Archives For Christmas Eve

20121204_knots-in-jesus-family-tree_banner_imgAbout 300 came out for our Bluegrass Christmas Eve at the Firehouse this year. Here’s the sermon I preached, taking Jesus’ genealogy that begins Matthew’s Nativity story as my text.

You can listen to the sermon here below, in the widget on the sidebar or you can download it in iTunes here.

Merry Christmas!

There’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story.

For example, about 10 years ago, the Sunday before Christmas, we staged a Christmas pageant at a little church I once served.

During dress rehearsal that morning, stomach flu had started to sweep through the heavenly host. When it came time for the angelic chorus to deliver their lines in unison: “Glory to God in the highest” you could hear Katie, a first- grade angel, vomiting her breakfast into the trash can over by the grand piano.

The sound of Katie’s wretching was loud enough so that when the other angels should’ve been proclaiming “and on earth peace to all the people” they were instead gagging and covering their noses.

(This sermon’s off to a promising start, isn’t it?)

Meanwhile, apparently bored by the angels’ news of a Messiah, two of the shepherds- both third-grade boys and both sons of wise men- started brawling on the altar floor next to the manger.

Their free-for-all prompted one of the wise men to leave his entourage and stride angrily up the sanctuary aisle, smack his shepherd son behind the ear and threaten: “Boy, Santa won’t be bringing Nascar tickets this year if you can’t hold it together.”

It was a little church.

(#blesstheirheart)

Truth be told, it had neither the numbers nor the talent to mount a production of the Christmas story; nonetheless, a brusque, take-charge mother, who was a new member in the congregation, had approached me about staging a pageant.

And because I was a rookie pastor and didn’t know any better- and honestly, because I was terrified of this woman- I said yes.

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The set constructed in the church sanctuary was made to look like the small town where we lived. So the Bethlehem skyline was dotted with Burger King, the local VFW, the municipal building, the funeral home and, instead of an inn, the Super 8 Motel. At every stop in Bethlehem someone sat behind a cardboard door. Joseph would knock and the person behind the door would declare: ‘Sorry, ain’t no room here.”

The old man behind the door of the cardboard VFW was named Fred. He was the oldest member of the congregation. He sat on a stool behind the set, wearing his VFW beret and chewing on an unlit cigarillo.

Fred was almost completely deaf and not a little senile so when Mary and Joseph came to him, they didn’t bother knocking on the door.

They just opened it up and asked the surprised-looking old man if he had any room for them to which he would respond by looking around at his surroundings  as though he were wondering how he’d gotten there.

For some reason, the magi were responsible for their own costumes.

Thus, one wise man wore a white lab coat and carried a telescope. Another wise man was dressed like the WWF wrestler the Iron Sheik, and the third wise man wore a maroon Virginia Tech bathrobe and for some inexplicable reason had aluminum foil wrapped around his head.

King Herod was played by the head usher, Jimmy.

At 6’6 and wearing a crown and a white-collared purple robe and carrying a gold cane, Herod looked more like Kramer as an uptown gigilo than he did a biblical character.

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When it came time for the performance, I took a seat on the bench in the back of the sanctuary where the ushers normally sat and, gazing at the cast and the production design from afar, I briefly wondered to myself why I hadn’t gone to law school.

I sat down and King Herod handed me a program.

On the cover was the title: ‘The Story of the First Christmas.’ On the inside was a list of cast members’ names and their roles.

As the pageant began with a song lip-synced by the angels, the other usher for the day sat next to me. His name was Mike. He was an imposing, retired cop with salt-and-pepper hair and dark eyes.

Truth be told, he never liked me all that much.

Mike sat down, fixed his reading glasses at the end of his nose, opened his program and began mumbling names under his breath: Mary played by…Elizabeth played by…Magi #1 played by…

His voice was barely above a whisper but it was thick with contempt. I knew right then what he was getting at or, rather, I knew what had gotten under his skin.

There were no teenage girls in the congregation to be cast. So Mary was played by a grown woman- a grown woman who was married to a man more than twice her age.

She’d married him only after splitting up his previous marriage.

Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, was played a woman who was new to the church, a woman who often wore sunglasses to worship or heavy make-

up or who sometimes didn’t bother at all and just wore the bruises given to her by a boyfriend none of us had ever met.

Of the three magi, one of them had scandalized the church by ruining his father’s business.

