Each year people all over the world take the journey to Christmas in search of the true meaning of this special time of the year. For many of us it begins at Thanksgiving. For some of us – like my family – it begins with deer season as each man aims for a rack of antlers that would out shine Santa’s reindeers.
More often than not Christmas begins with trees, lights, evergreen rope, music, food, figurines, candles, and stockings. We plan parties and meals with spirits to ring in the cheer of the holiday season. We begin our yearly shopping spree that takes many of us right up until Christmas Day to satisfy all the wants and wishes of family and friends.
For us here at West Point UMC, we began this Advent Season with the Hanging of the Greens Service. We remembered and acknowledged each of the traditional worship elements that remind us of the Christmas season from singing carols to Scripture readings to the candles in the windows and the Advent wreath to the nativity to the tree with the children’s ornaments to the manger scene outdoors to the Cantata service last Sunday. And, we remembered the meaning behind each one. We have taken this journey through Advent together, remembering how important it is for us to understand our Christian heritage, and why we do the things we do. Otherwise, the things we do loose there Christian meaning.
And, with the beginning of our Advent Season also came the discovery that there are people missing from our manger, the prophets who foretold of the Christ’s coming. And, together we have listened to the message of the prophet Isaiah. And, today is no exception. Today we’ve heard yet another text from Isaiah proclaiming the Good News in the midst of a difficult journey. The exiles have returned to rebuild their place of worship, and now is the time for songs. The stage has been set, and now is the time for the long awaited Savior to appear.
Just as the heroes of our story are returning to their homeland after a season of loss and weeping so do we. We stand at the precipice of Christmastime after having experienced a very sad loss in our community. The meaning of the Christmas story seems to become disconnected at times like these. The world goes on while we sit right in the middle of the transition between what was and what will be. But, that’s true of the real story of Christmas. The true story of Christmas is not painless. It’s messy. This Christmas tale is a story that is full of adventures that Jesus’ mom and dad never could have imagined.
And, this story of adventures all began at the very beginning of time and space, when the foundation of the earth was created. You and I were only a glimmer of what was to come in the eyes of our God. He thought of us, but we had not been born yet. He knew us still, and all the sorrowful tales that this life would bring us. Yet, God created us still. God knowing that age after age of humanity, we would all fall into sin and death, fighting wars and fighting amongst ourselves. But that did not stop our God from creating what he knew would be his master design. God was so sure of his plan and its goodness that he included himself in the storyline.
And, he wrote his plan in the hearts of some men and women who would proclaim his plan to the world – they would be called prophets. God would become a prophet to his own people – and its Savior. He would join his creation, and become like those he created. He would honor what he created, and provide a way for all creation to be saved – if they so desired.
God had a plan, and that plan has always included the gift of choice. Men and women throughout all time and space have had the gift to decide for themselves whether they would stand with their Creator, or die for themselves. Either way would be a fitting ending that would honor the Creator.
Our passage today is a story of homecoming… a story of an awakening. This passage is smack dab in the middle of the prophet Isaiah’s writings. The Israelites have sinned against God, and God has allowed the people to be captured by their enemies. The Israelites have been given permission to return to their homeland to rebuild the place of worship. And, some choose to return to rebuild the place of worship, but are distracted with rebuilding the city and community instead of the Temple. It is then that they learn that their work is to rebuild the place of worship, and it was God’s work to rebuild the community. Once they refocus their efforts on worshiping God, the Israelites are given hope for all eternity when God sends his servant to save them.
This story of exile and homecoming is the same story that Jesus will learn as a child, and will understand as his destiny. This tiny baby was destined to provide opportunities for many people to come home. Beginning with Jesus’ own homecoming.
And, in the Christmas story our first journey is from a town called Nazareth to a small community called Bethlehem, Joseph’s hometown. Joseph is coming home for a mandated census. The ruler is counting his people. As Joseph and Mary approach the small village of Bethlehem, her body prepares to have her child. She is in the final stages of labor.
They have journeyed across the land by sea or mountain trail – both would have made for a difficult journey for a full term pregnancy. And, as they approach the city the child stirs in her womb. The baby awakens in her womb, and labor beginnings. It is here in Joseph’s hometown that they will find no room for shelter. No one who will open the door to this young woman who is in labor, even a young woman having her first child. This is not the kind of homecoming one would expect.
