Saturday, December 21, 2019

“The Soul Felt Its Worth” - December 22, 2019

Text: Luke 2:1-14

There are two main points I want to make today.  If you want, you can just jot these two points down and then let your mind wander.  If you want, you can just hang on to these two points and then maybe doodle on your bulletin.  I’ve seen the doodles that some of you make and they are pretty good.  I mean, I’d prefer that you stick with us, I’d prefer you stay awake, but like I said, the message today is simple and there are really just two points. 

Are you ready?  I mean, this is pretty profound, so you need to be ready to take it in.  There are just two points, but these are biggies. 

As I read through our text, the well-known Christmas story from Luke chapter 2, I had two thoughts.  They may be the same two points you would come up with.  But maybe not – your mileage may vary, as they say.

OK, are you ready?  All right: this is what stands out to me from Luke’s telling of the Christmas story.   On this fourth Sunday of Advent, here is the big take home.

Number one: Christmas is simple.
And number two: Christmas is weird.

Did you get that?  Christmas is simple, and Christmas is weird.

Now it’s possible that you may think that is pretty weak for a message on this Sunday before Christmas.  Well, maybe it is, but look, this has been an exceptionally busy season and I just wasn’t able to put together a three point sermon, so two points will have to do.  Christmas is simple, and Christmas is weird.

And to be honest, I was a little less than confident about this two point outline, but then I heard the special music, I heard our men’s trio just a minute ago, and I thought, “You know, this fits perfectly.”  Simple and weird it is.

But before you start doodling, let me say a little more about these two statements.  First, Christmas is simple.  At the most basic level, it is about the birth of a baby.  We can try to make it about other things, but really, the gist of it is, “a child is born for us.” 

When you get past all the get-togethers - the office parties and Christmas lunches and cookie making extravaganzas;  when you get beyond the TV specials – Charlie Brown and the Grinch and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and of course those Hallmark Christmas movies (which I think actually started in July); when you get past the light displays and trees and tinsel; when you get beyond concerts and the Nutcracker and school Christmas programs – all good things, all fun things - the point of it all, the reason for the season, as they say, is the birth of a child.

Like every child, the birth of this child was not without its moments.  It did not all go 100% smoothly - and many of us can relate to that.  Babies tend to come when they come.  Sometimes much too early, and there are medical issues and concerns.  Sometimes very quickly – I read about a pregnant woman who was flying home the day after Thanksgiving.  She was 39 weeks pregnant and had been cleared to fly by her doctor and American Airlines.  But lo and behold her water broke and she went into labor and she had the baby right there on the plane.  The article didn’t say if the mother had to buy another ticket for the baby.   But she did name her daughter Sky.

Sometimes there are complications.  Sometimes there are interesting circumstances surrounding births.  We remember all of these things.  We remember who came to the hospital and those first days with the child.  We look at photographs of baby Zoe – friends and family came to see her, and our dog Conway is in almost every picture.  He wanted to be there right beside Zoe.  We remember these things and we share these stories.

The birth of a child elicits hopes and dreams.   What kind of person will he or she become?  What is in store for them?  There is celebration, there is joy, there is hope.  No matter what part of the world you live in, no matter your background or religion or social status, there are common experiences we all share in the birth of a child. 

Christmas is simple in that we can all relate to it.  We have not all had a child, but we have all been a child.  It doesn’t get much more human, it doesn’t get much more basic, than a child being born.

All of our preparations, all of our activity, all of our efforts in this season stem from a very simple thing: the birth of Jesus.  It is not about pyrotechnics or complicated theology.  It is about a baby.

As we read the story in Luke, we learn that Mary and Joseph experienced more than their share of difficulties along the way.  A poor couple living in a time when their country was occupied and controlled by Rome, they were forced like everyone else to go to their ancestral homeland to register so that they could be taxed. 

And so, we can count Mary and Joseph among the countless people down through the ages who have suffered under coercive power.  They go on a long, arduous journey at the worst possible time.  Why?  Because they have to.  It is not up to them.  And even though Bethlehem is his ancestral city, either family ties are not that close or most of the family has by now moved away, because the best Joseph can do is find a barn where they can stay, and that is where Mary winds up having the baby.

They go to Bethlehem so that they can be counted, but the irony is, they really don’t count – not to Rome.  They are nobodies.  Their only hope, if they have any hope, is not in Caesar Augustus, not in the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, but in the God of Israel, who is with them through this long journey.

So they made their way to Bethlehem, get turned away at the inn and wind up in the stable out back.  Our nativity scenes make it seem so sweet, so lovely, so romantic.  I don’t think it was really like that.  I doubt anybody here would sign up to have a baby in the barn – with the sight and sounds, not to mention the smells of livestock.  “She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”  Somehow, the Biblical narrative makes it sound so nice - so appealing, even.

Well, so far it is simple.  A child is born.  It’s a basic, very human and very relatable story, even if most of us were not born out back in the barn. 

What happens when a child is born?  Among other things, the birth is announced.  We do this in various ways.  First, we probably get on the phone and call family and those close to us to share the news.  We may see balloons and banners in the front yard saying “It’s A Girl!” Births aren’t necessarily listed in the newspaper any more – perhaps in small town weekly papers – but the birth of a child will be all over social media.  There may be baby showers, and gifts are given.

