25 December 2007



I’d like to tell you a story this morning – it’s a story that takes place many centuries ago in the Holy Land. It’s a story I’m sure you’ve heard before – but this morning I invite you to hear it again. And as you listen to the old, to the familiar, to what you think you’re going to hear – I urge you to allow yourselves to be touched by the grace and truth that is found in this season of holy nights, good news and great joy.

In those days a man by the name of Caesar Augustus was pretty much in charge of everything that seemed to be of any importance. Caesar was only one of the titles Augustus bore. Others were imperator, pontifex maximus, princepus ultimus and so on.

But no matter by which name he was called – they all got across the point that he ruled Rome and virtually the whole world. And so it was, from this lofty position, that Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. Now this wasn’t really the whole world mind you; but it was the whole world Caesar Augustus knew about – and of course, like most of us, he knew far less than he thought he did.

Caesar Augustus believed he was Emperor of the whole world, but he had a lot to learn about geography because really, his kingdom was only one small corner of the globe. And so in the end, Caesar’s decree was pretty well ignored, in America for example … and in places like Lapland, Nova Scotia, and the Philippines. But in the Holy Land it was obeyed.

I guess it could have been done the other way around … with the government sending census takers door to door. But governments have always liked to see people march to their orders, follow their instructions, and stand in their lines, and Caesar Augustus’ government was no different. And so on camels, on carts, on donkeys and on foot, everyone traveled to their hometown to be counted.

Among the Jews traveling to their birthplaces were Joseph and the young woman he was engaged to. Her name was Mary, and she was expecting her first child at any time. A weary-from-walking carpenter … and a tired-from-traveling, pregnant young woman. But this was no ordinary couple – and neither was their baby ordinary … not by any stretch of the imagination.

You see, a few months before, an angel by the name of Gabriel (“Gabe” to his friends) appeared to Mary and told her of the mystery that was to come upon her. And in fact, before he left, the last words he spoke to Mary were, “You mustn’t be afraid.” And if that wasn’t the understatement of all time, I don’t know what could top it.

And what about Joseph? I mean if your girlfriend had told you the story Mary must have told him, would you have believed her? Can you imagine the conversation they must have had? “Okay, Mary, let me get this straight … you’re a virgin … and … you’re pregnant. Come on, who do you think you’re talking to here? I wasn’t born yesterday. Give me a break!”

And so when you really think about it, you can hardly blame Joseph for considering breaking off their engagement when he discovered that Mary was indeed pregnant, through no fault or passion of her own. Nevertheless, when God explained it all to him in a dream, he took it like a man who knew God and believed God’s voice, and all was forgiven.

And so this very pregnant young girl and her wood-working fiancé came down from Galilee, out of the town of Nazareth, to Judea, about 85 miles to the south, and into Bethlehem, the city of David. And while they were there, standing in line, filling out forms and trying to figure out if they had enough money left to get supper, the time came for Mary to give birth to her child.

The donkey ride probably got things going. I mean, ladies, imagine riding a donkey for 85 miles in your third trimester! Today we use Italian food and castor oil to nudge nature along – but how about riding a mule from Newberg to Cottage Grove! Ya – I’d think that would probably do the trick.

Now I don’t want you to think Joseph was an insensitive slouch. When they first arrived in town, he tried to get a hotel room. He really had, but when he went up to the front door of the only one with it’s “vacancy” light still on, the clerk said all the rooms were booked – and that he just forgot to turn out the light.

And when Joseph tried explaining to him that Mary was about to have a baby, the clerk said, “Don’t tell me about your problems, I just work here.” And so they ended up in a stable. Now stables don’t usually house people – in the same way that houses don’t usually stable animals. So of course there were animals in the stable; some donkeys, a few horses and probably some dairy cows too.

Now in all the manger artwork I’ve ever seen the stable is pictured as being very clean and filled with sweet-smelling straw. And I certainly hope that it was like all the little crèche scenes we see on people’s mantles – although I seriously doubt that it was. And it was there, where Mary gave birth to her first-born son and laid him in a manger.

An infant in a feed trough – God as a baby. A lowlier place couldn’t possibly have existed. Are you picturing the scene? A damp, smelly grotto, a baby resting quietly, a couple of new parents – wiped out from the long trip, the labor, and the delivery. I guess that if anyone is dozing off now it’s probably Joseph. He can’t remember the last time he sat down. And now that Mary and their new son are comfortable, he leans against the rock wall of the stable and feels his eyes grow heavy. He still hasn’t figured it all out. The mystery of it all, I mean.