Another was separated from his wife, but not legally so, and was living with another woman.

The man playing the role of Zechariah owned a construction company and had been accused of fraud by another member of the congregation.

The innkeeper at the Super 8 Motel…he was a lifelong alcoholic, alienated from his grown children and several ex-wives.

Reluctantly shepherding the elementary-aged shepherds was a high school junior. He’d gotten busted earlier that fall for drug possession. His mother was dressed as an angel that day, helping to direct the heavenly host. Her husband, her boy’s father, had walked out on them a year earlier.

Mike read the cast members’ names under his breath. Then he rolled up his program and he poked me with it and, just when the angel Gabriel was delivering his news to Mary, Mike whispered into my ear:

    Who picked the cast for this? Who chose them?

     Then he shook his head in disgust and accused me:

     Do you really think this is appropriate?

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There’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story- I mean, the Christmas stories aren’t all the same.

For example, St. Mark is the oldest of the Gospels but all Mark says about Christmas is that the coming of Jesus is the beginning of one Kingdom and the end of another.

St John, on the other hand, begins his Christmas story with cryptic philosophy: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.’

St Luke weaves the most popular nativity story. His is the story you probably know, telling us about the days of Caesar Augustus, about a tax and a census.

Luke’s the one who tells us about angels heard on high and shepherds watching their flocks by night.

But Matthew, by contrast, begins his Christmas story, not with angels or emperors, with an ad from www.ancestory.com:

“An account of the genesis of Jesus the Messiah…Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar…”

Matthew gives us sixteen verses of ‘so and so was the father of so and so’ before we ever even hear the angel Gabriel spill the news about the Messiah’s birth. I wanted to read it all tonight but my wife said that would be sermon suicide. Matthew tells the Christmas story not with emperors or angels or shepherds. Matthew doesn’t bother mentioning how the baby’s wrapped in scraps of cloth and laid in feed trough.

Instead what Matthew gives us is a family tree, 42 generations’ worth of boring, snore-fest begats. Begats that go back all the way to the first promise God ever made to bless the world.

It’s as if Matthew wants to say:

Everything about Christmas

Every promise this Christ child offers you

Every word of good news that comes spoken to us in Emmanuel- all of it can be found in his family tree just as easily as you can find it in his stable.

The funny thing about Jesus’ family tree- there are no branches with the cast of characters you’d choose for a Christmas story. Jesus’ family tree is filled with the sorts of people you’d expect to see on TMZ not in a nativity.

If God were to take human flesh you’d expect him to take the flesh of a much different family.

For instance-

There’s Abraham, who tried to cut his son Isaac’s throat. Issac survived to be the father of Jacob, an unscrupulous but entertaining character who won his position in Jesus’ family line by lying and cheating his blind, old father.

Jacob got cheated himself when he ‘got to know’ the wrong girl by mistake and became the father of Judah. Judah made the same mistake with his own daughter-in-law, Tamar.

Tamar had cheated him by disguising herself as a prostitute.

(I mean: Hebress with a heart of gold)

I’m telling you: these aren’t the sort of people you’d invite for Christmas.

There’s a man named Boaz in Jesus’ family tree. Boaz was seduced by a foreigner named Ruth. He woke up in the middle of night and found Ruth climbing in to bed with him. Not that Boaz ought to have been shocked. His mother, Matthew tells us, was Rahab, a ‘working girl’ who betrayed her people.

Boaz’s son was the grandfather of David.

David was a power-hungry peeping-tom, who spied on Bathsheba bathing on a rooftop one evening. David arranged for her husband, Uriah, to be murdered. David and Bathsheba went to become the parents of Solomon, the next name in the family tree of Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Of course, the family tree ultimately winds its way to Joseph.

Joseph, who, Matthew makes no bones to hide, wasn’t the father of Jesus at all. He was just the fiance of the boy’s mother- Mary, the teenage girl with a child on the way and no ring on her finger.

There’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story.

Matthew doesn’t tell us about shepherds filled with good news. Matthew doesn’t bother with imperial politics or mangers filled with straw or inns with no vacancy.

     Instead Matthew tells us the Christmas story by first telling us about the messy and the embarrassing and the sordid and the complicated and the disappointing and the unfaithful parts of Jesus’ family.

     And then, having said all that, Matthew tells us this baby is Emmanuel, God- with-us, God-for-us, as one of us, in the flesh.

