Christmas Eve sermon: “Not a Silent Night”

The Christmas movie classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” illustrates the truth of “all things working together for good.”

In this Christmas Eve message, I challenge us Christians to start “acting like royalty,” by which I mean to follow the self-sacrificial example of the world’s one true king, Jesus Christ.

Sermon Text: Luke 2:1-20

I spent much of 2001 working in Bradenton, Florida, near Tampa. I was working on a special project at the Tropicana orange juice plant. Lisa was pregnant with our second child, Townshend, and by the summer I had finished up my share of the work down there. And now I was getting ready to be a daddy for the second time. Lisa’s due date was only a couple of weeks away. Then I got a phone call from Scott, the project manager. It was an emergency. “Would you mind coming down here, just for one night, and helping us out with this one little problem we’re having?” I was mindful that Lisa’s due date was just a couple of weeks away, but what were the odds that she would have the baby the one night I was out of town? Pretty good, in retrospect—but I didn’t see it that way back then! I was so focused on my career back then, and I figured this would look really good to my bosses if they saw me go above and beyond the call of duty like this! So I answered the call and went down to Bradenton for just one night. Besides, while I was down there, I had to receive my “husband of the year” trophy!

You can already see where this is headed: I got a call on my cell phone at 3:00 in the morning. Lisa’s water broke. She was having contractions. “Well, how far apart are they?” “There’s no time between them at all!” Uh-oh. I headed to the airport to catch the earliest flight home. My mom only lived five minutes away. Her mother only lived 25 minutes. So she called both of them. Lisa’s mom would take her to Piedmont Hospital while my mom stayed at the house with our 20-month old daughter, Elisa.

By the time our mothers got there, it was clear that Lisa was not going to make it for the 25 minutes it would take to get to the hospital. They called 9-1-1. The first to arrive were Tucker’s Bravest, about seven or eight firefighters who wanted nothing to do with delivering a baby. They were hugging the wall on the far side of the room from Lisa. But they told Lisa to hold on, the paramedics would be here soon. And when they arrived, Lisa asked them two questions: First, have you done this before? “Yes, ma’am, we’ve done this before.” Second, can I have an epidural? “No, ma’am, we don’t time for that! You’re having this baby now”—on the living room floor!

The paramedics told our mothers that they needed to bring them lots of towels. The only problem was that all our cabinets were “child-proofed” with those magnetic kind of locks. You had to put the magnet in the right place on the cabinet door in order to activate the latch… Well, our mothers struggled with just opening the cabinets to get the towels!

As you can see, this was so far from ideal: No hospital room, no OB/GYN, no epidural, no towels because our mothers couldn’t open the child-proof cabinets! This was not at all what Lisa and I had planned!

This was at least a little bit like what Mary and Joseph were going through on this first Christmas! Nothing about Mary’s pregnancy were going according to plan: First, she got pregnant out of wedlock and had to have a very difficult conversation with her fiancé, Joseph, that she hadn’t cheated on him. Understandably, he didn’t believe her at first! Then she had to explain it all to her family, and he had to explain it to his. So now, having gone through that difficulty, Mary could at least expect that things would settle back down to normal right? She would have her baby surrounded by mother and sisters and friends and people who loved her in her hometown of Nazareth. While she didn’t have a hospital to go to or an OB/GYN, she would have had a trusted midwife in her hometown, who would deliver the baby in as safe and comfortable a way as possible in the ancient world.

And now… this! A census decreed by Caesar Augustus, implemented by Governor Quirinius. Mary, nine months pregnant, traveling on a ten day’s journey to Joseph’s ancestral home—nine months pregnant. And even when they got to Bethlehem, and it was time to have the baby, there was “no room at the inn,” so Mary and Joseph had to deliver their child, not in clean, germ-free hospital room, but in a barn—probably inside a cave—with a feeding trough as a crib. In Christian art, an ox and ass are always pictured in that barn. There’s no mention of that, but it’s not far-fetched to imagine that there were animals in the barn.

All that to say, Mary and Joseph’s hopes for some semblance of a normal marriage, pregnancy, and childbirth, at least toward the end of her pregnancy, were completely dashed.

This was not at all what they had planned!

But here’s the thing: While it wasn’t going according to their plans, it was going exactly according to God’s plans! About 800 years earlier, the prophet Micah had prophesied that the Messiah would be born in the city of David, Bethlehem.

I like to cook and bake. And one thing I’m going to do when I get home tonight is bake my annual Christmas cinnamon rolls, from scratch. I like to do these things, but I’m not a great cook. You know why? Because I can’t make anything without strictly following a recipe. I must have all the ingredients, and I can’t deviate from them at all. A great cook, by contrast, knows how to improvise. We have a good friend—Mimi—who’s like that: whenever she’s at our house, she opens the cabinet, opens the refrigerator—and no matter how bare the cupboard happens to be, she is undaunted. She can work with whatever’s in there, or whatever’s not in there, to make a delicious meal! I’m like, “Don’t you need this ingredient?” She’s like, “Nah, you can substitute that with this. That’s a great cook for you! Take whatever ingredients we have and make something good out of it.

