Monday, December 24, 2012

You Got Here Just In Time! (Luke 2:1-20, Christmas Eve)

In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. 2 This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. 3 Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. 4 Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. 5 He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. 6 While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. 7 She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.

8 Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. 9 The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.

10 The angel said, “ Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. 11 Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. 12 This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger. ” 13 Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, 14 “ Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors. ”

15 When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “ Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us. ” 16 They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. 18 Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. 20 The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told.

Tears are falling, hearts are breaking; How we need to hear from God.  You've been promised, we've been waiting; Welcome to our world.  May we pray.
The greeting card industry is big business.  For Christmas, 1.5 billion Christmas cards are exchanged in the U.S.  Laid end-to-end, they would stretch for 167,000 miles, and would circle the equator 6.7 times (source: Infographics).  Here at St. Paul, we mailed 844 such cards and handed out hundreds more, inviting our friends and neighbors to join us this evening.  No doubt, many of you who are here this evening are here precisely because you received one of our cards.  We’re glad you did.  You are our very special guests this evening, and you honor us simply by showing up tonight.

A comfortable image; far from reality.
There is one unfortunate and unintended consequence of all the cards that are exchanged, however, at least the religious ones.  It’s not the fault of the cards themselves, mind you, simply the artwork on them, conveying the birth of Jesus as sweet, clean, quiet, sentimental, and docile.  Smiling shepherds, fluffy animals, hay that could have been spun from fine gold, and a soft glow on the faces of the Holy Family - a comforting and comfortable image, perhaps, but one that’s far from accurate.

What I invite you to do tonight is put that image – comfortable, sweet, familiar, sentimental – put that image out of your mind and hear the story as if for the first time ever.  Give yourself tonight to the story of a God who loved us - all of us - that he came into our dark, confused, and often less-than-pleasant world and dwelt among us as one of us, the story of how God brought light into our darkness. If you’ve come to hear THAT story, then you’re in the right place tonight.

In those days, Caesar Augustus, the emperor, the most powerful person in the world, ordered a census of the peasants in Judea.  The people of Judea had been a troublesome bunch; there had been uprisings and rebellions before, and if it happened again, Caesar Augustus wanted to know just how many peasants there were, and how big of an army it would take to crush them.

Further, the emperor wanted to get everyone registered on the tax rolls.  Taxes were high, far higher than anything being debated in Washington at the edge of the so-called fiscal cliff, and the poorest paid the highest rates.  This was one of the great sources of dissension among the peasant class - the very sort of thing that would boil over into outright rebellion.  Ironically, through their taxes, these poor Judean peasants were funding the armies that would crush them at the first hint of trouble.

In those days, in the middle of winter, just after the harvest, the peasants went to their hometowns to be registered.  One peasant named Joseph, from the wide spot in the road called Nazareth, took his teenage fiance, Mary, mysteriously pregnant with some wild story about angel visitors and impregnation by the Holy Spirit that no one was buying, to Bethlehem.

This one sounds familiar, right?  O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie; above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.  Well, hardly.  The greeting cards got this one wrong, too.  Bethlehem was far from a sleepy, quiet, still, little town, particular at the time of the Roman census.  It buzzed with all the feverish frenzy of Myrtle Beach during bike week.  The town was crowded with its regular townfolk, all the travelers who were there for the census, the guards hired to keep order, and the merchants who followed the crowds hoping to make a dishonest buck along the way.  Whatever your pleasure, if you wanted it, you could buy it.

Particularly in those days during the census, Bethlehem was far from the still and sleepy town in our carols and on our Christmas cards.  It was loud, crowded, raucous, filthy - and against this backdrop, peasants Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem following a nine-day journey from Nazareth - cold, tired, and hungry.  They holed up in the barn out back, because, as the story tells us, there was no room for them in the inn, but let’s be honest, it’s the best they could have afforded anyway.

First century stone manger in Palestine.
And there, the time came for Mary to have her baby, and she did.  She gave birth to her firstborn son, wrapped him up tight, and used the feeding trough as a makeshift crib.  There was no privacy or comfort of any kind.  Other poor travelers were crowded into the barn with them.  The straw was moldy, the slop buckets overflowing, and all night long the street just beyond their accommodations were filled with people laughing and carrying on and carousing and fighting - the sort of thing we might see in a Waffle House parking lot at 3 am on a Saturday.  Welcome to our world, Lord Jesus!