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Do you really think this is appropriate? Mike asked me and then gestured with the rolled up program of names.

As if to say…when it comes to Christmas shouldn’t we at least try to find some people who are a bit more pious, people whose families are a bit less complicated, people whose lives are less messy?

The narrator for the Christmas pageant that year was a woman whose name, ironically, was Mary.

She was old and incredibly tiny, no bigger than the children that morning wearing gold pipe cleaner halos around their heads. Emphysema was killing Mary a breath at a time. She had to be helped up to the pulpit once the performance began. I’d spent a lot of hours in Mary’s kitchen over the time I was her pastor, sipping bad Folger’s coffee and listening to her tell me about her family.

About the dozen miscarriages she’d had in her life and about how the pain of all those losses was outweighed only by the joy of the child she’d grafted into her family tree. About the husband who died suddenly, before the dreams they’d had together could be checked-off the list. About her daughter’s broken marriage. And about her two grandsons who, in the complicated way of families, were now living with her.

Mary was the narrator for the Christmas story that year.

As the children finished their lip-synced opening song, and as the shepherds and angels and wise men took their places, and as Billy climbed into his make- shift throne, looking more like a Harvey Keitel pimp than a King Herod- Mary struggled up to the pulpit.

Her oxygen tank sat next to her in a wheeled cart. Her fierce eyes were just barely visible above the microphone but from my seat there in the back I was sure she was staring right at her family.

With her blood-thinner-bruised hands she spread out her script and in a soft, raspy voice she began to tell the story, beginning not with Luke or with John but with Matthew, the Gospel of Matthew.

I wouldn’t have chosen Matthew for a Christmas pageant, but there’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story.

The cadence of Mary’s delivery was dictated by the mask she had to put over her face every few seconds to fill her lungs with air:

“All this took place…(breath)…to fulfill what had been spoken by the prophet…(breath)…they shall name him Emmanuel…(breath)…which means…(breath)…God with us.”

Do you really think this is appropriate? Mike asked me through gritted teeth.

     And sitting in the back, I looked at Mary behind the pulpit and I looked at all the other fragile, compromised people from our church family who were dressed in their costumes and waiting to deliver their part of the Gospel.

     ‘Appropriate?’ I whispered back.

‘No. No, I think it’s perfect.‘

And Mike glared at me, red-faced.

‘There’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story’ I said with a smile.

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I never stepped foot inside a church until a Christmas Eve service when I was teenager.

Growing up my father was a severe alcoholic. He was in and out of our lives. My parent’s marriage was down and up and down and then it was over. I have an uncle who was in prison every other Christmas.

     And, honestly, every year I just about wreck my own family’s Christmas because I can’t get over- can’t forgive- that baggage.

What I mean to say is-

I know how its easy to suspect that this holiday isn’t really for you.

I know how easy it is to worry you don’t belong, to think that at Christmas you have to dress up and come to a church service and pretend for an hour that  you’re someone else, pretend your family is different than it really is behind closed doors.

I know how easy it is to believe that at Christmas- especially in this place- you have to hide the fact that you’re not good enough, that you don’t have enough faith, that you have too many secrets, that you have too much doubt, that if God knew who you really were, what you had done and what you have left undone, then he wouldn’t be born for you.

I know how easy it is to think that the Christmas story is not your story.

But then, there’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story.

This family tree Matthew gives us- you might think it an odd way to tell the Christmas story.

     I mean there’s no two ways about it- Jesus’ family is messed up.

     But then again, so is mine and, probably, so is yours.

And God- I want you to know it so badly: that’s the gift given tonight in Emmanuel.

And it’s a gift Matthew doesn’t think needs to be wrapped in angels’ songs

or mangers filled with straw. The gift given tonight is that God comes to you and to me just as we are. Not as we wish we could be. Not as we used to be. Not as others think we should be. Not as our parents or our spouses or our children or our neighbors or our bosses think we should be.

No.

There’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story and what Matthew has to tell you is that:

Tonight Emmanuel

God-with-us

Comes to us

Just as you are.

We call it grace.

Take if from me, that’s the only gift that can change you.

 

Christmas Eve Sermon

Jason Micheli —  January 4, 2013 — Leave a comment

20121222-173929A lot of you have asked about a podcast from the Christmas Eve service. If you weren’t there, the format followed something more like the arc of a play with ‘the sermon’ being drawn out over the course of the service in vignettes using actors. For that reason, it’s been tricky to get a good recording.

