Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Christmas is only a week away, but you can already sense the anticipation building. In spite of the secularization of American culture, there is something about Christmas that remains deeply embedded in our national consciousness. In a very real sense, Christmas represents life itself, because it involves that which is true and beautiful, that which is eternal, holy, and divine. It is difficult to imagine America without Christmas, even as corrupted as its observance has become. This may explain the visceral reaction of even nominal or non-practicing Christians to the removal of nativity scenes from public places, or eliminating references to Christmas in schools.
Yet anti-Christian advocates, armed with excessive political correctness, pluralistic sensitivity, and the claim that the predominance of Christmas is unfair to non-Christian religions, attempt to remove the very term “Christmas” from our public discourse and replace it with “Happy Holidays.” This leaves many Christians distressed, if not downright livid.
Yet Merry Christmas it is! We say “merry” because it is a joyous time for Christians. The merriness is not simply eggnog-enhanced mirth amid family, friends, festive food, and gifts. For Christians, the “merry” in “Merry Christmas” is more like the “feliz” in “feliz Navidad.” Translated most accurately, it is “joyous nativity.” It reflects the inexplicable happy satisfaction following the long wait of pregnancy, as mother and father hold their infant for the first time. Words cannot express the joy and wonder when one comes face-to-face with the mystery of life at the birth of a child. Christmas is about the nativity of Christ, for whose birth Mary and Joseph waited nine months.
Yet God’s people Israel had waited for centuries with hope, and still turned away the Savior when He came. It should therefore not surprise us that the world, including American society, does not embrace the Christ of Christmas for who He really is. Even so, no one can wake up Christmas morning calling it “Christmas,” and truly avoid the questions Jesus posed to Peter: “Who do the crowds say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?” Peter correctly answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Thankfully, we don’t have to succumb to the Reformed church’s fear and think it is our duty to strive so hard to “keep Christ in Christmas. He’s there, with or without your help. Without Him, Christmas does not even exist. You could call it Christmas all you want, but apart from the incarnate God, you would have nothing better than Labor Day or Thanksgiving.
Still, what does it mean for Jesus to be the Christ? Jesus went on to explain to Peter and His disciples, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected . . . killed, and on the third day be raised” (Lk 9:18, 20, 22).
But why did Peter refer to Jesus as “the Christ”? What does it mean that Jesus is the Christ? To answer this question is to answer the question “What is Christmas?” Jesus is the human name given Him at His birth by Joseph—given at the instructions of the Lord Himself through the angel. It is derived from the Hebrew “Yeshua” or Joshua—the One who saves.
The word Christ, on the other hand, is a title that comes from the Hebrew word Messiah, which means “anointed by Yahweh.” So, when the angel told the shepherds, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Lk 2:11), he was simply saying, “The Anointed One” is born to you. This is indeed the Christ, the Messiah, the One who had been promised to Adam and Eve after the fall into sin.
He is also the One promised to Abraham and David and to all of God’s Old Testament Church through His prophets. Amazingly, we hear the Christ, the Anointed One Himself, speaking to us in the opening verses of Isaiah 61.
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
Because the Lord has anointed me
To bring good news to the poor;
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
And the day of vengeance of our God;
To comfort all who mourn. (vv 1–2)
If there is any question as to whether these verses are referring to Jesus, our Lord Himself made it unmistakably clear at the beginning of His ministry when He preached in the synagogue in His hometown of Nazareth.
Imagine, if you will, Jesus standing in front of the congregation, reading those words from Isaiah 61.
Then Luke records, “[Jesus] rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’” (Lk 4:20–21).
What was the reaction of the people in the synagogue? They drove Jesus out of town, and would have thrown Him off a cliff to His death if they had had their way. This sad rejection of Christ was neither the first nor the last time the Lord’s Anointed would be rejected. Jesus’ work of salvation later ended on the cross, when the religious and political leaders rejected and killed the Savior of the world. The apostle John tells us, “Light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light” (Jn 3:19).
People will tolerate and even embrace a secularized “Christmas” holiday—a winter festival with lights, parties, food, presents, and even decorated trees. Some may even tolerate a generic, secularized baby Jesus making a brief appearance. Such a Jesus will not be the promised Anointed One revealed in the Old and New Testaments, however. He would not be the Christ whom the apostle Paul says “gave Himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age” (Gal 1:4).
Ultimately, the cultural war currently waging in America and around the world about Christmas comes down to the question “Who do men say that I am?” That is, “What child is this who, laid to rest on Mary’s lap, is sleeping?” (LSB 370:1). The answer to this question is given by the Messiah Himself. It is the eternally begotten Son, who is speaking to the Old Testament Church in Isaiah 61:1—the same Christ who preached to His home congregation in Nazareth.