A father … but not married? A virgin … yet a mother? A baby son … yet God? His head is swimming with questions that he doesn’t have the energy to wrestle with. What’s important in his mind now is that the baby is fine, and that Mary is safe. And so he curls up next to them and rubs and soothes Mary’s weary body and listens to the cooing and the yawning of his newborn son. And then finally, as sleep comes near, he remembers the name the angel told him to give his son … and he looks at his little boy and whispers, “We’ll call you ‘Jesus.’”

But while Joseph nods off, Mary’s quite awake. My, she looks so young! Fourteen or fifteen tops. Her head rests on the soft leather of Joseph’s saddle and most of the pain of Jesus’ delivery is now eclipsed by amazement. She looks down to her breast and into His face. Her son. Her LORD.

And at that exact moment in history, the person who best understands who God is and what He’s up to is a teenage girl in a smelly stable. Imagine that. Mary can’t take her eyes off of Jesus. She remembers the words of the angel: “His kingdom will never end.” She thinks about the days to come and quietly wonders to herself …

“Will we ever count the stars together … and succeed? Someday, will His brothers and sisters understand who He is? Will He do well in school? Someday, will I accidentally call Him ‘Father’? Will He ever wake up in the middle of the night and be afraid?”

So many questions – so few answers. Only a peace that passes understanding – only a quiet pondering of the greatest event of all time – the miracle she holds in her arms.

Such tiny hands: to someday touch a leper’s wounds, to wipe a widow’s tear, to bear a Roman spike – but tonight they’re clutched in an infant’s fist. Such tiny eyes: to someday see our pain, our selfishness, and our fears – but tonight they’re closed in tranquil sleep. A tiny mouth: to someday define grace, speak love, and whisper hope – but tonight it’s still and quiet. Such tiny feet: to someday walk painful, dusty, difficult steps – but tonight they’re curled up … soft and pink.

As Mary looks at her little boy she’s hit by the fact that He really looks like anything but a king. His face is prunish and red. His cry, even though strong and healthy, is still the helpless and piercing cry of a baby. He’s absolutely dependent upon her for His well-being. Majesty in the midst of the mundane. Holiness in the filth of sheep manure and sweat. Divinity entering the world on the floor of a stable, through the womb of a girl, in the presence of carpenter. She touches His face and whispers, “How long was your journey?” And then they both fall asleep.

Now there were shepherds living in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Actually they were probably lying around a campfire because sheep aren’t too hard to watch when they’re sleeping. And the shepherds were smoking pipes and telling jokes and passing around a wineskin. They were kind of a motley bunch, these shepherds. I mean, back then, it wasn’t a line of work that educated people went into. In other words, shepherds weren’t really looked on very highly by other people.

They weren’t considered to be high-class citizens … because, let’s face it, sheep aren’t high-class animals. From a distance they might be, but not when you get up close to them. Sheep are fine as long as they’re doing what they want to do. But as soon as you try to make a sheep do what you want it to do, I tell you … all the high-class people get out of the profession at that point. And the only people left to be shepherds are the folks who don’t have anything else.

We read in The Gospel of Luke – the 2nd chapter – that as the shepherds were lying there, an angel of the LORD appeared to them, and the glory of the LORD shone around them. Luke actually writes “And lo, an angel of the LORD appeared to the shepherds.” When I was a kid, I thought that was “Lo” was the angel’s name … and so until I was 12 years old or so, I always thought angels were Chinese.

But these shepherds hadn’t ever seen anybody from China … and they probably hadn’t seen an angel before either … and so I doubt that they got the two mixed up. But when they saw the angels, Luke tells us that they were terrified. And frankly, I don’t blame them a bit. And so when the angels appeared, they put their arms over their heads and hugged the ground – they literally pressed their faces into the ground.

You see they were kind of shy people, these shepherds. A couple of them hid their wineskins, thinking that maybe God had come to punish them for drinking too much. And they lay there whimpering and crying, saying “No, please … don’t.” And so when the angel said, “Do not be afraid”, the words went right over their heads because they’d never looked at an angel before – they’ve never heard an angel’s voice before – they’d never smelled an angel before.

And the angel was sort of like a human, but not exactly. And the one that was talking … his voice was strange – kind of distant and echoey. And the smell that the angel gave off! … well, it was a smell of such purity that it almost hurt their noses. And then, right in the midst of their terror, as though it was the most natural thing in the world, the angel said these words …

“It’s okay. Don’t be afraid. I’m here to tell you the best news you or anyone ever born has ever heard. In Bethlehem, the town of David, your long-awaited-for Messiah has finally left heaven and come to earth. And He hasn’t come for just a few people. No, in fact, far from it.

God has come for everyone … and I’m inviting you to have front row seats. Emmanuel, God with us, has shown up on earth just like the rest of you did … as a baby. And here’s how you’ll know that you’ve found the right baby. Go to Bethlehem and you’ll find Him waiting for you, wrapped in cloths and lying peacefully in a manger.

