Good morning, Friends!
I hope you are all just about ready for Christmas – and I hope that it will be a happy and blessed Christmas for all of you. I hope you’ll be in touch with family and loved ones, and I hope you’ve all got something nice planned for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
I love Christmas time just as much as you do. But part of what I do as a preacher, is to help us remember that Jesus is the reason for the season.
We’ve heard the Christmas story repeated so many times, it’s hard for us to realize what the people must have felt like.
We imagine a cozy picture of how it all happened.
There’s Mary – glowing and radiant. For some reason I’ve never figured out, Mary is always wearing blue. We imagine Joseph, the wise carpenter, the guy with the rough hands and the gentle heart. Everything is at peace, and there’s a gentle glow over the stable.
Well, it wasn’t really like that. It was a long, hard ride to Bethlehem. Any of you who have had a baby can imagine just how much fun it was riding a donkey for 80 miles just a few days before your baby was due! And then when they got there, there was no place for them to stay. Mary nearly wound up giving birth on a street corner!
The town was crowded, and the stable was probably noisy. The stable floor was probably covered with the same stuff that stable floors are covered with today. What a place to have a baby!
The fact is, Mary and Joseph were in real trouble. They had been formally engaged for at least a whole year before they got married. They had already exchanged their vows in public. In the eyes of the law they were already married, even though they weren’t living with each other yet.
And then, it turned out that Mary was pregnant. We don’t stop to think about all the feelings that situation must have caused.
Mary must have been tearful for days, trying to explain things to Joseph and to her family. Or maybe she was in some kind of otherworldly state of shock.
And here was Joseph. It must have seemed to him that his whole life was destroyed. We don’t think about how the trust this situation must have been shattered. They had promised themselves to each other – and now the doubt, the pain.
It’s a measure of Joseph’s character that he didn’t make a big scene when all this happened. Back in those days, the only way to break an engagement was by divorce, since the couple were already regarded as legally married. And a public divorce, with witnesses and everything, was a horrible, messy business. Joseph just wanted to deal with it quietly.
And for Mary, what would that have meant? She would have been sent back to her family, in disgrace. They wouldn’t have wanted her. The child would have been illegitimate, and probably would have been turned out onto the streets before he grew up, or maybe even sold into slavery.
But that didn’t happen. It didn’t happen because Mary and Joseph, each, separately, had a vision. Each of them had a vision of who the child would be, of why that baby was going to be born into the world. Instead of being an unwanted child, this baby was going to be the answer to prayer. And not just the answer to their prayers, but the answer to the prayers of the whole world.
I’d like to read to you now, from the first chapter of the gospel of Matthew.
This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.
Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.– Matthew 1:18-25
The story changed from what it might have been, because Joseph had a vision. The story changed, because Joseph paid attention to a dream.
And the dream was, that through this child, people would be saved.
Christmas means a lot of different things to different people. It means family gatherings, and carols, and special meals, and presents. We forget Christmas really means the birth of the Savior.
I don’t know if we’re ready for that. We can handle a cute little baby in a manger. We can deal with a bunch of wooly sheep out on a hillside, or maybe even a few angels fluttering around. But we’re not really ready for a Savior to come into our world.
And yet, that’s why Joseph and Mary were willing to put everything on the line. The reason Mary welcomed the angel Gabriel, the reason Joseph let himself be healed of his doubts and took Mary to be his wife, was because of the promise of a Savior.
It’s not just that Jesus is “the reason for the season.” It isn’t just that we need to put some more “spiritual” emphasis in the month of December. Unless we remember that it’s all about the birth of the Savior, Christmas is meaningless.
I don’t think that anyone disagrees that there are lots of problems in the world. Some of them are big problems that affect all of human society. There’s rage, there’s violence, there’s indifference and greed, there’s destruction of the very world we live in. I could spend all day listing the problems and injustices and lies that are surrounding us.
And while we all have many blessings, we know about the pain in the lives of so many individuals and families. People who just can’t cope. People who have run out of resources, run out of ideas, run out of everything except the ability to hurt, every day. People who are lonely and lost. People who have nothing at the center of their lives.
Salvation means that God has come to help us get back that soul that’s missing from our lives. That’s what salvation means.
Salvation means getting free from the things which tie us up in knots and bind us.
It might be a bad temper. It might be our prejudice or bitterness or hatred in our heart. It might be feelings of shame or guilt. It might be a feeling of “not being good enough”, of not being smart enough or not having the right words or the right clothes to wear. It might be any kind of fear that keeps us from being free.
Pain, fear, grief, debt, rejection, helplessness, homelessness, addiction, lack of food, lack of hope, lack of education, lack of opportunity – all of these are different things can tie us down.
And Jesus came to set people free. That’s what salvation means. It means freedom. Christmas means the birth of freedom. Christmas means that somebody came into the world who had both the message and the power to set people free, all over the world.
Christmas is about freedom, and unless we understand that, we’re never going to understand why the holiday is supposed to make us so happy. We’re never going to get to the bottom of that Christmas joy.
Salvation is about being forgiven. It’s about believing that everything Jesus says about forgiveness and mercy is true. Salvation is letting go of all the hurt and shame and guilt we feel. Salvation is
God is willing to start over with us. All God asks is that we forgive each other, and tell the truth, and love one another, and just treat people the way we want to be treated ourselves.
Christmas isn’t only about getting presents. It’s the announcement that everyone gets to start again with a clean slate. God forgives us! We forgive each other, and start treating each other as brothers and sisters, the way God made us.
One of everybody’s favorite quotations from the Bible is always John 3:16, which says, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes [or has faith or puts their trust] in him should not perish, but have eternal life. . .”
That is a Christmas message. It’s why Jesus came to be among us. “God didn’t send his son into the world to condemn the world, but so that everyone who believes and puts their trust in him should have the life that never ends. . .”
That’s the biggest Christmas present of all, folks.
Years ago, early in our marriage, Joyce and I met some Catholic nuns, who lived in the slums in Boston. In every city of the world, this group of nuns always settles in the poorest neighborhood they can find.
They pray a lot, and they help their neighbors, and they work at jobs like teaching or nursing or taking care of old people. They gave us a beautiful Nativity set that we always put up on the mantle. The Nativity set is always the first of our Christmas decorations to come out every year, and it’s always the very last of our decorations to come down.
It’s got little clay figures of Mary, and Joseph, and a cow, and a donkey, and two lambs, and the baby Jesus, lying in a cradle. The way they’re made, you can’t tell what country they’re from, or what color they are.
We asked the sister why she thought Jesus came this way – why Jesus was born to a poor family, why the Savior of the world had to come in such a helpless way.
The sister smiled and said, “Because no one could ever be afraid of a baby!” That’s why Jesus came in such a helpless form. “No one could ever be afraid of a baby.”
God doesn’t want to scare anyone. God doesn’t want to condemn anyone. God wants this world to be healed and restored. God wants all of us, everyone, to be saved.
I want to ask you all to please remember, for the rest of your life, that God loves you! God wants you and everyone, to be saved – loved and safe, healed and whole, fed with living bread, every day.
The Christmas story says that Jesus’ other name is Emmanuel, means God with us. Not God was with us, a long time ago. But God is with us now, today, and always.
You are never alone. You are never unloved. You are always part of God’s family. That’s what Christmas means.
All of the promises that God has ever made, are all wrapped up in Jesus. Our Christmas hopes, and all our hopes, are found and meet together in him.
I hope you do have a merry Christmas. I hope you have a wonderful time!
But please remember, please take home and carry in your heart, what it’s really all about.
It’s all about Jesus.
Amen. And merry Christmas!