Christmas Eve 2018
Passage: Luke 2:1–2:20
I want to start off tonight by once again welcoming you all this evening. It may be for some of you that church is not a part of your weekly routine, but that Christmas Eve church is a part of your family tradition. Thank you for being with us tonight, we are really happy you’re here. I imagine we all have some Christmas traditions. Maybe some of them happen tonight, after church. Don’t worry, I won’t keep you from them for too long. My extended family is coming back to my house after church for our traditional Christmas Eve pizza. Afterwards my Aunt Bonnie will pass out reindeer food to the kids some of which will go in my yard. Reindeer food is a special mix of oatmeal and glitter, oatmeal for the reindeer to eat and glitter so they can see it from the sky. It’s something we started when I was a kid and it’s kept going so now my sons can do it.
I imagine we all have Christmas traditions like that. Some of our Christmas traditions we still celebrate the same way ever year. They comfort us, they mark this time as special. But sometimes our Christmas traditions need to be changed or updated as things change or time passes.
My granny taught kindergarten for years a the elementary school I went to. She’d retired by the time I got there, but she was long remembered at that school as a special teacher. A couple years after she passed away the school planted a tree in her memory. And every year at Christmas time my extended family would get together at Granny’s tree to decorate it with tinsel and garland and a bow. And as we stood outside in December and got colder we’d start to tie multiple strands of tinsel together in a clump. And we’d be chastised for clumping the tinsel just as Granny had chastised her children for clumping the tinsel. It became one of our family’s many Christmas traditions.
But over the years the tree has grown such that to reach even the shortest branches you need a ladder. It’s harder now for our young kids to take part in the decorating. We only had so manny ladders. And so that tradition has had to change. The tree still gets decorated, it just happens in a slightly different way.
I imagine for some of you there are traditions that have had to change or maybe even stop as time goes by, as family dynamics change, as situations change. And it can be hard when traditions have to be changed, altered, or even abandoned. But sometimes it can allow for new things, new traditions, new ways of being family, new ways of celebrating.
Tonight we are going to look at the traditional Christmas story, the one from Luke, better known as the one from Charlie Brown Christmas, but I want to put a slightly different spin on it.
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
In a moment I’m going to get to the shepherds, the angels and what the birth of Jesus means. But really quickly I want to focus for a moment on the way the birth of Jesus happened. Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary were forced to travel to Bethlehem because the Roman Emperor had ordered a census be taken. This census would have been for the purpose of tax collection. So Joseph has to go to his family’s hometown of Bethlehem. He and Mary make the week long journey and arrive to a crowded city. And in our minds what happens next is they go from inn to inn, from Super 8 to Motel 6, and cannot find a place to stay. So they go to a barn, a stable, where Mary gives birth to Jesus, the Holy Family in solitude ostracized from the community.
We get this in part from the King James, the one Linus reads, that says Mary wrapped Jesus in swaddling clothes and laid him in the manger for there was no room for the in the inn. The manger was the food trough for animals and so when we hear Jesus is in a manger we think he was where we keep our farm animals: a separate building away from the family just for animals. And when we hear inn we think inn. But in the context of first century Palestine, the scene would look a bit different.
Joseph is going to Bethlehem because that’s where his family is. There was a culture of family hospitality in first century Palestine that if you were traveling to a city where you had family, however distant, you had to go stay with them and they had to receive you. So if Joseph were traveling with Mary to Bethlehem to register for the census he would have walked to his family’s home, said he was family, perhaps recited part of his family tree, and would have been immediately welcomed into the home.
The NIV translation that we read this evening, instead of saying there was no room in the inn, says there was no room in the guest room. There are two words in Greek that can be translated as inn. One is the common room for inn in the way we understand it, where you pay someone to let you have a room. It’s the word Luke uses later in the Good Samaritan story when the Samaritan takes the injured man to an inn to recover. The word Luke uses here is the word for a guest room in a private home where you could stay and no form of payment was expected.