And then Luke tells us that suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to everyone.” A whole angel band – singing and dancing in the night sky. It was kind of like a celestial Lawrence Welk Concert – but without a stage – if you can only imagine such a terrifyingly wondrous thing. And after two or three numbers -- and then a reprise of the original theme – they left. Not one by one, but all at once. One second they were there and then the next they were just gone.

And after they’d vanished, some of the shepherds weren’t too sure if it had been a dream – or maybe a nightmare. But none of them were going to take any chances. And so they rushed into Bethlehem to see what it was that the angels were talking about. The angels told them “to go into the city”, and so they “went into the city.” Like Joseph and Mary before them, they heard and they obeyed … it was as simple as that.

And as they made their way toward the city, they followed a star. Like most stars, it was high in the sky, so it only pointed them in the general direction. In other words, it wasn’t too useful in helping them find one baby, in one stable, in one section of town. A street map would have been much more helpful than a star, but the angels didn’t give them a street map … only a command. And so when they got to Bethlehem they still had to look around for a little while.

Some of the shepherds believed what they’d been told … and some other ones weren’t quite so sure. And so they’d stop towns people while going through the streets – and they’d tap them on the shoulder and ask, “Hey, excuse me, but you didn’t happen to see a heavenly host singing and dancing up in the sky, kind of off to the south from here … say … about 40 minutes ago, did you?”

And the person would say, “A heavenly what?” And then the doubting shepherds would reply, “Oh never mind.” And then at least one of them was heard to have said, “You know Bob, we were drinking a lot. I emptied half that wineskin myself.”

But finally they found the stable. And they walked in and there was Mary and Joseph … and there was the baby-God wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger – just as they’d been told. And instantly, they all believed. They all believed instantly. They didn’t have to ask a whole lot of questions. They just knew that everything the angels had said was true. And they tiptoed out after worshiping the child. And from that night on, they were never the same people again.

Sure, they went back to shepherding, but they were never the same again. They were filled with joy and happiness the rest of their lives. Not that it made shepherding any easier, or that it made the sheep any easier to handle. Sheep were sheep. And they still got angry some times … and at other times they still got sad. But life was never the same again for them. There was always a light in their hearts and it was never pitch-dark for them again – for as long as they lived.

There were other things that happened too. Some time later three wise men came from a large Eastern University. There was an Assistant Wiseman and an Associate Wiseman, and there was the Chairman of the Wisdom Department. And they came bringing gifts … and they worshiped Jesus. And like the shepherds before them, they believed from the very first moment they saw Jesus.

Even though worshiping wasn’t exactly the custom among scholars at the time, they bowed to Him and recognized Him as their God and as their King. They believed instantly – letting understanding come out of their faith instead of waiting for faith to come out of understanding. They believed instantly. And so did the innkeeper … in a way. At least, he believed that an event happened that had great publicity value for Bethlehem.

And so he fired the clerk who’d sent Joseph and Mary away. And he sent a message to Joseph that a mistake had been made at the reservation desk – that they did have a room for them, and that they were welcome to come back and spend the whole weekend at no charge. And he made plans to change the name of his hotel to THE MESSIAH INN, and to raise his prices – and he would put up a plaque in the room where Jesus had slept which would simply say, “HE SLEPT HERE”.

He also planned to put a gift-shop in the lobby where he could sell holy-nativity-type-items. In fact, he’d already placed a large order for hand-carved sheep and mangers when word came back to him that Joseph and Marry had already left.

For you see, the angel had come back – maybe it was Gabriel again – we really don’t know. But he told Joseph and Mary that their lives were in danger and that King Herod would be coming after them. And so they left. The stable and the manger were empty. And when the soldiers arrived, all they found was a bunch of hungry animals standing around. And outside on the street a crowd of people gathered … people coming to see the miracle that they’d heard about from the shepherds … but HE was gone.

And if they were to find this child, this gift from the Heavenly Father, the Messiah, they’d have to find Him somewhere else, or in some other way.

I guess, when you come right down to it, the shepherds were the lucky ones … and the wise men … because they saw it all. They were there. It all happened to them. They didn’t have to be told about it second-hand. They didn’t have to sit down and study it and try to figure it all out. It was just given to them as a gift. They looked into the eyes of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, and because of what they saw … and because of what they discovered … and because of what they believed … they were never the same.

I know it’s an old story. I know it’s a familiar story. But I truly hope that this morning we’ve heard it again, like the first time. And that in our listening … and that in our embracing of truth we might come to know the One Who’s birth we celebrate.

Merry Christmas and Godspeed.



No comments: