Friday, December 22, 2006

The Nativity of Our Lord, December 25, 2006, Luke 2:1-20,


Christmas Day, 2006

St. John’s Lutheran Church, Howard, SD

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, 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, and on earth peace, good will toward men. And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them. (Luke 2:1-20, KJV)

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Well, it is finally Christmas. The time has arrived; the packages and presents have been opened. It is a joyous season, a very joyous holiday. It’s nice to have family around, all the holiday hassle seems to be worth it as we see our families sitting with us around the dinner table. The hours of work, Christmas baking, shopping and wrapping are all behind us. It all seems, at that moment, to have been worth it. Next month is a different story… But, today is Christmas! It is almost an anti-climax. Our attention has been very focused on our gifts, our families, and wondering if it will really be a ‘white Christmas.’ It’s easy to get wrapped up in the holiday, the family gift exchange, and the Christmas tree. It is wonderful that so many people celebrate this day… the day that a baby was born in Bethlehem. It’s great that people, who don’t even believe, celebrate. It has truly become a part of our American culture.

All the lights, all the carols, all the glitter and decorations, the sense of community… peace on earth; now to be sure, there’s nothing wrong with any of that stuff and it’s great to enjoy it, as a matter of fact we should! We should enjoy it; we should revel in it, even more than anyone else. But don’t forget that for some this holiday is only a time for family… only a time for gift exchanges… only a time to wish peace on the world. But, for us it is different. As we listen to this very familiar story we should remember the most important words that are in it.

For unto you… for you…

It is these words that reach out across time and drag us back to the dark fields where shepherds stood and trembled. It is these words that make the rag wrapped baby shivering in the cold important. It is these words that tell us that something wonderful has truly happened. And that it has all happened, for us.

But still the message of Christmas is wrapped up in the tinsel and paper of the season. Sometimes we find it hard to remember what the season really means… for us. Maybe if we were actually there, standing in that field with the Shepherds, we’d have a better appreciation of that message. Maybe if we understood what it meant for the shepherds maybe we’d better understand what it means for us.

The night was dark, not dark like here, where even the lights of Howard fade out the blackness of the sky, (How many of you went out of town last week to see the Aurora?) but really dark, like black velvet. Each star in the sky can be seen clearly as a pinpoint of light. There is time to notice each one. Shepherds have one single luxury in their lives… time to think, and time to contemplate the universe and especially their place in it. Because, for a shepherd, the world isn’t a very welcome place. It isn’t just the smell of sheep that keeps people away. Their occupation is on the very bottom rung. Little boys didn’t grow up wanting to be a shepherd. People who were shepherds were outcasts. They weren’t welcome in town. They weren’t allowed at social gatherings.

To say that the appearance of an angel to shepherds was surprising is to not say it strong enough. It is nothing short of miraculous. It certainly surprised everyone who heard about it later, And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But maybe the most surprised were the shepherds themselves. They were certainly afraid. They knew their place in the society of the day; they also knew their place before God. Few people would have the perspective of shepherds in that respect. Certainly not people who were accepted.

Maybe this is where we have trouble with the story. Maybe we don’t see ourselves standing there trembling in the presence of God, like they were. Maybe we don’t identify with them. We more likely account ourselves among the Kings. That’s our pride isn’t it? What the shepherds understood, that maybe we don’t, is exactly what it means to be outcasts, to be separated. Most of us have been in the ‘presence of God’ our whole lives. Most of us were baptized as young children and have never felt ‘apart’ from God. But as surly as their social standing kept the shepherds out in the fields, sin pushes human beings away from God.

From that problem we ourselves are not immune. It’s easy to see the ‘shepherds’ around us. Undesirable people… the lazy and unemployed, who spend their money on lottery tickets and cheap beer. People who don’t care about their appearance. People we prefer to help from a distance. What we don’t like is to see those undesirable traits in ourselves. Well, we know they are there. We just don’t like to admit it in the open. But we know our selfishness, our proud attitudes, our tempers… our sin. Sin is no respecter of social class. The sin that plagues shepherds is the very same as the sin plagues you and me. When we stand in the presence of God, our sin deserves punishment. If we understood that clearly we too, would tremble there with the shepherds.

“Don’t be afraid!” the angels said. In spite of what you deserve, there is Good News for you!” It’s good news for shepherds, outcasts from Jewish society. They were sinful people keenly aware of their status, keenly aware of their sin. “In fact this Good News is so good that it is for everyone!” It’s for shepherds… it’s for me… it’s for you!

For you… today… Christmas day… a Savior has been born. God will not tolerate sin and its effects on people. He can not have his beloved people separated, and outcast from him. What makes Christmas day Good News is that Jesus Christ, God’s answer to sin, is born for you! The very same Jesus, found by the shepherds in the stable, is found there for you. The very same Jesus, who gave himself up to the cross for shepherds, has given himself up to the cross for you. Sin that troubles you has lost its power, because of Jesus, born to Mary and announced to shepherds. Because of Jesus, who’s first home on earth was a place for animals, and whose first visitors were outcast shepherds, you have a place with God, and your sin will not separate you from him.

Do you need more than that? There is more… it’s one thing to look back to a time so far removed from us, to a dark field flooded by the light of angels, and to try to see what that means for us. It is one thing to picture in our minds God made flesh, wiggling in a manger surrounded by shepherds, sheep, and cows. It is quite another thing altogether, to have him here present with us right now. But Jesus Christ is here with us now just as he promises. “I am your Savior, where two or three are gathered in my name I am with you. My very body which was laid in a manger, which was given for shepherds, is given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. Take it and eat it. Touch it and feel it.”

So what effect did this message have on the shepherds? What did it mean for them that God had sent a savior for them? They went around telling everyone what God had done. They shared it ‘abroad,’ everywhere! People everywhere where amazed. Maybe you can even imagine what they said. “The Savior of the world has come! He has come for us! He has come for you!” Notice how it doesn’t say that the shepherds shared their story with only other shepherds. They shared it with everyone, regardless of social class and status. They may have returned to their sheep, they may have returned to their regular jobs, but they were completely changed. The angel’s message that first filled them with fear now filled them with joy. That joy overflowed all around them. I can’t imagine the fields around Bethlehem being quite the same ever again.

Have we been changed like the shepherds were? Is our joy in Christmas wrapped up in the gift exchange, the lights and carols? Or do we shout out with joy that a Savior has been born for us. Will we return to our work places the same as we were before, or will we announce to everyone the Good News, like the shepherds did?

Joy to the world the Lord is come! Shout it out loud. Sing it to the rafters. Remember what it means that ‘God and sinners are reconciled.’ Glorify God for what you have seen and heard on this day. This Christmas day when God announces to shepherds and to you that Jesus is born… for you. Amen.

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