Here’s a video from one of the 5 services.

Here’s audio of just my portion of the sermon. It’s also in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

Below is the full script of the sermon and actors’ lines.

Merry Christmas. Only 1 day left of the season.

———————————————————————-

Believe

Opening 

You want to know a dirty, little secret?

There’s a whole lot of every Sunday church people who think its enough just to believe in God.

There’s a whole lot of religious folks who think they’ve done their job if they just believe that God exists.

But there’s a difference.

There’s a difference between believing in God and believing God.

There’s a difference between believing in God in here (the mind) and believing the promises of God in here (the heart).

There’s a difference between believing in God and believing God, believing God can be at work in your life, alive in you, fill what is missing in you and turn your world upside down.

And you want to know another secret?

That difference- that difference is the secret of the Christmas Story.

Act 1: Zechariah

[Zechariah kneeling, holding a bible, praying silently with incense] 

Everyone thinks the Christmas story begins with Mary and the angel Gabriel.

Not so.

The Christmas story begins months earlier with Jesus’ uncle.

A man named Zechariah, who’s a priest.

For generations Zechariah and his people have suffered at the hand of Caesar and his Empire. Rome.

And for generations they’ve prayed for God to send them someone to save them, to send them an Emmanuel, a Messiah.

Every day of his life Zechariah has prayed this prayer. He’s an old man now.

His prayer’s expiration date has long since passed and Zechariah has given up all hope that God will ever answer.

But one day, when Zechariah is in the Temple offering the same stale prayer he’s always prayed, God sends a message:

Gabriel: Zechariah…Zechariah….

  (Zechariah, falls back, completely startled and visibly shaken.)

  don’t be afraid. 

  Your prayers have been heard. 

  Your wife, Elizabeth, is going to have a son. 

  Name him John. 

  He’s going to bring you great joy and happiness, but that’s not all. 

      Your son will also be the Lord’s messenger. He will be the one to    prepare the people and make them ready for the One you’ve been      praying for for so many years, the Messiah.

Zechariah: (confused) But this is too much to believe! 

      Look how old I am! My wife, Elizabeth, too! 

      It’s much too late for those prayers to come true. 

Zechariah’s an every Sunday religious person.

Zechariah believed in God; he just didn’t believe God.

He’d given up believing God would ever answer his prayer, would ever work in his life.

And because he didn’t believe, the angel renders him mute.

(Zechariah, rendered mute, feels his mouth and tries to talk to no avail.)

He’s pushed to the sidelines. Because he didn’t believe God, Zechariah has to watch what God’s doing in the world from the outside looking in.

You want to know a secret? [Zechariah begins to take off costume]

Once you get past the incense and bible-timey, Raiders of the Lost Ark costume, Zechariah’s no different than you.

He’s just an old man who’s rubbed the same prayer raw.

Until he finally tossed it in the trash. [Chucks his bible off to the side]

Now I don’t know all of you. I only know the every Sunday folks.

Even still, I know enough of you to know there are Zechariah’s all over this room.

Sometimes-

Zechariah is a woman with cancer, convinced God’s not with her. Convinced God can’t beat it.

Sometimes-

Zechariah is a mom, who’s exhausted from praying the same prayer for her teenager and no longer believes that anything can be done for her.

A lot of times-

Zechariah is a husband and a wife, whose relationship has frayed past the point of repair and if anyone, angel or otherwise, told them anything different, then they’d react the very same way as Zechariah: ‘That’s too much to believe.’

There are Zechariah’s all over this room.

But hear the good news: Emmanuel does come. You’ve got to believe.

Act 2: Magi

The magi- the wise men- were Gentiles.

Meaning: they weren’t Jews.

Meaning: they didn’t know anything about God or God’s promise of a Messiah.

They were astronomers. Not priests or prophets.

They were men of science. Not faith.

They were men of cold, hard empirical facts, trial and error, objective observation.

They were the kinds of people that if you can’t see it with your own eyes, if you can’t hold it in your hands for yourself, if you can’t explain it rationally and back it up with evidence then it simply isn’t true.

It’s a fantasy we might still tell our children but we’ve outgrown it.

[Magi’s cell phone begins to ring underneath his costume…Magi picks up and begins to argue with his mom]

Jason: 

Um, excuse me. 