And, brothers and sisters, this is what God is doing all the time! All these hardships, all these difficulties, all these less than ideal circumstances—God has got it under control! God is working his plan! God takes the “ingredients” of our lives and makes something good out of them. No matter what we throw at him, good or bad, he can use it and work it into his plan! All the time!

It’s like that Christmas movie classic It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey’s life is a series of setbacks—one after another. He wants to go to Europe and “see the world.” That plan falls through when his dad dies unexpectedly. He wants to go to college and become a great architect—“build things.” That plan falls through when he’s called upon to save the family business. He wants to join other men his age and fight the Nazis, but since he’s deaf in one ear from a childhood accident, he receives a medical deferment. His ambitions are as tall as the highest skyscraper he ever planned on building, but he’s forced by circumstances to stay in the small town of Bedford Falls, watching from the sidelines while classmates and colleagues and even his own brother go on to achieve great things! Finally, when things are going well for him at the Building and Loan that he inherited from his father, it all threatens to come crashing down when his Uncle Billy misplaces a large deposit.

And so he’s at the end of his rope. He’s thinking of killing himself. When God intervenes by sending an angel, Clarence, who gives him the “gift” of seeing what the world would be like if he’d never been born. And only after this experience does George Bailey see all the good stuff that his life—his disappointing, frustrating, seemingly insignificant life—accomplished for so many people! He couldn’t see it at the time, but behind the scenes God was doing these great things through him.

And so it is with us: “We know that all things work together for good, for those who love God.” So we can trust that even when things aren’t going according to our plan, they are going according to God’s plans.

And guess what? God’s plans are always better than our plans. Do you believe it? Will you trust that?

Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year” was announced recently. Or in this case I should say people of the year—the magazine named the many doctors and nurses who have been fighting Ebola in West Africa. Most of them are Christian missionaries, and their stories are so inspiring to me. In part, because they all seem so unconcerned with something that concerns me greatly—which is my own personal health and safety! One of them is nurse Nancy Writebol, who, alongside Dr. Ken Brantly, was the first Ebola patient to be treated successfully at Emory Hospital last summer. In an interview in Christianity Today, she was talking about her experience in Liberia. She said she always trusted the Lord knew what he doing, and that through her experience and the experience of so many others the Lord was helping us develop a vaccine or cure. And even in the midst of her struggle, she said, “my relationship with the Lord deepened, knowing he was in control. He was in control of what was happening, and it was not a surprise to God. He has our days numbered.”

You can almost hear her shrugging her shoulders at the prospect of death! And then there’s Dr. Rick Sacra, another medical missionary who got sick with Ebola and survived—and this was after already surviving a brutal civil war in Liberia. And then, after he was cured of Ebola, he contracted Lyme disease—which he shrugs off as just a fact of life of living part-time in New England. So what’s he going to do now? Retire? Go to Disney World? No! He’s planning on going back to Liberia, to keep fighting on behalf of the health and safety of people living in Liberia.

Why? Why do these people do these seemingly crazy things, with so little concern for their own safety?

Because they’re simply following the example of our Lord, who, even through his birth, is teaching us something about how to live.

Think about it: God’s only begotten Son, Jesus Christ—God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, the king of the universe, through whom everything was created—being born in a barn! And then, later on, he would teach us that he didn’t come to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.[1] Still later, he washed his disciples’ feet, saying, “I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”[2] Even later, as Paul says, even though Jesus was fully equal with God, he “emptied himself” and took the form of a slave and “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”[3]

Given that this is Christ’s example, now we know why Christians like Nancy Writebol, and Rick Sacra, and Ken Brantly do what they do!

They go to disease-ravaged or war-torn or otherwise life-threatening parts of the world because why? Because they’re behaving exactly like royalty! Not royalty as the world defines it—by pampering yourself, riding around in limousines, living like rock stars, feeling entitled to comfort, and luxury, and an ever increasing standard of living. No, they’re behaving like true royalty, according to the world’s one true king, Jesus Christ!

If you’ve placed your faith in Jesus, you have been born again into a royal family! Will you follow his example and start acting like royalty!

I don’t know about you, but when I read today’s scripture, I’m always tempted to stand in judgment of the innkeeper, to feel superior to him, to feel superior to those people who refused to give up their rooms in order to make room for Jesus. But why? These people had no idea of the true identity of this child being born… they had no idea who Jesus was. If only they knew who Jesus was, surely they would have acted differently!

But if that’s true… then what’s my excuse? I do know who Jesus is! Yet I often act as if I don’t. I often fail to make room for Jesus in my own life—when I fail to pray and read God’s Word every day; when I fail to worship the way I should—I would say, when I fail to go to church the way I should, but I work here, so it’s different with me; when I fail to worship the Lord properly once I’m here; when I fail to put the needs and interests of others ahead of my own; when I fail to trust him when he challenges me to do something difficult.

Surely the most difficult thing that we can do is to take that first step of faith and put our trust in Christ as our Savior and Lord…

[1] Mark 10:45

[2] John 13:15

[3] Philippians 2:8


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