Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Holy Thief

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

In the Garden where Adam and Eve lived, there came a thief. He was a swindler, flattering with his tongue, smooth with his words, like a con man who bilks the unsuspecting out of thousands of dollars. He told Adam and Eve that they were missing out on a great deal that God was keeping to Himself. If they would just eat of the forbidden fruit, then they would be divine themselves. Turning them from God's words to his own deceitful words, this thief, the devil, robbed them blind. Enticing them to try to be like God, he stole away their humanity. He pilfered their very lives.

You sons of Adam and daughters of Eve are in the very same shape. Despite all of our knowledge and achievements and abilities, the fact is that we are now less than human, a disfigured shadow of what we were created to be. We can sometimes feel that in our very souls, that things just aren't right. This inhumanity manifests itself in anger and impatience and disrespect, in lusts, in greed and grudges and gossip. Even more subtly, it shows itself when we come to church more out of love of family and tradition than out of love for God. To be human is to live as God's creation, to receive everything from Him according to His will, to love and trust in Him as One who is good and gracious, and to be dependent on Him for all that you need. But by nature we would rather be independent. We don't want to be human, creatures who are under a Creator. We want to be like God, in charge, calling our own shots, doing our own thing. The truth is that all of us fell with Adam. We've been robbed; we've been mugged and left to die.

But in the Garden God promised to send One who would silence the lying tongue of this thief and crush his head and rescue us from his power. God would do this by turning the tables on the devil, using Satan's own tactics against him. This would be a sting operation. It was through a virgin, Eve, that the tempter worked his thievery, and so it is also through a virgin, Mary, that Christ enters into the world to undo and destroy the devil's work. It was in a quiet and subtle and shrewd manner that the serpent attained his plunder. And so it is in a quiet and subtle and shrewd manner that the Son of God comes to restore what was taken from you, masking Himself within weak flesh and blood, becoming a real baby boy, being laid in a feeding trough.

The Scriptures say that our Lord comes as a thief in the night (I Thess. 5:2; Rev. 16:15). That is a reference to Jesus' return on the Last Day. Like a robber in the darkness, He will come suddenly and unexpectedly to judge the living and the dead. But that phrase can also be applied to Jesus' first coming at Christmas. He comes like a thief in the night, that is, quietly, hidden in the shadows, with almost no one noticing His arrival. The Son of God, who upholds all creation, enters into His creation in the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary. Traveling curled up in her belly to the holy city of David, He is given birth in a barn, because there is no room for them in the inn. He arrives on the scene under cover, secretly–like a holy burglar–to win back for you what the devil stole away.

The Son of God begins to do that in the very act of His becoming man. By taking on your body and soul, Jesus has redeemed and cleansed your humanity with His divine holiness. His incarnation permeates and hallows mankind. In the stable with the animals, we see Jesus as the new Adam. He has come to lift you out of your beastly inhumanity and recreate you by His coming in the flesh. "As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." God the Son took your humanity into Himself so that your humanity might be restored and made new. God has greatly exalted you by becoming not an angel or any other creature but a true man, your blood brother. He partakes fully of your humanity so that in Him you might become truly human again.

That's why already here the heavenly host breaks forth in rejoicing. For the beginning of your salvation has been accomplished. Already now God has begun to break the devil's hold on you. The baby Jesus is delivered from the blessed Virgin, and in this way you are being delivered from the shadow of death. In Christ your humanity is recaptured from the tempter and given back to you. You who fell from God into the hands of darkness have been brought back to your Maker. That is the peace on earth that the angels sing of. God and man come together in Jesus who is Himself both God and man. Those who believe and are baptized into the body of Christ are thereby reunited with God. And so the angels sing, "Glory to God in the highest." For it is God's glory to come to your aid, to descend from heaven to help you and rescue you.

Think of it this way: By uniting your humanity with His divinity, God has made your cause His own. He is your powerful ally who alone has the power to defeat the enemy. Whatever the devil did to us, He has now done it to God, too; and that simply won't stand. But again, our Lord engages the battle under cover. Just as the Son of God was born in lowly state, so also His divine power to save us will be hidden beneath meekness and humility and suffering. The tender brow of this little one is being prepared to be pierced with thorns. His fragile hands and feet will feel the hammer's blow as spikes are driven through them attaching Him to the cross. The tiny beating heart of this baby will grow to be pierced with a spear, and from it will flow the blood that cleanses us of all sin.

Jesus was crucified between two robbers (Matthew 27:28), as if He were a thief Himself. And in fact He was. Not only did He come to rob the devil of His victory over you, He accomplished that by robbing you of your sin. He stole away from you every uncleanness, every failure to love, along with every hurtful and evil thing that has been said or done to you. He robbed you of it all, took it as His own, and demolished it in His death. It was through the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that Satan conquered man, and so it was also by a tree, the holy cross, that Christ conquered Satan and reconciled man to God again. It was by death that Satan sought to steal away man's glory; and so it is by the death of Christ and His resurrection that the glory of man is restored.

Listen carefully, then, and hear clearly what the angels declare and believe it: "Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." He comes as a thief in the night to take away your sins and heal your injured flesh and spirit with His own pure flesh and Holy Spirit. He is born to give you second birth to a new and everlasting life with God.

"And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger." Still today you will find the Christ, wrapped in bread and wine, lying on the altar. Bethlehem is here. Let us, then, with Mary treasure and ponder these holy mysteries in our hearts. And let us with the shepherds glorify and praise God for all of the things that we have heard and seen, just as it has been told to us.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

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