December 24, 2017 5:30 p.m.
The Rev. Adele K. Langworthy, preaching
In 1224, inspired by the sight of shepherds tending their flocks in the moonlight, St. Francis of Assisi asked a wealthy friend from Greccio, Italy, to help him construct a live manger scene (the first ever). The idea caught on. By the 15th century, nativity scenes proliferated in monasteries and churches throughout southern Europe. Today, perhaps the finest collection of miniature nativity scenes in the world is found in Munich’s National Museum of Bavaria where more than 200 are displayed. [Nan Bauroth in Christmas: An Annual Treasury ]
Nativities are a wonderful way to depict the first Christmas. When I was a child, we would begin displaying the nativity on the first day of Advent or shortly there after. On the first day we would only put up the stable. The next day we would add some straw, and we might have even added straw for several days. We would then add shepherds at the end of the table where the nativity was being built. We would move them around with their sheep for days—pretending to have the sheep play on an imaginary hillside. We had the three wise men off in the far corner, moving them slowly towards the stable. As Christmas day grew closer, we would add Mary, Joseph and a donkey and move them towards the stable, as well. By Christmas Eve, Mary, Joseph and the donkey were all in place. Before we went to bed on Christmas Eve, baby Jesus and an angel would be added to the scene. When we awoke on Christmas morning and came downstairs, we would find that the shepherds had moved to the stable by the manger where Jesus lay. We continued to move the figurines around throughout the 12 days of Christmas, bringing the wise men to the baby Jesus on Epiphany, January 6th.
But the story about Jesus’ birth that we read about in Luke tonight and that was depicted in the nativity that I built as a child aren’t just telling another story. It is God’s story. It isn’t a story about Prince Charming winning the girl, but rather the Prince of Peace coming to bring peace. It isn’t a story about the servant girl being discovered, but rather the Son of God coming to earth that he might be the servant of all. It isn’t a story about a dramatic rescue and a celebrated hero, but rather the Savior of the world coming to set us free from sin and humbly going about God’s business. It isn’t a once upon a time and happily ever-after story, but rather a forever real story filling the past, present and future with joy and love.
The Christmas story is not about the living God coming to tell us everything’s all right. It isn’t about Jesus speaking the truth and everyone saying: “Of course! Why didn’t we realize it before?” N.T. Wright says, “It is about God shining his clear, bright torch into the darkness of our world, our lives, our hearts, our imaginations—and the darkness not comprehending it. It’s about God, God as a little child [Jesus], speaking words of truth”, and most people not realizing what they are hearing or seeing.
Let’s look at some of the major players in this not-so-ordinary story. How do they make it extraordinary?
Emperor Augustus puts God’s plan in motion without even realizing what he is doing. He orders everyone to participate in a census. What does this do? It puts Joseph and Mary in the right place at the right time to fulfill the promises of the Scriptures. Why else would they be in Bethlehem while living in Nazareth? It is a city off the radar of most, an insignificant town in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire. Yet, 700 years prior Micah delivered God’s word that the “one of peace” would come from Bethlehem.
Then there is Joseph, the husband of Mary and earthly father of Jesus. If we take a look at Joseph’s family tree, Joseph is a perfect match for Jesus. Joseph needed to come from the family line of David, Abraham and Shem (Noah’s son). Joseph had the connections necessary. He also was geographically connected by living in Nazareth with roots in Bethlehem. Joseph fit the bill! God hints of this over 900 years earlier when he tells Nathan to let David know that from his line, he would establish his kingdom forever.
And where would the story be without Mary? For it is to her that the angel tells she will be the mother of God’s Son, fulfilling the scripture from Isaiah over 700 years earlier—”the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel”.
Even the manager at the inn played a role. If he would have offered up a room, the story would have been different. But because he had no rooms to offer and chose to make no special arrangements with his guests to accommodate a very pregnant Mary and her betrothed Joseph, they were left homeless and to fend for themselves in a stable.
As Theodotus of Ancyra, a martyred saint from the 4th century writes, “If he [Jesus] had been born to high rank and amidst luxury, unbelievers would have said the world had been transformed by wealth. If he had chosen as his birthplace the great city of Rome, they would have thought the transformation had been brought about by civil power. Suppose he had been the son of an emperor. They would have said: ‘How useful it is to be powerful!’ But in fact, what did he do? He chose surroundings that were poor and simple, so ordinary as to be almost unnoticed, so that people would know it was God alone that had changed the world.”
Now to the central character in the story, Jesus himself — the fulfillment of Holy Scripture and the deliverer of God’s plan — the Messiah, the Christ, Emmanuel. (Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten the shepherds.)From the time of his birth, God would reveal to the world that the authority that rests on Jesus is not authority given to him by this world; the wisdom Jesus brings is not in accordance with the wisdom of this world; the love Jesus shares does not look for return from love in this world; and the peace Jesus offers defies all understanding in this world. It would be hard for some to see and others to accept, but it was undeniable to those given eyes to see and hearts to receive. A star would mark his birth and men would travel afar to find him. Authorities would kill to try to remove him from power while not yet even knowing who he was, and shepherds would hear of his coming and share the good news.
That is what makes this story not just another story. C. S. Lewis said, “God knows the end [of the story] from the beginning before the beginning even exists, and He is sovereign over all history and all rulers; whether they know it or not doesn’t matter to God. His eternal decrees will stand because history is His-story.”
And the gift of Christmas is that His-story becomes our story. Read with me Luke 2:15-20 as printed on your yellow bulletin insert… .
The shepherds became participants in the story. They heard from the angel, accepted the invitation and went to explore. They knew something was going down and they were a part it. My guess is they didn’t totally understand what was happening, but they didn’t need to. What they needed to do was to respond to the invitation and go. In going, their lives would be changed, as well as the world around them. What they saw was the fulfillment of God’s word. They saw in a little baby in a manger holding animals’ food, a little baby who they had been told would save the world. What did that mean? My guess is they didn’t totally know, but they knew it was big and God was behind it. The natural response was to offer praises to God and share with all who would listen for the news was too big to keep to one’s self.
That is how the story becomes our story. For in the manger, we meet the Messiah, our Lord. The news is too big to keep to ourselves.
I invite you to actively engage in the story of this night—a story to good to keep to ourselves. How will you tell of the gift of Mary’s child, God’s Son, Savior of us all?