Magi: [to Jason]

Just a sec. 

Jason: 

I’m kind of in the middle of something here.  was just about to make my big point about how the magi were basically like all of us. 

[To Magi] 

What else do you guys have under there? [Magi pull out other gadgets] 

Magi: 

It’s not what you think…See, I’ve this Star-Finder App on my iPhone. That way, not only can I track the star I can research it on Wikipedia. I can learn about this obscure Jewish prophecy and Google maps can lead us right there to this King.

I bet you don’t know that the magi’s star charts- their reason and research, the latest technology- only gets them as far as Jerusalem.

It doesn’t get them to Bethlehem.

The wise men get lost. They miss Bethlehem by about 9 miles.

The wise men have to ask for directions, which implies they had some wise women with them too.

[female magi enter]

The wise men had to ask for directions.

Who do they have to ask?

Scribes. People who studied scripture. People of faith.

They’re the ones who point the magi in the right direction.

The magi believed in facts, in data, in human wisdom.

And maybe they believed in god the way you believe in gravity.

But that kind of belief only got them so far.

For them to find their way to Bethlehem, to make their way to the manger, they had to believe God.

To believe God’s promise about a little, no account town 9 miles beyond Jerusalem.

For them to make their way to the manger- they had to believe- believe God was doing things in this world they couldn’t see or prove, Google or Tweet, deduce or demonstrate.

They had to believe.

And so do you.

If you want to get close enough to the manger…

close enough to offer this God your best gift

close enough to see him at work in the world with your own two eyes

close enough to hold his presence within you

close enough for him to change your life in a way that resists all explanation

…if you want to get close to the manger, then you’ve got to take a leap of faith.

And believe.

Act 3: Mary

If you’re like me-

When you picture Mary, you picture like the Mona Lisa but dressed in pink and blue. You picture a 30-something woman who looks like Al Pacino’s Sicilian wife from Godfather Part II. Before she explodes.

If you’re like me, you picture this angel who’s glorious and not threatening at all even though he’s constantly having to say ‘don’t be afraid.’

And you picture Mary bowing down stoically ready to serve the Lord at a moment’s notice.

You picture something like this…[Overly dramatic and stoic]

Gabriel:

Mary! The Lord is with you! You are touched by his grace! Among all the women in the world you have been blessed.

Mary: (like she was expecting this)

Gabriel : 

You have found favor with God. Listen, you are going to have a Son. His name will mean: ‘God will save us.’ He will be the answer to your people’s prayers.

Mary: 

How can this be? 

Gabriel: 

The Holy Spirit will come upon you and overshadow you. That’s why this holy child is not just your son but is the Son of God. Remember Mary, the impossible is possible with God.

Mary: (Bowing stoically) 

You want to know a secret?

That’s not who Mary was. And that’s not how it went down.

Not at all.

[Mary removes her costume, revealing more ordinary and contemporary clothing]

According to tradition, Joseph was an older man, marrying Mary as a favor to her family because they couldn’t afford to provide for her.

According to Jewish Law, because Mary and Joseph were betrothed, any you-know-what before her wedding day would be considered adultery.

And now the angel Gabriel has just told Mary she’s expecting.

Not by Joseph.

By the Holy Spirit.

Just curious: if someone told you they were pregnant by the Holy Spirit, how likely would you be to believe them?

I didn’t think so.

That’s the dark side of the story we never picture when we picture Mary.

The angel’s news is news almost no one will believe.

And Mary’s got to know that the second Gabriel’s finished talking.

I’ll tell you what else a good Jewish girl, like Mary, would’ve known.

Mary would’ve known that if she was accused of adultery then, according to the Jewish Law, she would be brought before a priest.

She would be shamed publicly.

And then-under oath- she’d be forced to drink a mixture of ash, holy water and the ink from the priest’s written accusation against her.

If the drink made her sick, which was very likely, then she was guilty.

And if she was guilty, then she’d be stoned.

Mary would’ve known that the second the angel started talking.

She would’ve known that Joseph would be humiliated.

And she certainly would’ve known that her child would be regarded as illegitimate and banned as an outcast.

No matter what we picture when we picture Mary, that was the reality she knew.

And yet-

And yet when she hears Gabriel’s news: [Understated, Gabriel more empathetic, Mary more troubled]

Gabriel : 

Don’t be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God. 