When God put on human form and came to live among us as one of us, God came to us not in splendor, not in majesty, not in fanfare, not in comfort, not in blinding displays of power and might.  No, God instead chose to come among us in all humility and discomfort and disgrace.

Ed Moore tells the story of participating in a church Christmas play when he was a child where they used live animals.  The animals were all cooperative and well-behaved except for one rather difficult sheep named Irving.  The shepherds led the sheep up the aisle of the church and off to the side where they were supposed to remain for the rest of the play, all the sheep, that is, except for Irving.  Irving walked up next to the manger and left his gift for baby Jesus - a fresh, steaming pile of sheep exhaust.  Welcome to our world, little Lord Jesus!  You’ve come at just the right time!

Perhaps more than the other characters in the play that year, Irving got it right.  Jesus came into a real mess.  Friends - that’s the message and the meaning of Christmas.  Christmas is the story of God-come-to-earth in the person of Jesus, willingly taking our mess and making it his mess, and cleaning it up.

The world was dark and uncertain and messy at the time of Jesus, but thanks be to God, Jesus still enters the dark and uncertain and messy places - certainly within our world, and certainly within each of us.  The Light of the World, whose birth we celebrate on this holy night, shines brightest where things seem darkest.

Good thing, too, because it seems like there’s still a lot of darkness in our world.  These four little candles that we’ve lit through the last four weeks of Advent - these candles that represent the truest values of God’s kingdom, these candles of hope, and peace, and joy, and love - these little candles sure do have their work cut out for them.  A lot of darkness in our world, a lot of darkness in many of our lives.

And yet, Christmas is God’s declaration that the darkness doesn’t win.  Darkness doesn’t get the last word!  This child will get the last word!  Jesus gets the final say, and the words he says are hope, peace, joy, and love - what good news for us and for our world!  The candles we light tonight symbolize God’s true light in Jesus, and we will light these candles tonight not so much because they’re pretty, but to recognize and celebrate Jesus as the Light of the World, God’s love come to each of us.

Samuel Rayan says, “A candle is a protest at midnight.  It is a non-conformist.  It says to the darkness, ‘I beg to differ.’”

God’s true light, Jesus, pierces a hole in the smothering fog of all that is dark, and no matter how low, how dark, how messy things may be in our world; no matter how low, dark, or messy things may be in your life, know that Jesus has already been there, and even now, he’s working to clean up the mess.

The good news of Christmas is this:  Jesus is here!  God is with us!  The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Jesus tonight! The good news of Christmas is not only that Jesus came among us once; it’s that Jesus continues to come among us again and again and again.  That’s news that’s good enough to rally the shepherds in from the hill country.  That’s news that’s good enough to get the angel choirs singing.  That’s news that makes a difference in our world, it makes a difference to you and me, it makes a difference anywhere God’s Love is made real as the light shining in the darkness.

A candle is a protest.  It says to the darkness, “I beg to differ.”

Tonight, the Light of God’s Love - God’s true light in Jesus - the light of hope, and peace, and joy, and love - will be passed to you.  My hope for you is twofold.  First, that you will receive that light with joy, that something of God’s loving presence will be kindled within you and chase away whatever darkness is there, that Jesus himself will be born anew in your heart tonight.  And second, I hope the light keeps burning brightly within you, and that you have the courage that Jesus had to take that light out into all the dark places of pain and suffering and mess of our world.

I doubt you’ll see Irving the sheep depicted on any greeting cards next year, but Irving got it right: Jesus has willingly come into the mess.  What is messy, Jesus cleans up.  What is broken, Jesus restores.  What is incomplete, Jesus makes whole.  What is wrong, Jesus rights.  What is dark, Jesus lights.  The Light of the Word shines in all the dark places of our world, and there is no darkness, no matter how deep, no matter how persistent, that is strong enough to overcome it.

This Christmas, we say, “Welcome, Lord Jesus!  You’ve come at just the right time!”

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