Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Gone are the shepherds. Gone are Mary, and Joseph, and the innkeeper who didn’t have room. Gone are the magi, who haven’t even arrived yet. Gone are Zechariah, Elizabeth, and their then-infant prophet son, John. Gone is Herod-the-not-so-Great-at-all, his burning fear against a potential rival staining Bethlehem’s plain with the blood of children. Gone is Caesar Augustus, whose irrational registration decree fit into God’s timeline quite nicely, thank you.
Where have they gone? Well, there are only two possibilities, just as there are for you. What was the ultimate destiny for each of these individuals who was involved in, or on the periphery of, the Christmas story? Heaven? Or hell?
If we base it on the evidence of the Bible and other recorded history, we could make some educated guesses, couldn’t we? Herod, the brutal murderer and the rejecter of the King of Kings? Hell, probably. Caesar Augustus? He thought he was a god himself, and he wouldn’t have claimed faith in the deity of some insignificant segment of his subjects in far away, backwater Palestine. My money’s on hell for him, too.
The innkeeper? He wasn’t being mean. The poor guy was just swamped with travelers. He didn’t want to turn away the business; he simply didn’t have the capacity to handle any more. Perhaps he heard and believed in the Savior after the shepherds’ visit to the child. We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
The shepherds themselves are a safe bet, for they not only heard the word which the angel proclaimed to them, they acted upon it in faith, going to Bethlehem to worship the infant Savior, and told others the good news as well.
The magi? They apparently knew the scriptures well enough to know that the star in the sky was an indication of the coming of a king of Israel, and they came to pay homage, worship him, and bring him costly treasures. Heaven, I’d guess.
And Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, Elizabeth, and John are almost sure things. Despite their various and occasional stumbles and doubts like questioning angels about details, planning quiet divorces, or asking Jesus if He was actually the long-promised One, these five are viewed as being champions and examples of the faith.
But we really can’t be sure, can we, because we can’t see into the heart of another and determine with certainty if saving faith in Jesus Christ is there or not. All we can do is base our estimations and satisfy our curiosity on the evidence we have, and the confessions that people make.
But that’s OK, because it’s not our task to determine or judge who is saved and who is not. That’s God’s work to both decide and accomplish. For all those individuals, the question is moot anyway, isn’t it? They are long-since dead and buried, gone the way of all flesh, just as you will one day—for just like you, Mary and Joseph and Zechariah and Elizabeth and all the rest, are children of Adam and Eve. At many times and in many ways, you also have broken that Law given through Moses and written on your hearts of stone. One day you, like them, will be long gone, too. You had a beginning, and you will have your earthly end. This Christmas is one of a fleeting, finite number you’ll get to enjoy in the company of family and friends.
Of all those involved in that first Christmas, of all those who have participated in observing and celebrating each Christmas since—past, present, and yet to come—there is but One who endures. Not out of persistence, stubbornness, or longevity, but out of divinity. He endures, because He is.
St. John doesn’t begin his Gospel account with a Christmas story of virgin mothers, innkeepers, shepherds, magi, and kings. He is writing long after Mary and Joseph, Herod and Augustus and all the rest, have become part of history. Instead, John describes what is lasting and sure:
In the beginning was the Word. And through that Word, God spoke creation into existence. The Word is power. The Word is truth. The Word is light and wisdom and glory, and whatever the Word speaks and whenever and wherever the Word is spoken, reality follows. Not just follows: is created.
As our second reading today from Hebrews indicates, at one time God made use of the prophets to convey His Word and His will to His people. When that Word, His Son and our salvation, came in the flesh, it is that Son who has now become our primary connection to the will and purposes of the Father.
In Jesus, we see the Light of God’s glory, God’s intent, and God’s work for us, in us, and through us—for what Christ has accomplished brings us back to the Father, and brings the Father who has never left us still closer to us.
The Son is the heir of all things, appointed by His Father, the one to whom the entire legacy, estate, and household of God belong and are subordinated. That which the Father intends, the Son carries out, obediently, for the Son carries the glory and the nature of God. What’s more, we are told, He upholds the universe by the word of His power. Even when He had humbled Himself and became incarnate, all creation remained under His authority, as evidenced by His many miracles. Even the angels were placed under His direction and authority.
Why don’t you act like you are under His authority, then? Is it that you prefer the darkness, and not the shining light of life? Is it that you do not know Him, like so much of the world? Is it that receiving Him would pose an inconvenience to your lifestyle and create embarrassment in how you want the world to view you? Perhaps sometimes, it is those things. But they cannot persist and endure, for each of you has received God’s Word giving you a new reality—in the font, from pulpit and lectern, from the hymnal, from the altar.
In your land of deep darkness and an even darker heart, true light shines. Your ignorance has been cast aside, the knowledge of the fear of the Lord has been granted you through the enduring Word of His prophets, apostles, and the Lord Himself. You are His people, the ones whom he has chosen, and in receiving His Word, you receive Him in all His fullness—all His glory, all His grace, all His truth.
Jesus is the one who has made the purification for sins, as Hebrews describes it. For all sins—yours and mine alike. Having done so, that purity is His to do as He sees fit, and it is His expressed intention to share it with you so that you might be made pure, also. Receive that purity—that righteousness from God—as He has chosen to bestow it upon you. It is your enduring garment from your good and gracious God. It will not wear out like a worldly garment; it will not require changing or mending.
When heaven and earth pass away, the Word of His promises will endure. When you go the way of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the magi, Christ remains the same to all generations.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” And He’s not going anywhere, but into your ears and eyes and mouth and heart. Receive Him. Believe on His name. And remain His child, born of God.
In the name of He who endures forever, Jesus (+) Christ, our Savior. Amen.