Sunday, December 24, 2017

In those days …

Luke 2:1-20

In that time, in that place, and with those people, God intervened human history. I was struck this year by how specifically Luke tells the story of Jesus’ birth. Here what Luke says:

In that time: In those days … while they were there … the time came … this day …

In that place: Nazareth … Bethlehem …. In that region …in the fields … in this city … in the manger … not in the inn / upper room

With or through these people: Emperor / Caesar… Quirinius … Mary and Joseph … descendant of David … angels … shepherds …

Luke sites the story of Jesus in a very particular time and place, with very specific people. The birth occurs in a place important to Jewish history, the city King David came from. Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, is a descendant of that same King David. Tradition holds that the next messiah will come from David’s family.

We are used to the translation from the Greek word kataluma into English as inn. We read, there was no room in the inn. But the same word is translated elsewhere in Luke as upper room. This room is on the second floor of many houses, and used for storage and as a guest room. It’s the same type of room, the same Greek word, for the location of Jesus last supper.

Because of the census, there were extra people in town, so the guest room in the family home was already occupied by another family. Many homes of that time and later had two sections, one for their animals, the other for the family. There was a divider between the sections with troughs or mangers for feed along the top of the divider, making the animal side of the house a stable. To protect their animals, families often brought them inside at night to protect them from wolves and theft. In the winter, the animals kept the house warm.

The animal area was kept clean, and it was a more private place for the birth than the middle of the living area. The manger made a perfect place to keep a baby safe and warm when he is not being held. By the way, Luke doesn’t mention it, but there was probably a midwife present, either someone in the family or a professional in the town.

Once the baby is born, angels appear to some shepherds in a nearby field. Shepherds were smelly people, because sheep are smelly. They are social outcasts, because they are suspected of being thieves. The angels tell the shepherds about the birth of the messiah, sing praise songs and disappear. The shepherds decide on their own to visit the baby, then leave the home and tell everyone what they have seen on their way back to the field.

This story is so specific because Luke wants people to know it really happened. It seems so far away in time and distance and possibility that it can sound to us more like a fairy tale. How do you respond to it? Do you believe it happened?

If this event were happening today, would you believe it? What if Mary lives in the woods near here, because her family lost their home during the recession. What if Mary lives in the Barrios of Los Angeles. What if Mary lives in modern Bethlehem, Israel. Now, would you believe it?

If you were an IRS agent, or a fisherman, or construction worker, and angels appeared out of nowhere would you believe you were seeing angels? Would you believe their message that the Savior had just been born? And would you go into the woods, or into the Barrios, or to Bethlehem to see the baby? Would you tell your friends and neighbors? Would you tell your family members?

Tonight we hear good news, the same good news that has been told for the last 2,000 years. The Messiah, the Savior, has been born, to a young girl, in Bethlehem, under the reign of Caesar Augustus and Quirinius and Herod.

Tonight we remember that God loves each of us just as we are, just as everyone loves to hold and cuddle a newborn baby. In God’s eyes, we are that baby that God loves to hold and cuddle. God wanted so much for us to know how much we are loved that God became human, just for us.  

Imagine tonight that you have gone to Bethlehem, to a small house, to visit a tiny baby. Tell Mary that you have been told he is the Messiah, the Savior, the Lord. Ask Mary if you can hold him, just for a minute. Reach out your hands to receive him. Tell him that you love him and will serve him for the rest of your life.

Give the baby back to his mother, and leave. As you head home, tell someone that you have just held the Savior of the world and want to share the experience with them.

Please pray with me. Jesus, you came into the world to teach us what true love is. Help us to love you, and to love others you put into our lives. Amen


Luke 1:26-38, 46b-55

It’s finally here, the kind of scripture reading we have been waiting for all Advent. This event, this meeting between Gabriel and Mary, happened 9 months ago, give or take a few days. Many Christians observe the feast of the Annunciation on March 25, assuming Jesus cooperated by being born exactly 9 months after conception.

