12.24.17 Christmas Eve Sermon: On This Night

Luke 2:1-20 (NRSV)

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 Saviour, 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 favours!’

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.

I love weepy Christmas movies. 

For a little while, I am dragged into an impossible plot, one that I know the end to, and yet can’t help watching it to the end. 

I will cry and laugh.. the full range of emotions. 

And one more important thing: I put myself in the plot. Maybe I am the main character.. yes usually I identify w/ the main woman character.. just as if it is all happening to me: the highs, the lows, the happy ending.

So tonight.. and every Christmas eve of all of our lives, I want to ask you, how often have you imagined yourself in the Christmas story? 

Maybe you were Mary or Joseph 

or the shepherd or the inn keeper, 

or the nosey neighbors? 

What must it have been like.. 

either in the romanticized version… 

or a more stark historically correct version. 

What was it really like? 

What would it have been like to have been there? 

to BE there?

Well this Story comes around every year.. 

and every year I do believe 

we are MEANT to put ourselves in the story… 

because it is a story FOR us, ABOUT us, 

WITH us, and IN us. 

It’s a story where we know the beginning 

before Jesus is even born..   

we see it coming …

when the angel visits Mary, 

we say “I know, I know! Mary! 

“the angel is going to tell you you’re going to get pregnant in a supernatural way and you’re going to be astonished, and Joseph wont’ believe you, and you’ll go away from your home to have your baby and then have to flee to Egypt.”

We know these things so well… we love them.. 

we depend on them .. like the time of day. 

If we were to show up at the Pearly Gates 

and St. Peter’s entrance test was 

‘tell me about Jesus’ birth’, 

we’d pass with flying colors!

But truth to tell, if we are honest, 

the story is a long way from our reality. 

Over 2,000+ years ago is a long time ago..

And yet… there is this clause:  for all people.

 “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….”

All people. All people. Everywhere. Every time in history. 

That means us… and a whole lot more.

OK… we get that. But “a Savior” .. 

who is “the Messiah, the Lord…”

That’s a little trickier. Those are ancient words.. words that held meaning for another religion.. another culture.. another epoch in history.

Can we REALLY put ourselves in the story if we don’t understand the message as it was given?

One man who believed passionately that in order to understand the biblical story from the inside out (we do indeed need to see ourselves in the story… we need to be surprised by this story, and challenged by it and  angered and afraid of it, and in awe of it… because that’s what it was meant to be and do…) 

… that man lived in Georgia in the worst of the segregated south in the 20th century. His name was Clarence Jordan, and he was a New Testament Greek scholar, from Georgia. 

You see he really did know how to translate the original language of the story… 

… but he also knew that unless people could put themselves into the story and relate to it on their terms, 

they would never be impacted by it.. never be changed by it

(which after all, is the point!). 

If people (especially his Georgia  neighbors 

and government officials and pastors),  

didn’t really understand how powerful the story was..

how revolutionary and subversive it really was.. 

then he knew they would sanitize it 

and make it cute and sentimental.. 

something they could unpack once a year 

along with their home nativity sets 

and Christmas ornaments. 

If they didn’t really understand that this story 

and this baby would turn culture and history and religion

 upside down and backwards, 

then they would keep living life as usual .. 

and not do the radical things 

that the grown up baby Jesus 

asked his followers to do… 

like sell all they had and give to the poor, 

feed the hungry and clothe the naked, 

and be more concerned with the poor’s future 

than their own.

So this man, Clarence Jordan 

set about to re-translate from scratch 

the gospel of Luke from the Greek .. 

not only into English.. 

but into the everyday language 

of Georgia in the 1950’s. 

He used Georgia city names, 

and cast the down-and-out as the blacks, 

and the religious elite as the Baptist preacher 

and the Methodist Sunday School teacher.

Listen to a snippet of Luke 2 from Clarence Jordan’s 

CottonPatch Gospel

 It happened in those days that a proclamation went out from President Augustus that every citizen must register. This was the first registration while Quirinius was Secretary of War. So everybody went to register, each going to his own hometown. 

Joseph too went up from south Georgia from the city of Valdosta, to his home in north Georgia, a place named Gainesville, to register with his bride Mary, who by now was heavily pregnant.

 While they were there, her time came, and she gave birth to her first boy. She wrapped him in a blanket and laid him in an apple box. (There was no room for them at the hospital.)

  Now there were some farmers in that section who were up late at night tending their baby chicks. And a messenger from the Lord appeared to them, and evidence of the Lord was shining all about them. It nearly scared the life out of them. 

And the messenger said to them, "Don't be afraid; for listen, I'm bringing you good news of a great joy in which all people will share. Today your deliverer was born in the city of David's family. He is the Leader. He is the Lord. 

And here's a clue for you: you will find the baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in an apple box."

 And all of a sudden there was with the messenger a crowd of angels singing God's praises and saying,

 "Glory in the highest to God, And on Earth, peace to all of humanity!”

 When the messengers went away from them into the sky, the farmers said to one another, another, "Let's go to Gainesville and see how all this the Lord has showed us has turned out."

 So they went just as fast as they could, and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in an apple box. Seeing this, they related the story of what had been told them about this little fellow. The people were simply amazed as they listened to what the farmers told them. 

And Mary clung to all these words, turning them over and over in her memories. The farmers went back home, giving God the credit and singing his praise. 

* * * * * * *

THAT is getting inside the story .. THAT is making it relevant and challenging.

Now, I want YOU to think about doing that 

for tonight’s story:  

Who are the power brokers in our government today?

What backwaters town in Oregon, would Joseph and Mary be from? Beaver Creek?

And what would be the equivalent of the little town Bethlehem 70 miles away and right close to the capital? Turner? Rickreal? Indepedance?

For someone so poor and homeless, what would Mary use for a baby bed? A motel dresser drawer?

Who would the modern day shepherds be? Iranian convenience store clerks? Teenage fast food servers? Graveyard-shift janitors? Undocumented farm workers? 

And after having had THE most amazing god-filled, mystical experience that would be relayed for the next two thousand-plus years… 

WHO would listen to them? 

WHO would believe them?

Would you believe them?

If we TRULY see ourselves in the story… where are we? 

Who are we? 

Not who we THINK we would like to be .. 

but who are WE 

by virtue of our status and education 

and where we live and what we do?

HOW would OUR world EVER collide 

with the world of such lowly shepherds 

in our society today?

As I read the Christmas story this year… 

before I too quickly jump into the story 

and see myself all comfy and happy

 amongst lowing cattle, sheep and shepherds, 

and a serene Mary with her cuddly and beautiful baby… 

… I will ask myself:

Where am “I” honestly in this story’s setting? 

Do I know any fast food workers or midnight bathroom janitors to even ask about what they have experienced of God?

Would I believe them?    (pause)

Amen.

Pamela Nelson-Munson