The birth of a child to celebrities and royalty is much the same, and it is a major news story.  When Prince Harry and Meghan’s child was born, we heard all about baby Archie.  It is big news.

The traditions in Jesus’ day were not all that different.  An important custom was music.  Local musicians would come and sing and play at the birth of a baby.  It was a way of simultaneously announcing and celebrating the birth.  The birth of a royal heir or a child born to a very important person would be announced with great fanfare through music and singing and festivities.

Now, this is the place where the story starts to morph from reasonably simple into kind of weird.  I don’t so much mean weird as bizarre, but weird as in totally unexpected, totally off script compared to what usually takes place.

There is an announcement.  There is music at Jesus’ birth, but there are no earthly musicians around.  The music is the singing of angels.  Angels.  That is out of the ordinary, you have to admit.  Now, if we could arrange such heavenly music, who would we choose for the audience? 

This heavenly singing is not broadcast on a network Christmas special.  There is not a large audience.  Those who hear the singing of angels are not celebrities or government officials or religious authorities.  These are not leading citizens; in fact, they are about as low on the social ladder as you could be.

The angels announce this birth to shepherds.  That’s it.  Shepherds out in the fields with their flocks.  At night.  Working the night shift.  Angels announce the birth of this child to Second Shift Shepherds.  It’s a little weird, don’t you think?

The big question is, Why?  We have heard the story so many times, we don’t think about it.  It sounds quaint and it sounds beautiful.  But – seriously?  We may think of shepherding as a respectable occupation, and I’m not saying that it isn’t, but in that culture shepherds were looked down on.  They were despised because they were ceremonially and religiously unclean.  They were dirty and smelly, they were poorly educated, they were rough.  They lived on the margins.

Why do you suppose the angels sang to shepherds?  Why was this birth announcement made to them, of all people?  It seems a little off, a little – well, weird.

As he tells of Jesus’ birth, Luke wants us to know that Jesus is a savior for all people.  He tells the story through the eyes of the common people, and he tells us that the very first to hear were the shepherds.  And as we read throughout the life of Jesus, God seems to have a special concern for those living on the margins.

I had known of Queen Victoria of England and heard a lot of references to the Victorian Era, but the PBS series Victoria has made her and that time in history more relatable and understandable.  And more sympathetic.  There is a great story told about Queen Victoria.  She once attended worship on a Sunday morning at a small village church in Scotland, near the royal castle at Balmoral.  The register for that day recorded the attendance by profession.  It read: shepherds 12, servants 11, queens 1.

That register sums up the way it is in the church.  It reflects the way it is in our world.  Shepherds and servants have always been in the majority.  Jesus came for shepherds and servants.  God’s favor was not simply on the wealthy, the beautiful, the powerful.  In the birth of Jesus – in the miracle of Christmas - God’s favor is shown to be upon Mary, a not yet married young girl living in an occupied, unimportant country.  God works through Joseph, a simple carpenter.  And the announcement of this birth is made to shepherds, second shift shepherds out in the field at night.

It’s all a little strange, you have to admit.  If we hear the story as though we are hearing it for the first time, it is surprising, even shocking.

I was walking our dog Rudy a couple of weeks ago.  It was almost dark – at this time of year it is often pretty well dark when I get home from work.  The next street over, there is a house with one of those reindeer light displays – lights on a reindeer shaped frame, pulling a sled - and some inflatable figures.  A toy soldier and a dog with a Santa hat and a snowman.  The reindeer and these inflatable figures are literally 2 or 3 feet from the sidewalk.  Just as we were right in front of the reindeer, the lights come on.  Right in front of us, the reindeer suddenly lights up.  Rudy jumped.  He has no vertical leap, but he jumped straight up and sideways, kind of like a startled cat.  And then the figures lying on the ground, the toy soldier and snowman, started to inflate.  Rudy was freaked out and I got him to move on before he broke out in a barking fit.

My take is that our dog Rudy had the perfect reaction to Christmas.  We are so used to the story that we don’t give it much thought, but if we actually consider what is happening we will jump straight up and sideways and take notice.

The song that the angels sing to these Second Shift Shepherds is, “Glory to God in the Highest.  Peace on Earth, Good Will to All People.”

This is no ordinary birth.  Jesus came to bring hope and peace and joy and love.  This child is evidence of God’s glory.  And it is all about God’s love for us, all of us, every one of us, from Second Shift Shepherds to Queens.  

We long for peace on earth.  We long for goodwill among all people.  Anyone paying attention to the news longs for that.  The hopes and dreams for this child were not just for his family, not just for his hometown; they were hopes and dreams for all humanity.  And through his life, Jesus was indeed the one who brought hope and peace and joy and love to all of us, even here and now.

This season, some of us find ourselves, like Mary and Joseph, traveling a hard road that we may not have chosen.  Wherever we may be on that road, Christ’s coming is good news for us.  In Genesis, we read that we were created in God’s image.  But in the incarnation, in God coming as a baby born in the manger, God takes on the image of humanity.  God takes on human flesh and shows us how deeply loved we are.  This is Good News of great joy for all people.  As the great carol “O Holy Night” says, “he appeared and the soul felt its worth.”  God loves us so much that God came as a baby to dwell among us.

Maybe weird is not quite the right word.  I’m thinking wonderful might be a little more fitting.  Simple and wonderful.  Amen.

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