There, our Lord announces, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord had anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (v 1). Israelite prophets, priests, and kings were all anointed when placed into office. To be anointed was to be given the authority to carry out the task. It is akin to presidents being inaugurated, judges sworn in, and pastors being ordained. But Jesus was not placed into the office of the Savior of the world by men; He was sent and anointed by the Lord God Himself. St. John tells us, “God loved the world in this way: that He gave His only Son” (3:16). He who created the world sent His eternally-begotten Son in the flesh to take on creation itself, that He might restore the fallen creation by offering up His holy and divine flesh on the cross to atone for the sins of the world.
The same Anointed One whom St. John calls “the Word” (Jn 1:1, 3) was anointed by the Spirit for a divine work that involved His human voice. Note the verbs from Isaiah. Jesus says the Spirit has anointed me “to bring good news,” “to proclaim liberty to the captives,” and “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God” (vv 1–2). Jesus was anointed with the Spirit to preach the Word—both the Word of God’s favor, or grace, and the Word of vengeance and judgment.
There is certainly a lot of Law and judgment preached in both the Old Testament and the New. But in Isaiah 61, the focus is on the fact that the Anointed One is being sent to preach the Gospel, the Good News, to the poor. To bind up the broken-hearted. To proclaim freedom from captivity of sin and death, and to comfort those who mourn over the wages of sin.
In one sense, the “year of the Lord’s favor” refers to the first advent of Christ, when in the womb of Mary, He was being knit together to bring salvation through His atoning life and death. Likewise, the “day of vengeance” refers to the Last Day, when our Lord will return to judge the living and the dead. We know “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.” (Jn 3:17). But those who reject the salvation He offers will face a judgment leading to eternal condemnation.
Until “Happy Holidays” became a lame attempt to take Christ out of Christmas, it was certainly an acceptable—if non-specific—greeting for the Lord’s nativity. For to say “Happy Holiday” is to say “Happy Holy Day.”
In reality, apart from the Sundays, Christmas is the only true holy day of this season. It celebrates the day the eternal, only-begotten Son of the Father became flesh and dwelt among us in grace and truth. It is the birth of the holy and sinless Lamb of God, who came to give His life for the sins of the world.
Our season’s greetings are happy and merry because we are confessing what Isaiah and Jesus proclaimed, namely, that we are living in the “year of the Lord’s favor.” These are the days and years in which He proclaims to us the Good News and binds up our sick and wounded hearts and frees us from the depressing captivity and darkness of sin and death. We are living in “the year of the Lord’s favor” because we have been baptized into Jesus, the Christ. We have been released from captivity and clothed with His robe of righteousness.
In explaining Holy Baptism to the Colossians, St. Paul writes, “He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:13–14).
Thus, what was said about Jesus in Isaiah 61:10 can now said about us: “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for He has clothed me with the garments of salvation; He has covered me with the robe of righteousness.” Paul echoes this in writing, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3:27).
Isaiah used the imagery of a wedding feast to express the intimate and joyous relationship that the Messiah will bring about between God and His people. This has been fulfilled with the coming of Christ and the creation of His Bride, the Church. The Church is none other than the Messiah’s holy Bride. Our worship—like that of heaven—is a joyous wedding celebration.
Like Christmas, it includes good food, beautiful decorations, and glorious music all wrapped in joy and gladness. A pastor tells the story of visiting a woman who refused to come to worship. “Oh, I love Jesus,” she insisted, “it’s just those people in church that I can’t stand.” The pastor thoughtfully replied, “Well, that’s sort of like telling Jesus, ‘I love you. I just don’t like your ugly Bride.’”
Granted, the Church retains the dual nature of being the body of washed and cleansed saints, yet full of sinners, too. But in the eyes of Christ, the Bridegroom, She is beautiful and blameless. For your blessing and benefit, He who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and anointed by the Spirit to preach the Word made you a member of His holy and beautiful Bride—His Church. Here, His Holy Spirit works through the Word to absolve sins and to make disciples through teaching and Holy Baptism.
Now, in place of sin and despair; in place of the captivity and desolation brought upon by humanity’s tragic Fall, the Anointed One’s life and Word restores creation. A new garden sprouts forth, to bloom and grow the world over.
That is exactly what will happen a week from today, when all over the world faithful Christians once again gather in joy to celebrate the incarnation and birth of the Christ, and to praise the Savior of the world.
Our Joy at This Merry Christmas Is in Jesus, Who Is the Christ.
Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Repeat the sounding joy. In the holy name of (
) Jesus, Amen.