In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Ghost.
Tonight we have heard salvation history. We heard of the Fall into sin and God’s promise of a Savior from sin, and the death which sin brought with it. We heard that God’s Light will break into our darkness, bringing with it the Mighty God, the Prince of Peace. We heard that the Light will shine forth in little Bethlehem, the Son of a Virgin, conceived by the Holy Ghost. It’s not an unfamiliar story. I’d guess that all of us here tonight, if called upon, could retell what we have just heard. It’s a story we know well, whether we are hearing it all for the first time or the one hundredth time.
As familiar as we may be with the Christmas story and what caused it to happen, what the voices of the prophets promised in their faithful Word, we have a tendency to clean it up. We’re television people. Think about it: How often does a sitcom show someone working for more than a minute or two? How often do medical dramas end with the baby dying? Television cleans up daily life to make it more attractive. We do the same with the Christmas story. As we sit here in a warm church with family and friends, twinkling lights, and beautiful Christmas hymns and music being played, we shove the dirtiness of the first Christmas to the back of our mind. We like the warm feelings this kind of Christmas gives us. As cleaned up as it may be, this kind of Christmas still shows us God’s love. We still know that our sin, though it merited us death and hell, earned us a Savior. We know that Jesus came to open heaven to us, and has promised to lead us there, where we will see Him, set at God’s right hand on high, where we will sound His praise forever.
But the first Christmas was nothing like this. The birth of Jesus was not a nativity scene affair. It was laden with emotions of sadness and anger, whispered gossip, and conditions we can’t even imagine. But all of it shows the unfathomable depth of God’s love for you, how much He endured to make eternal glory yours.
Before we can get to the stable and the manger, we have to back up nine months. Gabriel appears to Mary to give her unsettling, yet exciting, news. Without the intervention of Joseph or any other man, Mary will conceive in her womb and bear the world’s Redeemer. Mary, a devout, God-fearing woman, believes this. Upright Joseph, who knows he has never been intimate with his fiancée, is troubled, but believes when Gabriel confirms Mary’s story. But none of the rest of Nazareth was treated to an angelic visit. As soon as Mary’s returns from Zechariah and Elizabeth’s with a noticeable bump, rumors started to spread. Mary and Joseph had been improper, and to top it all off they tried to say the baby was the promised Messiah, the one carried by a virgin as Isaiah had prophesied. Not only is Mary whispered about as a woman of ill repute, but she is a lying lunatic on top of it all.
And then Caesar Augustus issues his decree for a census to make sure everyone was paying their fair share. Mary and Joseph are forced to go to Joseph’s ancestral home, Bethlehem. This is not a short distance—about 80 miles—and there is no Biblical indication that the couple had a donkey. Pregnant Mary was likely made to walk for a long distance, and late in a pregnancy this could have taken a week or more to complete!
Once they arrive in Bethlehem, there is no place for them to stay. Don’t be confused by the phrase “there was no room for them in the inn.” Bethlehem is beyond tiny. In our country, a city like Bethlehem would be lucky to have as much as a gas station. It’s not like the Holiday Inn and the Super 8 have put out their “No Vacancy” signs A better translation would be “there was no guest room for them.” If you were staying overnight in Bethlehem, you stayed in a family member’s house. So that there is no room for the Holy Family is shameful enough if you put it in terms of strangers—no one would give even a corner of a room to a woman in labor. But don’t forget the details that St. Luke has given! They have gone to Joseph’s ancestral city. No one from Joseph’s family would even let the couple in. Since they had yet to receive a wedding invitation, they assumed the story of the baby’s conception was shameful, and not one aunt or uncle or cousin twice removed would allow Mary a shred of dignity with which to birth her child.
So Jesus is born in a shed, next to animals and their dung, while mice burrow into the straw to find a warm home and birds fly in and out of the rafters. Mary does not have a sterile hospital room, no epidural, no ice chips, no doctor to monitor mother or child. Joseph, a carpenter, takes on the role of doctor and nurse. Once He is delivered, Jesus is wrapped, not in a soft, clean blanket, but whatever rags the couple was able to assemble. And tired Mary is not given a bassinet or a few hours with the baby sent to the nursery for examinations and immunizations. She has to fill the manger, the animals’ feeding trough, with fresh hay so Jesus can have a place to sleep.
Into this scene come running the shepherds, the rednecks of the first century. The smelly, backwoods men who spent their days talking to sheep came with a message of an angel and a multitude of the heavenly host. And they don’t just visit Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. As St. Luke said, “And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.” An already displeased Bethlehem is now greeted by shepherds with a story just as delusional as Mary’s story of a virgin conceiving.
This is just Jesus’ birth. You know well how the rest of His life will play out. He will live in poverty without a home to call His own. He will be rejected by the very people He came to save. And ultimately a murderer will be released from jail in His place so the Lord of Life can be put to death.
This is how much God loves you. He suffered every indignity known to man all for you. It could have been different. God could have pointed a finger or spoken a word and undone the whole problem of sin. But instead He came to live with it all around Him. He came to be affected by it personally at every turn. He came to be one with you in your weakness, in your poverty, in your pain, in your sadness, in your anger, in everything. Jesus has come and endured all the same things you do out of love for you so you will never have to go the way alone. And even more, He has come to die so that you never will. He has tasted the cup of wrath poured out by the Father so that you will only taste the eternal wedding feast in heaven.
Salvation history is messy. It may not be as romanticized as an ornate nativity scene, but it is full of love. Everything that you have heard tonight, every story of Holy Scripture was lived out for your salvation, to bring you to the eternal joys of heaven. There you will experience glory and beauty and warmth that no earthly Christmas could ever bring or ever try to compete with. Christ is born, and He is born for you, to give you the only Christmas presents you’ll ever need: forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.
The peace of God which passeth all understanding keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
Sermons from Mount Olive
Mount Olive follows the historic one-year lectionary (series of readings).