Sermon #164 St. James the Less #71 12/24/19
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And 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.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
"Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. Luke 2:1-20
Back in 1865 an Episcopal priest named Phillips Brooks got on a boat bound for the Mediterranean port of Jaffa, which is modern day Tel Aviv in Israel. He, like so many other pilgrims over the centuries, traveled to the Holy Land to walk where Jesus once was.
He wanted to see with his own eyes the towns and villages found in Scripture, he wanted to smell the breeze coming off the Sea of Galilee, taste the exotic food, and pray in the ancient churches that mark the major places in Jesus’ life and ministry.
But we also know that preachers go to the Holy Land for another reason…they go when they’re desperate for new sermon material. Yes, when you’ve run out of all your good stories and need some inspiration, going to the Holy Land is bound to bring some new and exciting tales that will liven up most Sunday sermons.
Phillips Brooks was the rector of Holy Trinity in Philadelphia at the time, but he would soon be known as one of the most prolific preachers of his time. While on his pilgrimage, Brooks did find inspiration all around him. A few years after returning to Philadelphia he reflected on his time in Bethlehem and decided to write a Christmas poem for his church.
He had a gift with words, and it didn’t matter if it was preaching or poetry. Once he had finished his poem, he showed his organist, Lewis Redner, who loved the it so much that he decided to set the words to music.
Though you may have never heard of Phillips Brooks you have without a doubt heard his little poem which is called "O Little Town of Bethlehem." You know how it goes:
“O little town of Bethlehem, / how still we see thee lie! Above thy deep and dreamless sleep / the silent stars go by.”
At about the same time that Holy Trinity in Philadelphia began singing Brooks’ poem, another Christmas classic was being composed by an unknown artist who was also fascinated by with the birth in Bethlehem.
This one would rise to become a Christmas favorite as well. It was entitled “Away in a Manger.” It describes the birth of Jesus so serenely:
“Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, / the little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head.” The second verse then goes on to say, “The cattle are lowing, the Baby awakes, / but little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.”
In both Christmas carols there is a great sense of peace, isn’t there? Bethlehem is silent, all is at rest. It’s almost a lullaby. But come on, I know Jesus is sinless, but you’re telling me he didn’t even cry once that night?
The beauty of these classic carols is that they give us warm fuzzies inside. The Christmas story in general does that for us. We know it well: there was no room in the inn, so Mary and Joseph settle for a lowly manger to lay their newborn child among the animals.
But unfortunately, we sometimes get so familiar with a story that we forget to look at the details. We fill in the scene with things that aren’t actually there, but things that we’ve picked up from either songs or movies or the popular culture. The fear is that this powerful story of God coming to dwell with us can become so familiar that it ends up being mundane.
Tonight I want us to look at the Christmas story with fresh eyes. And I think we’ll realize that this familiar story still has some surprises for us.
Let’s start off with the town of Bethlehem. We have typically seen the townspeople as inhospitable who have no mercy on a family that is about to give birth to their child.
We must remember that Joseph was a decedent of King David, the most famous leader Israel ever had. The reason they were even going to Bethlehem for the census was because that was the City of David. Having a descendent of the great king walk into town was no small thing; he would be entitled to at least a small bit of honor from the locals.
But even if they were not going to show honor to King David’s family, then having a pregnant woman walk into town would’ve easily gotten people’s attention. Pregnant women are given special care and attention in pretty much every culture around the world. Are we seriously saying that Bethlehem is the exception?
I just don’t think so. The people of Bethlehem would’ve risen to the occasion and helped this poor, travel-worn family. It would have been a disgrace to kick fellow Jews to the curb, especially in their great time of need.
And thankfully, Mary and Joseph had time to find a family who would take them in. In all the movies and stories we tell, Mary walks into town and is just about to give birth to the baby.
But if you look back at our lesson this evening, Luke says, “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.” The word “time” literally means “days.” “While they were there, the days came…”
This wasn’t rushed, they had a few days to settle in before giving birth.
