This year’s Christmas message

December 27, 2010

Sermon Text: Luke 2:1-20

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The following is my original manuscript.

What are some of your most cherished Christmas memories? One of my favorite memories is something that Dad and I did for a few years on Christmas Eve. The two of us would leave my mom and two sisters at home, walk a couple of miles to a nearby movie theater, and return home in late afternoon—just in time for family Christmas dinner and exchanging gifts. (In my family, we exchanged gifts on Christmas Eve and then Santa came, obviously, on Christmas morning.) When I think back on it, it was a win-win for Mom and for Dad and me, because she got at least two members of the family out of the house—and out of trouble—while she cooked, wrapped presents, and made other preparations for Christmas. Because we walked to the theater, it was an hour there, two hours for the movie, and an hour walking home. We were gone for four hours—the whole afternoon—which was good, because you know it can be stressful getting ready for Christmas. I know Mom was glad to be rid of us for a while. And Dad and I enjoyed the walking and talking.

I’m sure you have Christmas memories that you cherish. Regardless what those memories are, chances are they involve being at home with family. Think of that soldier longing for home and singing, “I’ll be home for Christmas/ You can plan on me/ Please have snow and mistletoe/ And presents on the tree/ Christmas Eve will find me/ Where the love light gleams/ I’ll be home for Christmas/ If only in my dreams.” Some of you are missing loved ones who can’t be home for Christmas, and it hurts, doesn’t it?

If it’s any small consolation, what strikes me about the Christmas story in Luke’s gospel is that it also deals with people who are not at home with family for Christmas; who can’t be home with family for Christmas. Think of Joseph and Mary, 60 miles from their real home in Nazareth. Because they’re not at home, they’re forced to have this baby outside of a home—in a cattle stall or barn. The scripture says that there was “no place for them in the inn.” The Greek word for “inn” should probably be translated “guest room.” Bethlehem wasn’t a big town and probably didn’t have an inn open to the public. Besides, later in Luke, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke uses another word for inn that clearly does mean this type of place. If he meant “inn” in today’s scripture, he probably would have used that same word here.

The point is the same, though. Joseph had family connections in Bethlehem, which meant that when he and Mary came to town, someone in town—perhaps a distant relative—would have offered the two of them a place to stay, as a matter of hospitality. What we can infer from Luke’s words, however, is that someone else came into town who was more important than Joseph and Mary—and kicked them out of the guest room. This modest home would have had a stall or barn attached to it where animals were kept. Joseph and Mary were sent there. It’s like Christmas dinners when the youngest children don’t get to eat at the grown-up table. Having to use the barn was like being demoted to the little kids’ table—only a lot worse!

So Mary and Joseph were homeless. But you know who else was homeless? I just noticed this for the first time last week: the shepherds were homeless! In verse 8, we’re told that they were abiding in the fields—which means they were living in the fields. Their home, their abode, was outside, in the fields.

Jesus loved shepherds: He called himself the Good Shepherd and employed many images of shepherding in his own ministry. But make no mistake: Most people in Jesus’ day despised shepherds. They had bad reputations. The stereotype was that they were good-for-nothing thieves. They were lazy. They were considered terrible sinners. They were dirty and smelly. They were not welcome in polite company. They weren’t considered good enough to worship in the temple or synagogue. They were outsiders.

And yet, when God chooses to announce the birth of his Son, the Messiah and Savior of the world, to whom does he deliver the news? To these “smelly, dirty, homeless, despised, and sinful” shepherds. Who would have imagined that?

Last Tuesday and Wednesday, in the icy cold weather, Dr. Don Martin, the senior pastor of this church, was able to fulfill a lifelong dream: he was invited to play golf at the Augusta National Golf Club, the world’s most exclusive and most beautiful golf club in the world. Even having to play in the freezing cold couldn’t put a damper on Don’s enthusiasm. While Don was at Augusta National, Billy Payne, the president of the club, got a call from a former president of the United States—which is itself a rather exclusive club. Could this former president come and play this spring at Augusta National? And he was told “no.” And, no, it wasn’t even because he was a Democrat! Presidents, even though they’re among the most powerful people who’ve ever lived, cannot simply gain admission into Augusta National. Isn’t that amazing?

Wouldn’t you think that when God became flesh and dwelt among us, that God would be a member of some first-century equivalent of Augusta National? After all, we’re talking about the God of wonders beyond our galaxy—our Messiah and Savior, our King of kings and Lord of lords! And yet, when King Jesus chose to come into this world, he came like… this? His throne a feeding trough, his palace a dirty, smelly, and unsanitary barn, his royal courtiers the poor, weak, lowly, despised, and “sinful shepherds.” There were far more respectable places in which to be born. And far more respectable people in Bethlehem to announce this good news to. Yet, if God wanted Jesus’ birth to happen in any other way, God could have worked it all out, you know? Made it less messy, less troublesome, less… like this. Who could have imagined this? What kind of God does this? What kind of God is this?

I’ll tell you: The kind of God who, like a good shepherd, would be willing to leave behind the 99 sheep and search high and low—never giving up—until he finds that one lost sheep. The kind of God who, like a loving and forgiving father, throws the biggest party imaginable for the son who returns home after being spiritually lost for a while. The kind of God who understands that it’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick, and who came to call not the righteous but sinners. The kind of God who, though we were yet sinners, willingly came to us in Jesus and die on a cross, in our place, dying the death that we deserve, in order to bring us into a saving relationship. The kind of God who loves us with the kind of love from which neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us.

The kind of God, in other words, who invites sinners like you and me to celebrate his Son Jesus coming into the world.

Groucho Marx famously said, “I wouldn’t belong to any club that would have me as a member.” Well, like it or not, that’s the kind of club that God invites you and me to join—and everyone else in the world if they’d only accept the invitation! If there is room at the manger for dirty, smelly, homeless, lazy, crooked, despised, sinful shepherds—praise be to God—there is room at that manger for me… and you! There’s room for you there! Do you hear the angels calling you? Do you hear their invitation: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

They’re inviting you there! There’s nothing stopping you from going!

Come to Bethlehem and see
Christ whose birth the angels sing;
Come, adore on bended knee,
Christ the Lord, the newborn King.

Amen.

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