Sermon for December 17, 2017

December 17, 2017

Rev. John Watts

  Nampa First UMC

THE BIRTH STORIES

Matthew 1:24-25, Luke 2:8-11

 

Carson Bailey is a retired mailman.  This was his busiest time of the year.  Carson was part of our church when I was pastor at Rose City Park in Portland.  He had some great stories.  This is one of my favorites.

He was delivering mail in an area near our church where a lot of Vietnamese immigrants had settled.  The year was 1980.  South Vietnam fell to the communists in 1976, so this was in the early years of Vietnamese immigration.  They were trying hard to make their way in a foreign land with foreign ways of doing things.  They were leery of our doctors and hospitals.  They tried to take care of their medical needs themselves.  Often they could.  But there are times when you really need a doctor.

As Carson Bailey was delivering mail to a Vietnamese family, this was one of those times for them.  They didn’t know English, so they used frantic hand gestures to let him know he was needed inside.  He walked in, not sure what he was getting himself into, and immediately he saw the reason for their distress.  A woman was in labor.  In fact, her labor we pretty much over.  She was on the verge of giving birth.  No one knew what to do.  It was far too late to call 911.  So Carson Bailey went to work.

He had been a medic in the army, so he had some training.  He had assisted on some births.  He acted calm and confident, as if he knew exactly what he was doing, but the truth was he didn’t.  Every one in that room just stood back and watched as Carson took charge.  A healthy baby was born that day.  “The Oregonian” carried the story.  The headline:  “The Mailman Delivers”.

There are lots of birth stories out there.  I’ve noticed that when women get together, that seems to be a popular topic of conversation.  Every birth is a big event and almost every birth has a thing or two that doesn’t go exactly as planned, adding extra excitement to something that is way too exciting already.

This is the season when one birth story in particular grabs our attention.  This is the season when preachers search the scriptures for every last detail in the story of Jesus’ birth, trying to tell this old and beloved story in a fresh, new way.

The truth is, we don’t know much about the birth of Jesus.  All that we do know is found in one of two places.  There’s Matthew’s birth story and there’s Luke’s birth story.  That’s it.  We’ve woven the two of them together in this morning’s scripture lesson.  Once you eliminate the genealogy we looked at last week and other introductory material, we are left with 20 verses in Matthew and 20 verses in Luke.  That’s all we have that tells us everything we know about Jesus’ birth.

We’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of those 40 verses.  Novels have been written taking what little there is in the Bible and adding a lot of creative imagination to fill the pages of a book.  A lot of this kind of thing goes on at Christmas.  This is our biggest and most popular holiday.  There is a huge appetite this month for information on Jesus’ birth, so we see the smallest of details – for example the mention of the star in Matthew, and astronomers are brought in.  Various theories are advanced.  News magazines and television specials explore every angle.

This is understandable.  Christmas is big.  It’s huge.  But what we need to keep in mind is that these birth stories are not nearly as big a deal in the Bible as they are to us.  Nobody cared about the birth of Jesus for a long time after his death and resurrection.  What the first Christians cared about was his death and resurrection.  The majority of the material in the New Testament is about that.  It was long after Jesus died, rose, and was recognized as God’s promised Messiah, that Christians started caring about his birth.  Matthew and Luke were written about 90 years after Jesus was born.  It was about 250 years after that that we can first document the celebration of the birthday of Jesus.

These early Christians understood something Christians today often miss.  The cross and the empty tomb are the foundation of our faith, not the star in the east and the Bethlehem manger.  We sing, “And man shall live forevermore because of Christmas Day.”  That’s wrong.  It’s not because of Christmas that we have the promise of eternal life.  It’s because of Calvary, and Easter, and Pentecost.

So what do we do?  Boycott Christmas?  I don’t think so.  Actually, Christmas is a tremendous evangelistic opportunity.  Eleven months of the year, few care what goes on in churches.  Then comes December, and everyone is singing songs about Jesus.  People who don’t go near church the rest of the year, are looking for a Christmas Eve service to attend.  And people are actually more open than at any other time of the year to exploring what faith in Jesus is all about.