As with the birth of all babies, we have looked forward to this day with joy and anticipation. As an expectant mother, with July due dates and no air conditioning, I could hardly wait for my sons to be born so I could put them down. I could hardly wait to hold them and feed them and have my arm fall asleep while they napped in my lap.

I can hardly imagine the anticipation Mary has felt for the last nine months. And now the day is here. Tonight we can talk about the birth, but this morning, we are still waiting. We can imagine that Mary’s birth pains will soon begin, today, but not yet.

I know this coincidence of the Fourth Sunday in Advent coinciding with Christmas Eve, has happened before, but it is not common. This morning, we focus on the angel’s announcement and Mary’s response. In earlier verses, the same angel, Gabriel, appeared to Zechariah and told him that he and his wife Elizabeth were finally going to have a baby, and that the baby would be special.

Old Zechariah must have used a tone of skepticism as he said, “How can that be?!” because Gabriel told him he would be mute for the next nine months, until John was born. Despite his skepticism, Elizabeth does become pregnant.

Does Mary know about this pregnancy? Probably not, because Gabriel tells her about it. When Gabriel tells Mary she will become pregnant with the Messiah, her tone of voice must have been, not skepticism but wonder, amazement, as she, too, says, “How can this be?!”

What does she do? Most likely, she tells her mother and father. And then she goes off to see Elizabeth, so the two women can share something incredible. When women are together and pregnant or have young children, they talk about their pregnancies, their morning sickness, their cravings, and their challenges. These two mothers have an additional topic, the divine involvement in their pregnancies. They can share in the anticipation of these special children.

Mary stayed with Elizabeth for a few months, until John was born, and Elizabeth was recovered from the delivery. While she is there, Mary sings the song we call the Magnificat, the song we sang as the Psalm today [My Soul Proclaims Your Greatness]. Magnificat is a Latin word that means to glorify. Mary sings, my soul gives glory to the Lord.

From this song, we know that Mary understands the reason God is sending Jesus to us.
Mary feels blessed to have been chosen by God over the thousands of girls in Israel at that moment. Mary rejoices in this blessing. She also anticipates the day when God’s blessings will be revealed to the whole world.

There will be radical changes coming, with the coming of this baby. The rich will lose their fortunes and the power that comes with it. The poor, in contrast, will finally have enough to eat, a decent place to live, and so forth. Divine mercy will be known and promises fulfilled. Over the centuries, poor and oppressed people have anticipated divine justice for their lives, even if they don’t get human justice. This song confirms it.

Two thousand years later, it often doesn’t look like things have changed. The powerful still have most of the money and most of the power. There are still wars and rumors of war. Global climate change is creating chaos with the weather around the world. Because of the Internet we know everything happening around the world in an instant, even if it is not true. Because of worldwide travel, illnesses travel around the world too.

We need a Savior as much today as the people of Israel did 2,000 years ago. But, just as the first believers discovered, the coming of the Savior does not mean a military leader. The coming of the Savior does not mean the powers-that-be will suddenly lose power. The coming of the Savior does not mean all will suddenly be well.

The coming of the Savior does mean we know that God loves us. The coming of the Savior does mean we know God loves us no matter what. The coming of the Savior does mean we are forgiven and made right with God with just our acceptance of God’s love.

Love and forgiveness and justice are the anticipated gifts of Jesus’ coming to earth. Today, as we anticipate celebrating once more the birth of our Savior, let’s spend some time considering the meaning of his coming into our lives.

Let’s look around for the places where God’s justice and mercy is being expressed – through the ministries of outreach of St John Lutheran Church. We give food and clothing and blankets and school supplies and teddy bears to people in need.

Let’s look around and see God’s justice and mercy expressed through our connection with Love INC, the Florida Bahamas Synod, the ELCA, and our companion synods, especially Haiti.

And, let’s look around this congregation and in our families. See where God’s love is noticeable, and how important mercy and forgiveness is to us as we live in community.

Please pray with me. Lord, we are filled with anticipation at the celebration of your birth again tonight. Fill us with your love, lead us to share in your mercy, and send us out to share you with all we know. Amen