If you think we’ve gotten pretty nerdy so far, we haven’t even gotten started yet. Because let me talk to you about first century Palestinian peasant architecture. I felt your silent groans. The home Joseph would have walked into was a one or two room home that would have been a mix of indoor and outdoor space. We are told the house had a guest room and that the guest room was full. With a crowded city and people forced to return to their family’s home to be registered, that room was filled with other members of Joseph’s family. Joseph and Mary, seemingly arriving late, would have been forever to sleep in the larger main room where the family who owned the home slept. This larger room would have been partially indoors and partially outdoors. And here’s the most important thing: at night this would have housed the family’s animals as well. We think of animals living in their own barn, their own stable. But in first century Bethlehem this wouldn’t have been the case. First because you didn’t have the land for separate buildings for animals. This was a busy city. The other reason was the amount of thieves. In a minute we’re going to get to the shepherds who were sleeping in the fields to keep watch on their flock. They were protecting their sheep from predator animals yes, but also from being stolen. In the city, folks would have brought their animals into their house at night in order to keep them protected.
So the manger into which Jesus was placed would have been one of the mangers in the home. Reading it with all this context in mind we see that Jesus wasn’t born ostracized from community, but rather right in the middle of a crowded family home. Jesus was born in the midst of a family gathering. Jesus was born surrounded by the people he came to save. But what does this mean for us? A lot. But to get to that we now turn to the shepherds.
After recounting the story of the birth of Jesus, Luke shifts the scene to the Bethlehem countryside where shepherds are watching over their flocks by night. And suddenly angels appear before them saying don’t be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. The angels give three titles to the newly born Jesus: savior, Messiah, lord. For now I want to talk about the last one: lord.
Within the Gospels, lord is a political title but it is also a deeply theological title. Rome had a saying for their emperor: Caesar is Lord. For early Christians to say that Jesus is Lord it was a type of declaring political allegiance, Jesus is Lord, nor Caesar. But Lord for Israelites was also a deeply theological title. The First Commandment begins I and the Lord your God. The single holiest verse for Jews, their John 3:16, is called the Shema. It begins hear o Israel the Lord your God is one. So to say Jesus is Lord is to connect Jesus to the God of Israel, the one God.
So when the angels say that the baby born wrapped in cloths lying in a manger is Lord, this is deeply theological. The baby that you’re going to go see, the baby you’re going to find, the baby you could hold is the one God of Israel. This baby is a living sign of God’s presence among you.
What happens next is incredibly important for us tonight. Because the shepherds didn’t receive this good news, this Christmas good news, this Christmas Gospel and say “oh cool.” And then go on watching their sheep. Instead they received the Christmas Gospel and realized it required something of them. They got up immediately to go see this thing the angels had told them. And upon seeing the living sign of God’s presence, upon seeing the baby Jesus, they went on the lead lives quite different from the ones they’d led before. They praised God and reported what they had seen.
There are two ways we can celebrate Christmas. We can hear this story, a familiar story, and say “oh cool” and then go on with our lives. Or we can realize that Christmas changes our world and requires something of us. We can hear the call to bear this story to the world. To live this story in the world. The first way radically misunderstands the nature of Christmas. You see if the baby born in Bethlehem is a Savior, is the Messiah, is Christ the Lord, this literally changes the world. If this baby is God’s very presence invading our world, this literally changes everything. We are not left alone. Instead our God has come to join us. To be with us. To save us and heal us from within. The baby born in Bethlehem is to us a sign that God is present in this world.
But this is when I call us back to all that talk about first century Palestinian architecture and where the manger was into which Jesus was placed. Typically we imagine Jesus being born in a barn, away from community. He was born ostracized by humanity. Those who came to him were similarly called away. Shepherds already away from the community are drawn from their flocks to a secluded place where they encounter Christ. The living sign of God’s presence comes in seclusion, calling those of us who will follow away from family, away from community, away from society.
