The Original Love Story
ast year's Christmas Eve sermon)
In the Gospel reading, the Nativity story you just heard, we find ourselves at the Eve of Christ’s birth.
Joseph, the professional craftsman, has left his business in snug little Bethlehem, and gone to the big city, obeying the order of Caesar Augustus.
He’s taken Mary with him, since they don’t know how long they’ll need to be there to be counted in the census. And it’s time for Jesus to be born.
On Christmas cards we often see a pretty little Little House on the Prarie-esque wooden horse barn. And we imagine it brightly lit by lanterns.
When we read the Christmas story from our modern western perspective, with the traditions that have been depicted in art for generations, we find ourselves believing it’s a pretty, polished, fairytale-like rags to riches tabloid story.
Cinderella the maid becomes the Queen of the kingdom; Sleeping Beauty the princess pricks her finger on a workers spindle but is rescued by a prince.
The baby born in a smelly barn grows up to become the Son of God, the Messiah, the King of Kings.
But if we take a close look at history and culture of Palestine we find that Jesus’ birth was actually very ordinary as births go.
From historical sources we know that our Gospel writer Luke, a Doctor, was an accurate and detailed writer. You might notice there’s no barn mentioned in his story. No hotel.
The word we have as “Inn” would today be translated as a “guest room in the house”. In the middle east it’s common for extended family to live together in a large house, and for there to be extra room for visitors.
Luke makes it clear that Joseph’s family is from Bethlehem. And that matches up with Matthew’s account that Jesus was born in a house.
When Luke tells us there’s “no extra room’ to be had, his readers would have understood that Mary and Joseph were staying with his relatives in Bethlehem, but that the guest rooms were already taken.
Do you remember that trend in the 1970’s for sunken living rooms? In the Palestine area it is common for a middle class home of tradesman’s family to have one of those.
The animals are brought in at night for safety and bedded down in the sunken living room. And on the wall is a feed-box – a manger.
In the middle of a busy season, amidst extended family, recovering from the hubbub of a road trip, a baby is born at home, wrapped up in the Palestinian fashion, and put in a convenient, if a bit unusual middle class crib.
I remember vividly the night our son was born. James was born at home, and I paced the house, absentmindedly carrying our little dog, who was completely bewildered by my behavior.
I knew that having a child was going change my life. I didn’t how much. Many scripture readings have taken on new meaning now that I’m a father.
When I’m faced with a sobbing little boy, fighting sleep, who just needs to be held and reassured that it’s ok to give in, the words “Come unto me, ye who are weary, and I will give you rest” takes on new meaning.
I’ve watched our toddler wrestle with separation anxiety, especially from Mama. At times my wife can’t walk from one room to another without our usually cheerful son breaking down in tears.
To which my wife quips “Lo, I am with you always…..even until the end of the age!”
The other night I watched James repeat to my wife, over and over, what he wanted, thinking Mama didn’t understand.
Then when she assured him she understood, he started crying loudly because she didn’t immediately give him what he’d asked for.
I was struck with the thought that we, like little children, fuss and complain to God that we don't get what we want.
Our perspective is that God doesn't understand what we're asking for or what we need...When the truth is we're not yet mature enough to see the process and timing of God.
We find ourselves, like little children, fearing the darkness of uncertainty, of being left by ourselves in the cold unknown.
I remember a time when I felt deep fear. I was 24 years old, a seminary student doing my internship. I was one of 4 students in the US who had been selected for overseas internships.
I arrived in Cameroon West Africa, assigned to the local native Lutheran Church near an ELCA Mission compound. In my first weeks there I contracted a deadly strain of malaria.
I called my family in the states to say goodbye, and was deathly ill for days. I had surprisingly little fear. I talked to God and was at peace that He had me in His hands, whether I lived or died.
On December 18
1995 I followed a young native guide into the bush to see the sites. Cameroon’s next door neighbor is Nigeria, a country in civil war, long divided between Muslim and Christian factions.
For the local people passports don’t exist; boundaries in the bush are unmarked. There are no checkpoints, no signs saying “Last exit before entering Nigeria.”
A few hours into our walk my guide and I were picked up by local Nigerian police. Muslim police. They believed I was a spy, and threw me in the local prison and interrogated me for 3 days.
They beat my guide. They let me know that my next stop, without any hearing or trial, would be a prison in the interior of Nigeria, a prison known as a death sentence.
The wilds of Cameroon and Nigeria have limited electricity. The night sky shines clear above the sounds of the wildlife. Indoors the night is inky. You literally can’t see your hand before your face.
In that prison, out the window at night, there was a faint glimmer of light somewhere across the village. That light symbolized hope, that somehow, some way, God would intervene. He did.
That’s another story for another time, but that December, in the darkness of my situation, I found great comfort remembering that Christ had walked through darkness darker than mine, and safe in the certainty that He was the light to my path.
The news-worthy part of the story of Jesus’ birth is the shining angels that appeared to common ordinary shepherds.
The riveting Words of the Lord, accompanied by a bright light, announced His own son, the Light of the World:
There’s Good News.
Glory to God.
Peace to Man, for God is pleased.
When we focus on the tradition of the stable we risk missing out on the powerful simplicity of God’s love in action.
For you see, God understands our deepest fears and needs. He knew that the best way to comfort his people was by sending his most loved only son to be with us; not sending him as a king, but as an ordinary baby who could be with us and understand all the frailties of humankind.
God could have sent the king and messiah the Jewish people we expecting. But He didn’t send an obvious hero, on horseback with saber drawn, to swoop in and cut away our sins.
Instead he sent a baby to be tiny and frail, to struggle and grow and live among us. To be surrounded by ordinary people.
He sent a baby to understand us and to love us and to choose to give his life for ours and gently wash away our sins.
No matter where you are in your life; no matter what's holding you captive: no matter how dark and messy things may seem; the light of Christ illumines our life and lights the way that leads us to Bethlehem where a child will change our lives forever. And that is love at it's core.