A sermon by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
20 December, 2015 Fourth Sunday of Advent
1. Prophets Proclaim (1) Isaiah 52:7-10
This passage from Isaiah comes from the second of three parts of the Book of Isaiah. This part was written during the time of exile. The people of Israel and Judah watched their homelands destroyed by invading armies and now live as exiles in other nations. But Isaiah describes God as a victorious king, preceded by heralds and messengers.
2. Prophets Proclaim (2) Micah 5: 2
O Little Town Bethlehem
3. Mary’s Song Luke 1:46-55
4. Birth of Jesus Luke 2:1-7
Away in the Manger
5. Angels, Shepherds, and Good News Luke 2:8-14
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
6. Shepherds Visit Luke 2:15-21
O Come, All ye Faithful
I love history. If you go to a movie with me that is set in a specific historic period, I will probably criticize how some details were just wrong. This is especially true of ancient history. One of my master’s degrees focused on Ancient Near Eastern History. I wrote a curriculum exploring the history of the nations surrounding Judah and Israel. I’ve spent a lot of time studying the time in which Jesus lived and the early church began. So you might expect that Christmas Pageants and Passion Plays make me cringe.
Well, it depends on how they are done. If they are reaching for an accurate historical portrayal, there’s simply a lot of details they’ve got to get right. But a pageant in a local congregation – like we just put on here – is not about historical detail. It’s a faith statement.
And because it is a faith statement, I feel Christmas Pageants and Passion Plays are important for three reasons. First, they help us rehearse for Christmas Eve. We’ll be reading scripture and singing carols at that service as we tell the story of Christ’s birth. We’ll be receiving a lot of extra visitors – you may even discover that a stranger is sitting in your regular pew! Second, they help us learn and explore the story. Third, that they remind us Jesus was human and lived in a specific culture that is different than ours. Fourth, they remind us that the living Christ is revealed to us in our time and culture, especially among those with whom we are familiar with because we worship alongside them.
One of the difficulties I experience each year is the blending of Gospel stories. Of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Mark and John do not give us birth stories: in those Gospels, the story of Jesus starts when he is baptized as an adult. Matthew and Luke tell us of Jesus’ birth, but they give us different details because they are telling different stories to different audiences who had different cultures.
The most familiar parts of the nativity story come from Luke’s gospel: the census,
the journey to Bethlehem, the crowded inn with no room, the stable, the angelic chorus and the shepherds who go into town to adore the newborn. Luke’s gospel is even recited in that Christmas classic Charlie Brown’s Christmas.
Through the years there has been a lot of focus on there being no room at the inn for Mary and Joseph. What kind of inn is this? There was no hotel industry as there is today. That word we translate as “inn” (thanks to the King James Bible) doesn’t really mean “inn.” Literally the Greek is “room above” which later in the gospel story is translated as “the upper room” when Jesus and the disciples gather for Passover, where Jesus institutes communion.
But a better way to think of this room is “guest room.” It was an extra room in a house, used by the family to put all the things they can’t find places for. When company comes, the guest room is emptied and then filled with visitors. At holidays like Passover or other times when the city was full, the guest room might be rented out. But Luke tells us the guest room is filled. No surprise – as Luke tells us everyone in the civilized world has been made to jump and run to their place of origin. Almost everyone is visiting somewhere, and all the extra rooms have been claimed.
So Mary and Joseph are permitted to use the manger. We’re so familiar with that word manger that we don’t give it a second thought. But the word used by Luke can mean a couple of different things. Yes, it can mean the trough which animals eat from – and so we get pictures of the newborn Jesus being laid in something that resembles a cradle filled with straw. But that same word can mean an animal stall.
It was not unusual for travelers, especially merchants, to sleep in the stall with their animals to make sure no harm came to their animals. Yes, unquestionably, Mary would have been more comfortable in the guest room, but being told the only accommodations are with the animals were not so unusual.
The more important point that Luke is making is that Jesus is not born in a palace. As remarkable as it is for God to take on human form, God takes on the whole human form, even being born as an infant – and at that, being born into a peasant family who does not have the money or the status to get the guest room. So an inn that was extra storage room turned into a guest room and an animal stall doubling as a birthing suite, becomes the setting for God taking human flesh within human history.
This is not the Messiah that was expected: this is not the king with armies to throw out conquering armies; this is not the spiritual warrior leading bands of military angels. God used the ordinary – not the extraordinary – to share God’s own self.
Because of that, I wonder what ordinary things God is using now to share with us the divine message? I am left to wonder if all the extraordinary additions we add to the holiday from tress with ornaments and lights to a different kind of paper for each wrapped gift, from wreaths of fir and holly to endless songs played over muzak how in all these extra additions will God speak to us? Have we added so much to the holiday that we’re unable to hear God or will these additions help us hear the angels sing?
Each year we reenact the nativity story, and I recall the way one of my mentors retold this story to me. He warned me he was going to ruin all future Christmases, because I wouldn’t be able to get this image out of my head – and that’s been true, because I think of this every year. And now I am sharing it with you.
It begins with this angel choir. Think of them at choir practice. Think of the music they are preparing to sing. These angels are a classically trained operatic choir. Certainly they have prepared Handel’s Alleluia Chorus. They probably have some Vivaldi and Mendelssohn, Bach and Beethoven, perhaps even Mozart.
And they step out onto the celestial stage to discover that they are just around the corner from the Grand Ole Opry and their audience is a bunch of shepherds – barely literate, unwashed, sleepy eyed shepherds who listened to country western music. Oh, those poor disappointed angels, performing for an audience that could not really appreciate their music.
But that is exactly the way Luke tells this gospel story. Time and time again Jesus will extend grace to people who it was assumed could not really appreciate it because for some reason they were the cast-outs of society: women and children, the sick and diseased, shepherds and fisherfolk and tax collectors and Samaritans – these are the main characters in the stories of Jesus offering grace.
In this nativity scene, Luke is already laying down the themes for his entire gospel: God in human form does unexpected things. God in human not only bends the rules but twists them into pretzel shapes. God incarnate colors outside the lines – and draws extra pictures in the margins. God incarnate not only thinks outside the box but creates a whole new shape of box which is promptly ignored.
Throughout this upcoming year we will be reading stories from the Gospel of Luke. Our attention is going to be taken away from the centers of importance and out to the margins, out to the people who have been pushed aside. We are being called out to join others where they already meet God, because it is out there with the strangers that the Christmas story is being told by angels as they sing “Glory to God, and on earth peace.”