But there’s another way of reading and interpreting and envisioning this story. What if Jesus came, not away from, but in the midst of family? What if Jesus came in the midst of community? What if Jesus came right smack into the middle of a family celebration? What if the living sign of God’s presence came not away from community calling folks to withdraw, but instead the living sign of God’s presence came fully within a family, within a community, within a gathered group of people?
Tonight I want to ask you a question. Where do you think the Christ child is coming this night? Is the Christ child coming in the midst of a church, in a separate space we go to for a little bit but can then leave to rejoin the normalcy of our lives and our celebrations? Is the Christ child coming to a separate space of our lives that has no connection to the other parts, the other spaces? And we are faced with a choice to either compartmentalize or to leave one or the other?
Or is the Christ child coming to be born smack in the middle of your life? Smack in the middle of your family? Smack in the middle of your community?
This Christmas could the living sign of God’s presence be coming in the midst of your family? What would that look like? What would it look like for there to be a living sign of God’s presence in your family? Or for your family to be a living sign of God’s presence? Could the living sign of God’s presence be born or be born anew within your family this Christmas?
This Christmas could the living sign of God’s presence be coming in the midst of your neighborhood? What would that look like? What would it look like for there to be a living sign of God’s presence in your neighborhood? What would it look like for your neighborhood to be a living sign of God’s presence? Or what would it look like for you to be a living sign of God’s presence in you neighborhood? Could the living sign of God’s presence be born or be born anew within your neighborhood this Christmas?
This Christmas could the living sign of God’s presence be coming in the midst of our wider community? What would that look like? What would it look like for there to be a living sign of God’s presence in our wider community? And how could you participate in that?
As a church we have felt called to be a living sign of God’s presence in our community. That is the vision God has given us. We have tried to live that out through collecting over 2,300 socks for the homeless in our community. We have tried to live this out through collecting canned goods and insect repellent for the homeless in our community. We have tried to live this out through packaging over 10,000 meals for needy communities worldwide. We have tried to live this out through countless hours feeding and fellowshipping with needy persons in our community at Streetlight’s weekly dinner, Bread and Fishes at Dumfries UMC, the clothing closet and food pantry at Streetlight, and other places where folks from this church have committed their time in service.
And next year we are going to keep it going.
In January we are going to begin collecting money to be put towards propane tanks for the homeless in our community. In the bleak midwinter, a favorite Christmas carol begins. In the bleak midwinter we receive glad tidings of great joy that our savior is born. But also in the bleak midwinter men and women in our community struggle to make it through the night sleeping in tents throughout our community. Tonight we celebrate the light of the world and that the light in him was life to all humankind. In January we are going to collect money for the light of a propane fire which to some in our community will prove to be life.
In January we are going to be talking about what it is to come to know and love our neighbors. Not the generic people we call “our neighbors” because it sounds better than random strangers. But the people who live next to us. What if being a living sign of God’s presence in our community and neighborhoods starts with you and I loving our neighbors?
In the coming year we are going to worship God and allow our hearts to be transformed by His love and grace. In the coming year we are going to connect with God and with others in small group. In the coming year we are going to serve our God and our communities. And through all of that we hope we can become a living sign of God’s presence here in our community.
This year, how can the birth of the Christ child cause you to be a living sign of God’s presence in our community. How can God’s presence radiate from you in the ver places you live, you work, and where you take leisure? How can God’s presence radiate from you to your families, to your neighbors, and to those in your circle?
Christ has come into our midst. Alleluia! But Christ doesn’t come into our midst on the outskirts of our lives. Christ comes into the very heart of our community, into the very heart of our family, into our very hearts. This year how will the Christ child, the living sign of God’s presence, change who you are? And how will you radiate God’s presence to our world as you are a living sign of God’s presence in your home, your neighborhood, and your community? Let us pray.
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