Listen, you are going to have a Son. His name will mean: ‘God will save us.’ He will be the answer to your people’s prayers.

Mary:

How can this be…I’m not…I mean, I’ve never….how is this possible?

Gabriel: 

The Holy Spirit will come upon you and overshadow you. That’s why this holy child is not just your son but is the Son of God. Remember Mary, the impossible is possible with God.

Jason: And Mary replies…

Mary: 

‘May it be with me according to your word.’ 

Jason: In other words, Mary says…

Mary: 

‘Here I am God. I trust you.’ 

Don’t take it from me. Take it from Mary.

There is a big, life-changing, ante-up, make-or-break difference between just believing in God and believing God. 

Believing that, no matter how things look now, no matter what obstacles stand in your way, no matter what it seems life has dealt you, nothing is impossible.

Nothing is impossible. 

Nothing is impossible.

With God.

Act 4: Joseph

[Jason interrupts music]

Wait …what is that?

[Musician replies]

[To crowd]

Do you all know that song?

Actually, come to think of it, do you all know any songs about Joseph?

I didn’t think so. I don’t either. I mean, there are no ‘Ave Josephs.’

I’ll let you in on a secret:

The Church has treated Joseph like an extra in a story starring his wife and her child.

It’s the annunciation to Mary that artists have always chosen to paint, not the annunciation to Joseph.

You don’t see many Renaissance paintings of Joseph snoring on his sofa as the angel Gabriel whispers into his ear:

[Joseph laying down to sleep]

Gabriel: [whispering]

‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, all this is happening to fulfill what the Lord promised: ‘The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will name him Emmanuel.’ 

But when we ignore Joseph, we miss something important.

Because everything about Christmas- it all hinges on the angel’s three words.

Gabriel: [whispers]

  ‘Joseph, son of David.’

If Emmanuel is to be born the son of David then Joseph’s got to be the father.

Our salvation hinges on what Joseph decides to do about Mary.

If Joseph believes the angel then Mary will have a home and a family and her child will be born the son of David.

But if Joseph wakes up from his dream, rubs his eyes and files for divorce, then Mary is an outcast forever- either stoned by the priests or disowned by her family, leaving her and her illegitimate child to beg.

Or worse.

Whether or not he’s the biological father doesn’t matter. According to Jewish Law, Mary’s child becomes Joseph’s child just by Joseph claiming him as such.

So everything about tonight hangs on Joseph.

You think you struggle with believing the virgin birth?

Joseph wakes up one morning to find his fiancee pregnant, his trust betrayed, his future and his reputation ruined, the life he thought he had gone forever.

And then he’s asked to believe.

The unbelievable.

Everything we celebrate tonight- it all hinges on a very big IF- if Joseph believes.

Even though we treat him like an extra in someone else’s story, of all the people in the Christmas story, Joseph is just like you and me.

Joseph doesn’t get a Burning Bush telling him beyond a shadow of a doubt what he should do.

Joseph doesn’t get an Annunciation like Mary does. The angel Gabriel doesn’t stand in front of Joseph’s own two eyes and say: ‘Hail Joseph.’

Joseph just has a dream. [Gabriel whispers silently into Joseph’s sleeping ear]

Which would’ve felt like… what exactly? A hunch? A gut feeling?

Joseph doesn’t get a Burning Bush.

And neither do we.

When we’re faced with circumstances beyond our control

When we’re tempted to choose the easy way out

When we worry about it might cost us or what pain will come our way or what others might think

We have to wrestle with what God wants us to do

And then we have to believe

Believe that if we make the hard choice and do the right thing

Then God will be with us.

Because that’s what Emmanuel means.

God is WITH us.

Act 5: Angels and Shepherds

[Luke’s Nativity is read. Shepherds and Gabriel take spots during reading.]

Has anyone seen the Monty Python movie, Life of Brian?

It’s set in first-century Judaea when the Jewish opposition to the Romans is hopelessly split into factions.

There’s a scene where one of the splinter groups has a secret meeting where a vigilante soldier asks, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

One by one his fellow freedom-fighters grudgingly admit a host of benefits the Romans have brought the Jews. But Reggie, their leader, remains unconvinced.

He finally demands, “All right … all right … but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order … what have the Romans done for us?”

To which the reply comes, “Brought peace.”

