Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 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. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 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.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 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: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And 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!” (Luke 2:1-14, NRSV)
If you’ve been with us these past few weeks you know that we’ve been thinking this season about the things that we all really want this year for Christmas, things which will not fit underneath the tree, things like hope, and peace, and joy and love.
I made an offhand comment up front a couple of Sundays ago that the one thing I really want this year for Christmas is a cordless drill. After the service that day a couple of kind and generous people in the congregation came up to me and actually offered to give to me their cordless drills. It was a reminder to me that I have got to be careful about what I say up front in church filled with such generous people.
In my last church I made an offhand comment on one of my very first Sundays that the peanut butter cookie was my favorite cookie. For eight years in that church I received a continuous stream of peanut butter cookies. In an early sermon here I happened to mention that the Baby Ruth is my favorite candy bar. Ten years later there are still a few people in this church who present me with a Baby Ruth candy bar each and every Halloween.
People in the church are so generous, always bringing me things that I mention in sermons. It’s a wonder that it took all these years to figure out that I’m probably setting the bar too low. Forget cookies and candy bars, I’m already trying to figure out how I can work into my next sermon the fact that it’s always been my dream to own a Porsche Carrera GT. And in case anybody’s wondering, I’ve always imagined one painted midnight blue with a nice tan leather interior.
What is it that you really want for Christmas this year? What is it that you’re hoping will be waiting for you underneath the tree tomorrow morning? I’m sure it’s different for all of us.
One thing I suspect you will find under many of the Christmas trees in many of our homes tomorrow morning is a nativity scene. Underneath the Christmas tree is a great place for a nativity scene because it reminds us, even when it becomes nearly covered over with presents, it reminds us about the real gift which we all have been given this season. You might say that the manger points us to something beyond itself.
The picture most of have of the manger scene comes to us primarily from the account we just read from Luke’s gospel. Several times in this passage Luke mentions that the baby Jesus was found that first Christmas lying in a manger. Because of the Roman census, Bethlehem was jammed with out-of-towners. Since all the beds in the inn were taken, Mary and Joseph had to seek lodging in a shelter normally reserved for animals. Luckily an empty feeding trough came in as a handy substitute for a crib in which to lay their newborn son.
We love this scene. We replicate it over and over again, on Christmas cards, on our front lawns, under our trees, on our mantles, in our churches. The scene is always the same. It’s magical and cozy. It’s warm and inviting. There’s a glow to the nativity that draws us in. It’s a place we want to go, a place we want to stay. And that, frankly, can become a problem because, as I said earlier, the manger is not meant to draw us in but meant, instead, to point us beyond.
Have you ever noticed that if you try to point out something to a dog, the dog will often look at your finger instead of looking at the object towards which you are trying to direct its attention? You’re trying to point to the ball, or to the squirrel, or to the big soup bone, all things you know the dog really would enjoy discovering, and the dog is just sitting there looking at your finger, literally missing the point.
The only reason Luke mentions the manger in this story is because it was a sign pointing the way for the shepherds. Remember, the shepherds were sent by angels late at night to find a baby in a crowded village that probably had lots of babies. How would they know which baby was the Messiah? Well, he would be the one lying in a manger wrapped in bands of cloth. You see, the manger is only a signpost, the finger pointing the way. We’re not meant to dwell there for long because something far more important lies beyond, or within.
It would not be hard these days to get the impression that Christmas is the biggest holiday in the church. It is certainly by far the biggest holiday in our culture. This year I watched the store manager at Ace Hardware putting out Christmas decorations the week before Halloween. Nobody thinks about the 4th of July in May. We start thinking about Christmas in October!
Some of you may know that in the church calendar the Christmas season is at the beginning. For Christians, Christmas is not the climax, but rather the opening pages of the story of God’s salvation. That means that while it is a wonderfully captivating first chapter to the book, it is not a very good place to stop reading.
You see, Christmas in and of itself is the celebration that God, the eternal creator and sovereign ruler of all that is, literally came to earth. God came to earth! And if that weren’t shocking enough, when God came he didn’t come riding in a limousine and walking up the red carpet. No, God snuck quietly in through the backdoor, in through the servant’s entrance. God came as the fragile and helpless infant of peasants in a forgotten backwater corner of the world.
