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Christmas Eve Service
Light of Christ Anglican Church
The Rev. Jeffrey O. Cerar, December 24, 2015, 2015


The Manger and the Character of God


Text: Luke 2:1-20

Tonight the story of the birth of Jesus is being told throughout the world.

• Tonight in every place there is a Christian,

• in the tin-roofed churches of East Africa

• and the great cathedrals of Europe,

    they are telling the story of the young virgin mother on a cold journey to Bethlehem.

• In every prison fellowship,

• in every house church,

   they are telling about the inn that had no room for the Prince of Peace.

• In every glitzy megachurch

• and every backwater mining town,

    they are telling about the angels who sang with the heavenly host,
    “Glory to God in the highest....”

• At Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan

• And at secret gatherings in Yemen

• and the inner city missions of New York,

   they are telling about the shepherds who became witnesses to the birth of God’s son,
   wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.

We are part of a long line of worshippers who have stood at the manger basking in the presence of God on this holy night. And like all those who came before us, beginning with the shepherds, we are overjoyed;.... but we don’t quite understand.

Is that an overstatement to say we don’t understand what God was doing? How complicated could it be? How mysterious could it be? God simply came down from His heavenly throne. He simply took on our humanity. He simply broke into the physical universe to set in motion His rescue mission for the human race.

What we don’t understand is that we truly are in need of Jesus to save us. We don’t understand that we are all sinners. We don’t understand that, if He is not the Lord of our lives, we are hopelessly lost. And we don’t understand for one minute the glory of God that would motivate Him to save us in this special, unique way. From start to finish, the wondrous work God began that night in Bethlehem reflects the character of God. It would take Jesus down a road of suffering. It would take Him to a sacrificial cross, where He gave up His life for the sins of the world. It would take Him to a tomb from which He rose triumphantly. It would take Him to a promised return to earth on the final day to complete this rescue mission.

What makes it all make sense is to contemplate the character of God, which is reflected in the event that draws us here on this holy night. We see a God who is humble, self-sacrificing, and the very essence of unconquerable love.

Yes, God is humble. It seems discordant to think of God as humble. If we were perfect, as God is, if we were all-powerful as He is, if we were sovereign, as God is, we would not be humble. But God is humble.

• He chose to come not as a conquering general, but as a baby.

• He chose to come into a poor family in a poor country.

• He chose to be born outdoors on a cold winter night.

• He came at the mercy of innkeepers who said there was no room for Him to be born.

• He spent His first night lying on straw nibbled at by the farm animals.

• He came in obscurity, with no fanfare, no PR campaign, no parade. Only those who needed to know were aware of the event—the heavenly host, a few shepherds, and some wise men from the east.

• And when the word began to spread, it wasn’t received with joy, or respect, but with doubt and fear.

Why? Why did God come into the world in such a humble way? It wasn’t that He carefully scripted it to make a point. It was simply the way it had to be because that is who God is. It is God’s character to be humble. That is why He urges us to be humble—because it is in the nature of God.

The second aspect of God’s nature that is reflected in the birth in Bethlehem is the sacrifice He was willing to make. It is in God’s nature to be self-giving. That is why He urges us to be generous with our lives and our substance, because it is the nature of the God who created us in His image. What sacrifice did God make, you ask? Well, the Letter to Philippians puts it this way:

Though he was God, Jesus did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. [Philippians 2:6-8 (NLT)]

When Jesus stepped down from heaven, He left a lot behind.

• In heaven, no one tells the King of glory, “There is no room at the inn.”

• In heaven, there is no hypothermia on a cold winter’s night.

• In heaven, there is no pain in childbirth.

• In heaven, there is no risk of infant death.

• No growing pains,

• No false accusations,

• No kangaroo courts

• No ridicule,

• no scourging,

• No pain,

• no cross,

• no death.

Jesus took on all those things in order to become Emmanuel, God with us. He took on all those things so that He could offer up His life as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, so that you and I could be washed clean. Sacrifice is who God is, and it is totally in character for Him to sacrifice for us, because He loves us.

And that is the third aspect of God’s character that we see in the manger in Bethlehem. “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that everyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) God’s love is endless, and it is unconquerable. “Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

At our best, we are capable of great love. If we get word that someone we love is in trouble, we drop everything and go to them. We are ready to rescue those whom we love. Why? Because God made us in His image. And it is the nature of God who made us to go to the rescue of those whom He loves.

“Long lay the world in sin and error pining, ‘til He appeared, and the soul felt its worth.” This sad and broken world is in dire straits. This very night, there are a billion acts of betrayal, violence, deception, and recklessness going on out there in the world. This very night, much of the world is ignoring God’s goodness, breaking God’s holy law, even mocking God. What is to become of us? We can’t make it better. We can’t cure ourselves. But God can. And He is doing just that in the glorious coming of His Son, Jesus, on this night, to begin His journey to the cross and rise again from the dead to rescue us from sin. And He is doing so, because He loves us in spite of everything. That is the character of God.

He is a humble God. He is a sacrificial, self-giving God. And He is a God of love. If our hearts are not bursting already as we gaze into that manger at the baby Jesus, maybe they will burst when we contemplate the character of God. For this night is not just about the happy event of the birth of a baby. This night is about God’s ultimate act of humble, self-giving love for you and for me. There is no response but to sing with the angelic hosts, “Glory to God in the highest.” (Luke 2:14)

The angels knew the character of God. The shepherds gazed upon it. The wise men from the east were drawn to it. And tonight we celebrate the character of God. This night is about the unbroken road from the heart of God, to the stable in Bethlehem, to the cross, and on up to glory.

The manger and the cross—two human devices on which the heart of God is laid bare for all to see. I want to sing a song for you about the manger and the cross. It is called, “Hallelujah!,” Some of you may remember it from last Christmas Eve. The song was written by Leonard Cohen in 1964. It was not a Christmas song. But in recent years, the Christians have not been able to keep their hands off this song. An Easter version was published about three years ago. Now, You-Tube is buzzing with the Christmas version, sung, among others by a Christian group called Cloverton. I invite you to join me in the Alleluias at the end of each verse, if the spirit moves you.

A couple came to Bethlehem

Expecting child, they searched the inn.

To find a place,

for you were coming soon.

There was no room for them to stay

So in a manger filled with hay

God’s only son was born,

O Hallelujah.

Hallelujah.

The shepherds left their flocks by night

to see this baby wrapped in light

A host of angels led them all to you.

It was just as the angels said,

you’ll find him in a manger bed

Emmanuel our Savior, Hallelujah.

Hallelujah.

A star shone bright up in the east

To Bethlehem the wise men three

Came many miles and journeyed long for you.

And to the place at which you were

Their frankincense and gold and myrrh

They gave to you and cried out Hallelujah.

Hallelujah.

I know you came to rescue me

This baby boy would grow to be

a man and one day die for me and you.

My sins would drive the nails in you.

That rugged cross was my cross too.

Still every breath you drew was Hallelujah!

Hallelujah.

[Four verses from Cloverton’s 2014 version of “Hallelujah!” music and original words by Leonard Cohen, 1984]

May the joy of this most holy night stay with you throughout the year. And may the character of our humble, self-giving, loving God raise up from your deepest places an endless string of joyful Hallelujahs.

© Jeffrey O. Cerar 2014, 2015

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