And Reggie has no answer.

I’ll tell you a secret, something most church folks don’t know.

Before Luke ever wrote his Gospel.

Before Jesus ever preached ‘the’ Gospel.

Rome already had a Gospel of their own. You know what it was?

All over the Empire, Roman citizens- ordinary men and women just like you- would proclaim with thankful hearts: ‘Glory in the highest. Caesar Augustus, son of god, our savior, has brought peace to the whole world.’

Peace by any means necessary.

To anyone who wasn’t stuck under Rome’s boot, the advent of Caesar Augustus was considered gospel: “Good news of great joy.”

You see, it’s no accident when the angel Gabriel appears to the shepherds, he plagiarizes Rome’s Gospel.

He takes it and he literally turns it upside down:

Gabriel: 

  “Do not be afraid. I’m bringing you GOOD NEWS of great joy for all the people. For you, a SAVIOR has been born. Glory to God in the highest…and on earth, PEACE TO THOSE ON WHOM GOD’S FAVOR RESTS.’

Glory to God in the highest.

Gloria in excelsis Deo…We hear those words as a pretty song.

But to the shepherds, to Mary or Joseph, to Zechariah., to anyone else living in Israel- for a generation those words had instead always sounded more like this…

(Liz plays the Darth Vader music). 

The angel Gabriel takes Rome’s Gospel and he twists it and then he turns it to point not at a throne but at a manger.

And of all the people in Judea, Gabriel delivers this news to shepherds.

We’d call them unskilled workers.

[Shepherds remove their shepherding costumes]

Shepherds were at the absolute rock bottom of society.

Not only that, their work made them ritually unclean, which made them invisible to the rest of society.

We’d call them unskilled workers.

Gabriel:

“I’m bringing you GOOD NEWS of great joy for all the people. For you, a SAVIOR has been born. Glory to God in the highest and on earth, PEACE TO THOSE ON WHOM GOD’S FAVOR RESTS.’

That’s not just a birth announcement written in the sky.

It’s a defiant declaration. It’s a declaration that dares us to believe.

Not just to believe in God. Anyone can do that.

No, the angels dare us to believe that things in our world are not as they seem.

That Caesar and Herod and Rome and anyone like them in our day or in our lives- they’re not in charge.

That pain does not have the last word.

That poverty does not exclude you from the grace of God.

That Power goes by another name. Because Christ is King.

The angels dare you to believe.

That as small or insignificant or unlikely you might see yourself, just like shepherds, you can play a part in his Kingdom.

 Act 6: Simeon

The Christmas story doesn’t end with ‘Silent Night.’

After Jesus is born, Mary and Joseph take their baby to Jerusalem, to the Temple.

To offer a sacrifice to God. Two pigeons, a peasant’s offering.

[Mary and Joseph and baby enter] 

And there in the Temple they dedicate their baby to God.

But the story doesn’t end there either.

An old man sees them there in the Temple.

[Simeon rushes up to them]

Scripture says he was a man who’d been praying his entire life for a Savior.

Scripture says God had promised him that he would not die without seeing the Savior for himself.

But God never gave him any details: no who, what, when, where or how.

So he’s has just been waiting and praying his whole life.

And somehow he doesn’t need an angel or the heavenly host or any clues about a babe wrapped in bands of cloth to point him in the right direction.

Somehow when he sees this tiny scrap of a child- somehow he believes:

Simeon:

‘God, I’ve been waiting my whole life for this moment, but now I have peace for I see salvation with my own two eyes.’ 

His name’s Simeon.

I’ll let you in on one last secret.

The Christmas Story doesn’t end there either.

It can’t…because here are all of you.

And I know enough of you to know there are Simeons- young and old, religious and not so much- all over this room.

Maybe like Simeon, you’ve been waiting and wondering if what’s missing in your life will ever come.

Maybe like Simeon, you’ve been longing for the hole you feel in your life to be filled.

Maybe you’re like Simeon and peace is the one thing in your life, the one thing in your family, the one thing in your marriage that you still don’t have.

If you’re like Simeon, if you’re like Simeon at all, then I dare you.

I double-dare you.

To believe like Simeon.

Believe that the meaning you’ve been waiting for, the significance you’ve been longing for, the peace you’ve been praying for your whole life-

It’s there in Mary’s arms.

Merry Christmas.

And may the peace of Christ be yours now and forever.