This is the claim of Christmas and it is wonderful enough in and of itself because it means that we serve a God who knows what life is like as a human being, who knows not only the beauty and joy of our lives but also the sadness and suffering. We pray to a God who knows the circumstances out of which we pray. Our God understands us because he has become one of us. Our God has compassion for us because our God has walked in our shoes.
That said, it’s one thing to understand the suffering of another and quite another thing to do something about it. I go to my doctor because I’m really sick with some nasty virus and my doctor tells me he knows exactly how I feel because he just spent two weeks himself as sick as a dog with the same virus I’ve now got. Unfortunately, he also tells me that there’s absolutely nothing he can give to me or do for me to help me feel better. I just have to wait it out. Great! It’s wonderful that my doctor can make me feel understood. How much more wonderful it would be, however, if he could make me feel better!
You see, Christmas is not only the celebration of the fact that God came to earth and entered into our suffering. No, Christmas points beyond itself, beyond itself to the fact that God ultimately came to earth to lead us out of our suffering. That’s why the biggest holiday in the church is not Christmas but Easter. In fact, if it hadn’t been for Easter, nobody would have ever dreamed of even celebrating Christmas. What would be the point of celebrating a God who came to earth to understand our suffering but ultimately did nothing about it?
All this came together for me last year when I was in Tahoe the week after Christmas at Zephyr Point, a place many of you know and love. On the grounds there one of the permanent residents had set up a Christmas display in his front yard which caught my attention because I’d never seen a Christmas display quite like it before. Out of simple wood he had made a feeding trough and a cross and then covered them both with white Christmas lights. That was it. No reindeer. No Santa. No red and green. No shepherds or wise men. No Mary and Joseph. Not even a baby.
To be honest, at first there was something unsettling about it. I don’t remember ever seeing those two images together before, the manger and the cross, and at first they didn’t seem to fit so well with one another. Eventually, however, this simple decoration became like smelling salts for me last Christmas. The cross standing over the manger jarred me out of that comfortable scene I’ve always been drawn to this season – the warm hay, the smiling child, the glow of it all. It was a reminder I knew I needed every Christmas. If you’ve been by my house this December you know that I built my own manger and cross to help me remember once again.
God was indeed born to a young virgin late one night in the town of Bethlehem and wrapped in cloths and laid in a manger. But God didn’t stay in the manger. The child grew to become a man, a remarkable man who went around ancient Palestine teaching and performing supernatural signs. His teaching was full of unprecedented authority. His miracles brought healing and life to the sick and the dead. Eventually, the revolution of love he came to inaugurate became too threatening to those in power who liked things the way they were and so they condemned him to be executed. His mother Mary was there at the foot of the cross that day and watched as they took her son and drove nails through his hands and his feet.
At the time nobody understood that what was happening to him was supposed to happen. The Son of God and been born in Bethlehem for this purpose, so that one day he could give his life for the salvation and healing of the world. He did not come only to experience the brokenness of this world but came so that on the cross he would take all the brokenness, the sin and even the death of us all, upon himself so that one day we could be set free from it all. When he rose from the dead three days later people began to finally understand. Even today people are still beginning to understand.
The first candle we lit this season is the candle of hope. In Christ we have the gift of hope. We don’t have to wish or wonder about what is to come. We have hope, this unwavering confidence that God, through Christ, will in time set everything right again in this world.
The second candle we lit this season is the candle of peace. In Christ we have the gift of peace. Because of the cross there is no longer hostility between us and God. You have been forgiven. So have I.
The third candle we lit this season is the candle of joy. In Christ we have the gift of joy. We will not always be happy. However, if you know Christ you know a joy that runs deeper than even the most terrible circumstances we might ever face in this life.
The fourth candle we lit this season is the candle of love. In Christ we have the gift of love. No matter who you are, no matter what you have done, you are already, even tonight, a friend of God. There is nothing you can ever do to make God love you any more than he already does and nothing you can ever do to make him love you any less.
Tonight we light the final candle, the center candle, the Christ candle. It’s the biggest candle because it represents the biggest gift by far. It is the center candle because it is the central gift, the one through which all the other gifts become available. Because this baby left the manger and grew to become a man who give his life for the world on the cross, these are the true gifts available to all who believe, to all who have faith: eternal hope, perfect peace, everlasting joy, and unconditional love.
 I’m stealing this analogy from N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 21.