Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Getting Ready for Tomorrow's Christmas Eve Worship: Luke 2:1-20

A short while ago, I finished preparing a second Christmas Eve sermon. I decided to do a different one for each the two services we'll have tomorrow evening. One is, honestly, a reworking of a sermon I did at my former parish several years ago. (I've decided that it isn't plagiarism to steal one's own sermons.) The other is a new one, freshly inspired by my interaction with the Gospel lesson appointed for the evening, Luke 2:1-20. I'll be posting them here tomorrow evening, hopefully.

Since I'll shortly be working on my sermon for this coming Sunday, I'm forgoing detailed comments. But here are a few quick thoughts.

General Comments:
Christmas is one of the two great festivals of the Church Year, the other being Easter. Christmas celebrates Jesus' birth, important because it testifies to the love that God has for us. For God to become one of us, His creation is a stunning thing, equivalent in some ways to our voluntarily becoming amoebas or single cells.

A more apt analogy might be found in Kurt Vonnegut's novel, Breakfast of Champions. Back in my twenties, I read virtually all of Vonnegut's novels published up to that point and so before reading Breakfast of Champions, became familiar with his character, Kilgore Trout. Trout was a writer of pornography in Vonnegut's earlier work. But in Breakfast of Champions, he becomes the beneficiary of a miraculous intervention and transformation. Trout has an automobile accident from which he's able to walk away. But while doing so, he meets a mysterious stranger. The stranger is Vonnegut himself, "your creator" is how the Vonnegut on the page describes himself to the dazed Kilgore Trout.

What Vonnegut fantasized in fiction, God has accomplished in fact. The Creator, our creator, has entered our lives. But this is where the Vonnegut analogy breaks down, because God has done more than appear among us. He's become one of us.

That, of course, is more than a neat trick. There's a purpose to God's incarnation. I talked about that here. The baby has come to die and rise for us and give those who repent and believe in Him everlasting life with God.

It's become fashionable for some not only to disparage Christianity, but also to cast doubts on whether Jesus of Nazareth ever existed. The documentation for Jesus' existence is more extensive and closer in time to the years of His life than is the case for some of the most celebrated persons of ancient history. Former journalist (and former atheist) and pastor Lee Strobel presents an impressive array of evidence for Jesus' life, death, and resurrection in two of his books, The Case for Faith and The Case for Christianity. There, he examines the faith claims of Christianity with experts in many different fields. C.S. Lewis, in his extraordinary Mere Christianity, speaks convincingly of the intellectual plausibility of what Christians say about Jesus. In the end though, one can only believe if one is willing to believe and expose ourselves to the means God uses to create, sustain, and grow faith. On this latter point, see here.

Verse-by-Verse Comments
1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
(a) Luke emphasizes the futility of human control here. The Romans who ordered the census no doubt thought that they were in charge, not realizing that it was God's will to get Joseph and the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem, where the long-anticipated Messiah was to be born.

(b) While there had been some censuses ordered by God in Old Testament times, counts were generally disparaged by God. See here. The reason for this is that censuses were seen as means by which illegitimate power exercised muscle over dominated people and as a means of measuring human strength, as opposed to relying on God.

(c) It's characteristic of Luke to put things in an historical context.

3All went to their own towns to be registered.
(a) The disruptions of normal life would have been enormous, something not uncommon in the highly bureaucratized Roman world. Thomas Merton points out that the purposes of this particular census were probably to determine who could be taxed and to find the military-eligible males needed for the Roman army.

4Joseph 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.
(a) This verse too, emphasizes the sovereignty of God. Joseph, who wouldn't have had a reason to leave Nazareth, goes exactly where God wants the Savior to be born.

(b) Bethlehem, a name that means house of bread, was the hometown of Israel's greatest (and second) king, David. The story of his ancestry is told in the wonderful Old Testament book of Ruth.

5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
(a) Although Mary and Joseph had not consummated their union and the formal wedding ceremony hadn't taken place, they were considered married. During the engagement period after the marriage arrangement had been made, the groom and his party might show up at any time for the wedding ceremony. Joseph and Mary wouldn't consummate their marriage until after Jesus was born.

