God deals with man. The stable connects to Mount Calvary where Christ would die for the sins of the world. This is God who is truly God with us. This is God who comes to us and desires to abide with us. He would remain with us in grace. He would remain with us to forgive our sins and give us all His good gifts. Thus Luther can say in his great Reformation hymn that Christ is “by our side upon the plain.” This is the Christ of the stable. And yet we must not forget that both Christs are the real Christ. Christ the Holy Being, possessed with consuming righteousness that we see at Mount Sinai is also the little Child who invites us to gaze upon the loving face of God and even hold the hand of God. And that is what makes the incarnation so truly amazing. For this shows the purest of all love, and teaches us that this love is also a part of who God is. Sadly, many in this world will only see the Christ of Mount Sinai. That would be a terrible and frightening thing indeed. But we also see the Christ of the stable, enthroned in a manger. We see Christ, the Lord, the God who loved us, so that He became one of us, to pay the price of our sin.