Luke then tells us that there was no room for them in the inn. I’ve always assumed that they walked into town and checked the first century version of the local Hilton, and then Holiday Inn, and stopped by a few motels and all of them were full.
But when Luke says “room” he doesn’t mean a literal room that you could rent out. The word means “space.” There was no space for them. And talking about an inn can be very misleading.
The inn was not a commercial motel that took in travelers. The word translated as “inn” simply means “a place to stay” or better yet “a guest room.” There’s a totally different word for a commercial inn, and it’s not used here.
So where did they go?
Well, a typical peasant’s home at that time would have consisted of one large room where all the cooking, eating, socializing, and sleeping took place. If you had enough money you would add a guest room onto the back of your house for visitors to sleep.
This matches the word that Luke uses for guest room.
What Luke was saying was that there was no space in the guest room in someone’s home, that was already full. But the family wouldn’t then kick them out, rather Mary and Joseph would be invited to sleep in the large common room where the rest of the family slept.
Good first century Jews would never kick them to the curb, the locals did not close their door on them, actually it was quite the opposite. They went above and beyond in showing their hospitality.
Okay that’s all well and good, but you may be asking yourself, “What about the animals? Where do they come into the picture? Every Nativity scene has some sheep and a donkey, at the very least.”
It was typical in first century Jewish homes that the family’s animals (like sheep and donkeys and such) slept in the house at night. This would guarantee that they couldn’t be stolen in the dead of night, and they also provided much needed warmth in the winter months.
But you couldn’t have them walking around in the one common room that you shared with the family. Instead the animals would stay close to the front door. There would be a wooden pen to keep them there, or that area of the house would be a few feet lower so they couldn’t get up to the common room.
The feeding troughs would be in the common room, and the animals would simply stick their head over if they wanted to eat. These troughs could be made of stone or wood filled with straw, and that is what we call a manger.
So with all the clues that Luke has given us, we can safely assume that Jesus was not born in a lowly stable or a cave on the outskirts of town, but rather in the comfort and warmth of a family’s common room.
It’s still not as picturesque as the Christmas carols will lead us to believe. Bethlehem was likely not as still and quiet as Phillips Brooks imagined, and I just can’t in my wildest dreams believe that “the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head” and didn’t utter a peep for the rest of the night.
That first Christmas must have been much more chaotic than our carols describe for us.
Giving birth - something I know nothing about - but I am certain it is not a peaceful and quiet ordeal. Newborn babies - again something I know nothing about - and yet I’ve heard they cry from time to time and can be very restless. Sheep and donkeys in a house - yet another thing I know nothing about – though I am certain there are different smells and sounds that you would encounter throughout the night.
That first Christmas was still stinky and messy and loud, like any other night in Bethlehem. And yet God decided to enter this stinky and messy and loud world. He decided to dwell with us, on our terms.
The powerful message of Christmas and Jesus’ Incarnation is that the One who was Enthroned on High, set aside all the rights and honor due to him as Almighty God, and came to live among us. To be born in a lowly peasant’s home, in the midst of animals, and slept that first night in a feeding trough.
Though this is an old story, it is far from being mundane. It is just as powerful and life changing to us as it was for those who were there on that first Christmas night.
Looking at this ancient story with fresh eyes does teach us one significant thing. Rather than being cast out of Bethlehem and rejected by the people at the beginning of his earthly life, Jesus was in fact surrounded by love. Unbeknownst to the host family, who welcomed Mary and Joseph into their already crowded home, they were in fact welcoming God in the flesh.
In the same way that Jesus was wrapped by the love of his family and those around him on that holy night, God wants to wrap us in his love. And the way he has done that is through Jesus.
If we want to know the heart of the Father, all we must do is look to Jesus. If we want to know what God is like, all we must do is look to Jesus. Christmas is all about God’s love for us, and that is on full display with the babe in the manger.
If you hear nothing else tonight, hear this: The Good News of Christmas is that out of God’s abundant love Jesus came to live among us on our terms, so that we might forever live with him on his terms. Thanks be to God.
Christmas Eve. Year A. Lk 2:1-20. Background from Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. K. Bailey. Photo: here.