“Oh Holy Night”
We've been mulling over the theme of holiness this Advent season, considering the “Holy Smokes” that hide God's glory, and surround his presence. Last week we pondered the sin of pride, and the true holiness that comes from the one, Jesus, who really is “holier-than-thou”.
Tonight, as we approach the manger yet more closely, we consider the holiness of the Christ-child himself, especially on the night of his birth.
“Oh, Holy Night” has been one of my favorite Christmas songs, not so much because of the words but the powerful music.
Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angels' voices!
Oh night divine, Oh night when Christ was born;
Oh night divine, Oh night, Oh night Divine.
Just what is it that makes this night, Christmas Eve, so holy? What makes it so divine? It is the arrival, the presence, the birth of the Holy One himself. The “Infant Holy” as yet another Christmas hymn names him. Jesus the Savior is born.
Babies are special. There is something about a baby that gives you that warm fuzzy feeling. We have a natural instinct to protect and care for these cute little people. And as our youngest turns 1 year old on Sunday, it seems the days of babies will be soon gone from our home. I think it's our natural love for babies that drives much of our Christmas piety in America today. Everyone likes Jesus. But now imagine Jesus as a baby, and he's not only the Messiah, but a cute and cuddly one at that! What's not to love?
But I would encourage you to think more deeply about it. Ponder the meaning of this child in the manger. If babies are special, this one is super-special. If babies are innocent, from a human point of view, this child is innocent and sinless even in God's sight. If we set apart babies for special treatment and attention, how much more should the Christ-child be set apart, in our hearts and minds. How much more, since he is holy?
Holiness means perfection and sinlessness, but it is more than that. Holiness also means something is set apart, or special. We can speak of a holy night, or a holy place, or a holy thing. Nights, places, and things can't sin, so holiness means more that just sinlessness. It means being set apart, usually for a special purpose.
The holy night of Christmas Eve is set apart, because it marks the birth of the Holy One. A place is holy because it is set apart for a holy purpose, like this church, set apart from all the regular buildings, set apart as a place where God's Word is preached and his Sacraments are received.
This holy infant is set apart for purpose – to die. To die for the sins of the world. Let that never be lost in our Christmas celebrations. The warm fuzzies of the cute little baby Jesus cannot be separated from his holy purpose as the lamb of God – the sacrifice for the sins of the world – a holy purpose.
We know how to be un-holy. Sin does that rather well. As we have already seen in our series, God's holiness has no room for sin. The sinner who stands in his holy presence can expect only judgment and wrath. Losing holiness was easy for Adam and Eve – all they had to do was disobey. But once it's gone, once the fall happened, holiness becomes impossible to attain. Even our best works are filthy rags in God's sight.
So how do we get holiness? How can we encounter a holy God?
Dr. John Kleinig, an internationally recognized Lutheran authority on the book of Leviticus, describes holiness: “The Lord alone is inherently and permanently holy . . . . Holiness is derived only from him; it is available only by way of contact with him”
We are not inherently holy, but holiness can be derived from him. But how? Can a sinner earn such holiness from God? Surely not. Can we decide to follow him of our own accord? No. Then how can this be?
“How can this be?” was the question asked by faithful Mary, when she first heard the news. She who had no earthly reason to be pregnant was found with child. She who had not known a man would now give birth to the Son of Man. Mary knew about the birds and the bees well enough to know that this was impossible. But with God, and in faith, all things are possible.
Mary didn't decide for it, ask for it, earn it or deserve it. But she was given a blessing so great – she would bear the “Holy One” - the Son of God. And it would happen by the power of the Holy Spirit.
And while some revere Mary as perhaps holy in her own right, she was no more holy or sinless than you or I. Yet her role and part in the salvation story are special and holy, by way of contact with the Holy One.
We are much like her. We bring nothing to God. No perfection, no merit or worthiness, no act of will, no bright idea. Salvation is God's plan, God's doing, God's gift to us which he gives out of pure grace. And by the power of the Holy Spirit – like for Mary – Christ comes to us. Just as the Holy Word of the Holy angel that announced God's plan made it reality, so does God's holy word of Absolution make our forgiveness real. So does Holy Baptism truly wash our sins away and make us his holy people. So does Holy Communion make us partakers of his holiness. Without him we are not holy. But he is always holy, and he came to make us holy. As his holy, Christian church, we are a communion of saints, a holy people, a royal priesthood, a chosen nation – set apart for him, and in him.
That precious, holy child, who brings holiness with him. He made the manger holy. He made the night holy. He made his mother holy. He made his people holy. He even made the cross holy. Yes, this torture and execution device of the Romans, like a swastika wrapped up in an electric chair, becomes the symbol of our faith, the very bridge between us and the Holy God. If he can even make the cross holy, then surely his blood can, and does make us holy.
Another word for “making holy” is “sanctifying”. We usually think of this as the Holy Spirit's work, but it is only done by connection to Christ, to his cross, and his Gospel promises. In Christ, by his spirit, we are made holy, that is, we are sanctified. So let me close with Paul's blessing to the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 5):
“May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming (the Advent, that is) of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.”
In Jesus Christ, Amen.