Of course, sometimes we don’t help things.  We often are not at our best this time of the year.  We talked about civility recently.  This is a month when incivility trends higher, and followers of Christ are not immune.  So when people observe us and think to themselves, “Hmm, I would have expected a little better from a Christian”, we are not helping the cause of Christ.

A mother was shopping with her daughter.  It was the height of the Christmas rush.  Just finding a parking spot was a major hassle.  Then the snow and the ice on the walk to the entrance of the store.  And the crowds inside.  It was not a fun experience.  And to top it all off, she got a rude sales clerk.

The mom said to her daughter, “Did you see the look she gave me?”  The daughter said, “Mom, you were wearing that look when you walked into the store!”

‘Tis the season for those of us who love Jesus to make sure his love is made visible in our lives, and also on our faces.

There are a lot of people who aren’t sure they believe what the Bible says about Jesus, but they want to.  They aren’t convinced it’s really true, but they wish it were.  They’re almost ready to believe it is.  Christmas has a way of softening hardened hearts.

Here’s the truth:  People are more receptive to Jesus Christ right now than at any other time of the year.  You may be the one to help someone take that last short step to faith in Jesus.  So please, don’t let Christmas make you so frazzled that you are a hindrance, not a help, in sharing your faith.

One simple thing you can do is to invite people to church on Christmas Eve.  This year, the way the days fall, we will have three Christmas Eve services:  9 am, 11 am, and 7 pm.  And then we have our unique service that has grown each year we have offered it.  Our “Night Before Christmas Eve” service, December 23, at 7 pm.

And of course, a lot of people this time of the year are looking for ways to understand what Christmas is all about.  “The Reason for the Season”, so to speak.  There are thick theology books.  There are well-intentioned sermons that too often fail to connect.  But then there are the birth stories themselves.  Matthew’s and Luke’s.  We never tire of them.  And there are also the simple ways to illustrate what these birth stories really mean.  The simpler the better.  Like this.

Andy was one-and-a-half years old.  He was a toddler.  The terrible twos, which as I recall is technically the second year of life.  The terrible twos typically start long before the second birthday.

Little Andy had out-of-town grandparents.  They were so excited to see their grandson on this, the first Christmas he would be old enough to know what was going on!

The little guy was having a great time with his grandparents.  And they were having a great time with him.  Everything was good as could be.

Then one afternoon Andy’s grandfather heard him crying and rushed to the rescue.  Andy was in his playpen.  He wanted out.  That was why he was crying.  He almost could climb that high wall by himself, but not quite.  So it was Grandpa to the rescue.  He reached inside that playpen, gripped Andy under his arms, and started to pick him up.

That’s when he heard the voice of his daughter-in-law in the next room.  She seemed to know exactly what he was doing because she said, “Andy needs to stay in that playpen.  He is being punished.”

The near rescue made Andy cry even louder.  He was not one bit happy.  The grandfather could hardly stand it.  He tried to read the paper.  He would get up every so often and give Andy a new toy.  He would sing silly songs and make silly faces.  Nothing helped.  Andy was inconsolable.  So was his grandfather.

He came close, perilously close, to defying his daughter-in-law’s strict instructions and rescuing Andy anyway.  But he couldn’t do that.  And he also couldn’t just sit there and do nothing.  So what would he do?  Here’s what he did.  He walked over to that playpen and stepped inside.

His weight probably caused the floor of the playpen to collapse.  But this story is not meant to be taken quite that literally.  It’s a story that makes a point.  It’s a story that helps us understand the other story, the birth story of Jesus.

God loves us so much that God stepped into our world.  God entered our playpen.  God became one of us in Jesus Christ.

So simple.  So profound.  So wonderful, if true.  It is true!  “For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

 

Thank you, God for Jesus – his death, his resurrection, his living presence with us right now, and also his birth which we prepare to celebrate.  His birth which fascinates us as it has for generations of Christians.  His birth which draws us to him as it has for generations of Christians.  We need him in our lives.  We need him in our world.  Thank you, that we have him.  He has us.  The baby grew up and he is Lord of our lives.  Amen.