6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.
(a) This is a God-incident, no coincidence, but the result of God's planned and promised intervention.

7And 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.
(a) Martin Luther called this "a sight for tears." The Savior of the world makes His appearance in our world in the same way you and I first did. But there were no doctors or nurses. The mother gave birth without the help of a midwife, something that makes Jesus' birth in itself amazing, not to mention his subsequent survival. The only one to attend to Mary or the Child was the man chosen by God to act as Jesus' earthly father, Joseph.

8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.
(a) Shepherds, as most people know, were on the lowest rungs of first-century Judean society. But shepherds had also played an important role in the history of God's people. Moses, Jacob, and David, among others, were shepherds. In ancient Near Eastern documents, kings often portrayed themselves as shepherds of God's people. But Luke clearly wants to convey something about the good news that Jesus brings. In Mary's song, the Magnificat, which appears in Luke 1, she speaks of how in Christ, God was bringing down the arrogant and lifting up the lowly.

This past Sunday, in the Children's Sermon, two of our young people allowed themselves to illustrate this aspect of Mary's song, which was the psalm for our worship. One of them said in a sad voice, "I'm as low as a snake's belly." (To which the congregation said, "Awwww.") The other said, "I am all that!" (To which the congregation said, "Booo.") Then, I asked the kids for whom the baby Jesus was born, the arrogant or the lowly? The answer, of course, is both. This Savior lifts up those laid low by life and as an equally gracious act of love, brings down those so ful of themselves they think they don't need God or others. He does this because some have sunk so low that the only way they can see Christ and His grace is to be lifted up. Others can only see the same thing by being brought down.

In going to the shepherds, heaven was signaling the upside-down nature of Jesus' kingdom.

(b) Underscoring the shepherds' lowly status is the statement that they lived "in the fields."

9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
(a) The shepherds were understandably terrified. But, as happens with most angelic encounters, there was no reason for fear.

12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
(a) The sign is hardly one a person would associate with a king.

(b) The manger--I think of the French word for eat--in the original Greek, phantne, was a stone feeding trough. That's a bit of foreshadowing: The Savior would die on Good Friday and be placed in a stone cave for burial.

13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
(a) Heaven had to have a party!

(b) Who is favored by heaven? All who turn from sin and turn to the God we see in Jesus. Jesus told a story about a son who, after regretting the misuse of all the gifts his father had given to him, decided to ask his father for the status of house slave. But before the son could get the words of repentance out of his mouth, it seemed, the father was throwing a party, willing, it seems to keep giving to the son. (See Luke 15:11-32) Heaven always favors and throws a party for those who turn to the God we see in Christ.

15When 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.”
(a) The shepherds had to check things out.

(b) Note the green-colored text. I'll address that below.

16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.
(a) Suddenly, watching sheep is of secondary importance. Most of the time, day to day, the thing that pleases God is for us to do our duty. But we have to be open to God's interruptions. (What if another shepherd, Moses, hadn't stopped to check out that burning bush? Would God have sent someone else to facilitate the liberation of His people from Egypt?) The shepherds lost no time in setting out to find the baby.

17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;
(a) The shepherds made known what heaven had made known to them. We Christians have a similar task. We're to make known what has been made known to us in Jesus Christ.

(b) Note the blue-colored text. More on that below.

18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.
(a) Everyone was amazed, Luther once noted, but for how long? The birth of Jesus was no more than a momentary buzz, underscoring how easily we forget the blessings of God and become the victim of anesthetizing routine. We derive too much security from our routines, letting them block our view of God. We also use them, like the Roman governors who had ordered the census, to fool ourselves into thinking that we have control over our lives.

19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.
(a) Mary thought silently, deeply. No doubt they confirmed what the angel Gabriel told her at the annunciation. But she no doubt also wondered what lay ahead.

20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
(a) God had fulfilled what had been revealed to the shepherds through the emissaries of heaven, the angels. God always fulfills His Word.

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