Emmitsburg Council of Churches


Merry Christmas

Rev. Jon Greenstone

(12/2016) When speaking of our church, Elias Evangelical Lutheran Church, some have asked, "What is Evangelical?" For some, evangelism conjures up thoughts of suited men rapping at their door at dinner time with literature on the terrors of hell, or big tent preachers yelling, "Repent, repent!" However, evangelical simply means, to bring Good News. It is associated with the angels, such as those who brought the glad tidings to shepherds while watching over their sheep. The good news also had formerly come to Mary by the angel Gabriel, that she would bear a son, Emmanuel, who would be the Son of God, the Messiah. We evangelicals seek to carry out our mission of sharing God’s love in word and deed. We seek to proclaim the message of God’s far reaching love, and live this message by acts of love, compassion and caring.

Luke the Evangelist provides the full account of the shepherds’ fearful surprise at the angel’s announcement of the Savior’s birth: "An angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified (Luke 2:9)." Yes! It is a holy terror when God sends a heavenly messenger to tell us something. These shepherds [farmers] were quaking in their sandals because they had never experienced an angelic visitation before. However, the heavenly messenger quickly allayed their fears by explaining the purpose of the ethereal visit, "’Do not be afraid; for see--I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord (Luke 2:11).’" This is the true authentic evangelos, Good News, that has come to all of the world, for the Savior is for all people—the righteous and the unrighteous.

By the startling announcement of the heavenly messenger we can better see that the modern usage of the term evangelical, as a description of a certain body of Christians with certain social or political ideas, makes for a convoluted understanding of the Christian message, which was intended as Good News for All people, not just a select few holding certain principles or political values.

Martin Luther provides guidance as to what is meant by evangelical in terms of how we hear and interpret the meaning of Christmas. Keep in mind that Luther was writing in defense of the Biblical message as primary source for faith, life and salvation, as opposed to worldly or human forms of religiosity present in the medieval church of his day. In his "Sermon On the Afternoon of Christmas Day 1530" Luther tells us there are two articles of the faith that we must return to. The first article is the account of the Savior’s birth. The Evangelist’s message, the Gospel, is to be heard and believed. Luther suggests that even the devil has heard and believes the story of the Messiah’s birth, likewise the godless and the religious have heard the Good News, but belief and (or) faith in the Good News is required. Luther wants the Christian to take the words of the historic Creeds, founded upon God’s Word, as Gospel truth. "I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son our Lord, born of the Virgin Mary." It’s not just a formula to be blindly recited, even though recitation helps us to internalize it, but the complete narrative is to be embraced, owned and celebrated, personally and collectively in the Church. For "unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord (Luke 2:11)."

However, Luther is also compassionate for the rationalists among us, he states that "it is a high article to believe that this infant, born of Mary, is true God; for nobody’s reason can ever accept the fact that he who created heaven and earth and is adored by angels was born of a virgin." Luther desires that we embrace this faith, that God would indeed come into the world as a small innocent, vulnerable human child to be the Lord and Savior of all.

But what is the second article to which Luther refers? Here perhaps is the division between the hearers and the doers, between those who follow the letter of the law and those who obey the spirit of the law (joints and marrow). Luther’s audience is diverse, just like the church of today, we are Catholic, Protestant and we are non-denominational. Some are conservative and others more socially minded. But what makes us Christians who shine in the darkness of the World’s despair? How does our faith in the new born King make a difference? Is there more than just a heart-warming story and a star on top of the Christmas tree? What does the angel want of the shepherds who were addressed on that night of nights? Luther asks, "Why did God do all this?"

The second article is founded in a sense of the believer’s heart-felt conviction. This begins with an acknowledgement, "I am a sinner in need of grace." Luke’s Gospel reveals that the humble, lowly people were the first to hear the announcement. It helps us to recall Luther’s proof text for all scriptural interpretation -- "By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God (Eph.2:8)." Therefore the hearer of the Word, as presented by the evangelist, becomes moved to action as he or she responds with conviction to the words such as were given to the shepherds by the angel who said, "This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger (Luke 2:12)." Soon thereafter the multitude of heavenly host sings "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors! (Lk 2:14);" and then there is a response by the lowly shepherds—this is the fulfillment of the second article.

The shepherds are moved to action without a formal prompting (nor scolding). They responded to the Good News announcement with a plan of action. They "said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’" This is what the Spirit asks of evangelicals today, that we first of all comprehend the announcement that the Savior has been born—for you and for All people. In our worship, we are not just to be sentimental, nor just carrying forward with tradition—though we do take guidance and stability from tradition. Luther suggests we not only praise Mary for her devotion and willingness to bear the Christ child, but most importantly embrace the little Holy Child for ourselves! In this reflection, as we see Mary caring for her son, who is the Son of God—the very one who created the Cosmos, we will recognize that God the Father has acted, the Holy Spirit has overshadowed, and the angels have announced that this Savior is for all of humankind. The Christmas story is our Evangelical message, Good News for All People. Amen

Peace to you and yours,

Pastor Jon

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