Historically, the early church fathers believed the manger was a cave on the hillside of Bethlehem where sheep were corralled at night to protect them from harm. Whether a building or a cave, the place would have been a humble space – smelly with the flesh of animals and manure. Truly, this would have been an unexpected homecoming. The shepherds who visited were most likely the kind of sheep keepers that might even have been distant kinfolk in Jesus’ family tree.
This unexpected homecoming was met with the occurrence of a bright, and shining star in the heavens. There is one heavenly event that can be dated to about the time of Christ in 6 B.C. Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars could be spotted close together in the heavens, forming a triangle of heavenly light. This constellation became very special to the Hebrew people as it was said to have been present at the time of the birth of Moses.
And, through this adventure were the prophets of the day – Elizabeth, Simeon, and Anna. Elizabeth declared that young Mary’s baby was her Lord, and the cause for her child, John, to leap for joy in her womb. And, on the eighth day the parents, Mary and Joseph, took the child Jesus to the place of worship to consecrate him as holy to the Lord through the act of circumcision.
There in the temple, the prophet Simeon and the prophetess Anna proclaimed the Good News about Jesus. Simeon spoke the words of the coming Salvation through Jesus, while at the same time he spoke the difficult truth of the pain and suffering that would be theirs. Anna, an 84-year-old prophetess, rejoiced at the redemption of Israel and spoke to all who would listen about the child.
And, others would visit the child who would proclaim Jesus as the fulfillment of the Scriptures, the magi from the east. The inquire of King Herrod as to the whereabouts of the newborn king of the Jews, expecting the king to have an heir to the thrown who would fulfill the prophecy about King David’s inheritance. God promised King David that he would always have an heir on the thrown in Israel. And, Jesus was the fulfillment of that declaration.
And, after these days came another day. A day of pain and suffering that would mark the community for a lifetime. The king grew jealous of the prophecies, and tired of the words that threatened his kingdom. And, so it was that King Herod order all the children in Bethlehem and the surrounding territory who were two years and younger to be killed. The death of so many children is unthinkable. And, one child escaped this massacre – the baby Jesus.
And, in his young childhood Jesus was raised in Egypt until the bad King Herod died. What a hardship living in another country must have been for the young couple with a tiny toddler in tow. After this event we don’t hear much about the family, or there life struggles. History is quiet about their comings and goings until Jesus begins his ministry. We can only imagine their lives as everyday citizens – working, living, and learning together.
What we do know is at the end of the Christmas narrative the manger is empty. The baby grows to become a man. It is easy for us to romanticize the Christmas story, and make it to be a cute little nativity we can put on our mantle or place under our tree. We like it when we can manage the story of God, and keep God in his proper place in our lives.
We let God become big only if it benefits us – we like our God big when we have troubles we can’t handle. But when we live our everyday lives, we prefer God to stay in his place in the manger where we can manage his behavior. We prefer God to be predictably absent in our daily lives, only visible at the last minute of our need.
We like it when God is invisible to us taking care of the business in the background and the shadows. Most of us don’t like it when God starts toddling around in our business. When we get corrected, we find ourselves in a foul disposition. We may even smack his hand, and put him back in his place just like a toddler.Our journey is now completed. We have traveled all this way – from Nazareth to Bethlehem. We have been in the company of a young woman named Mary and her husband Joseph. We have stood in the fields with shepherds. We have heard from the angels, prophets, and kings. We have ventured to smell the aroma of the stench of the manger were Christ Jesus was born.
And, we have discovered the risks of celebrating Christmas with all the pomp and circumstances… that it may lead to distorting the real story if we do not keep the truth alive in our hearts. We’ve heard the stories over and over, and we risk telling our children a distorted version of the truth, as well as believing in a God that doesn’t look anything like what we have created him to be. Humbling isn’t it.
Let us attend to our Christmas this year with a bit of humility. The babe in a manger has always meant more than mere human being could possible understand. You’ll find the story of Christmas in the first two chapters of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospel. This Christmas let us remember that the manger is empty, and Christ Jesus is the Resurrected King over all the creation. †