Spoiler Alert: The scripture story for today also happens to be the Christmas Eve reading as well. That's OK though...I mean, we don't really get too many occasions to hear this story throughout the year, so having it twice in the same day is not a bad thing. I do, however, wonder if, because it is so familiar, we risk becoming complacent in how we hearing it. I mean, it doesn't really change from year to year, so is it just a rote story that we all know by heart...or does it have fresh meaning each year?
I was thinking about that a lot this week. What new thing can I say about a story that we've all heard many times? So, as a way to try to hear the scripture with fresh ears and see it with new eyes, I decided to watch a movie about it...and no, it was not a Hallmark movie! Actually it's a quick little17-minute movie that is the first episode of a faith- based television program called, The Chosen, which is being created by a private Christian studio. I seriously considered showing it in worship today, but I discovered it well after the worship service was planned and didn't want to keep you all so long that you might not come back tonight. So, instead, I will post a link on the church FB page and have Neal add it to our website. You will want to watch it yourselves, I'm sure.
The premise of the television program is that the episodes will cover the stories of Jesus in a real and personal, first-hand way. The tagline of the series is: Christ Through the Eyes of the Sinners Who Knew Him Best. I'm really excited about it...watching it felt very different than any faith-based programming that I've ever seen before...and honestly, it was much higher quality acting than on the Hallmark Channel.
So, the pilot episode is a telling of the same story we heard this morning...but, from a different slant. The entire thing is conveyed from the perspective of one of the shepherds. And not just any shepherd...but one who is lame and walks with a crutch. The thing that the episode did for me is that...it drew me into the circumstances surrounding Jesus' birth. It highlighted the mundane-ness of his birth in the midst of the busyness of the census, as well as magnified the extent of fear and oppression under which the Jews lived.
It also reminded me just how much emphasis was put on perfection and legalism in the first century. For example, the lame shepherd was clearly an outcast...even from the other shepherds...and was publicly humiliated and shamed by the religious leaders because he was crippled. They accused him, and people like him, (imperfect, lame, blind, deaf, physically or mentally ill) of being the reason that the Messiah had not come. Instead of welcoming him, the leaders turned him way from the temple, deeming him unclean and calling his sacrificial animal blemished. Of course, later he is among the shepherds who receive the good news from the angels. But, you will have to watch it for yourself to see how that all works out.
To be quite honest, I did not go looking for this video...it just sort of showed up...in a Holy Spirit kind of way. And, at first, I did not believe the comment that someone had made, "This video changed how I think about Christmas." But I have to say...it did. It helped me appreciate just how magnificent, earth-shattering, world-changing the news of the baby's birth was for the Jews.
I mean, I suppose some of us know these things about that region in the first century, but I think most of us, myself included, tend to forget. For instance, I had forgotten that it had been 400 years since the last time a prophet of God had spoken to the people before the angel showed up to announce the birth plan to Zechariah and then Mary. Did you all remember that?
No wonder the Jews were desperate for the arrival of the Messiah. No wonder this was such big news for the poor...and somewhat intimidating news for those in power. Think about it, for the previous four centuries, the oppressed people had constantly heard about God's faithfulness and the ancient prophecy of the coming King...one upon whom authority would rest...one who would uphold justice and righteousness for his people.
Yet...until this moment in time...that Savior had not come. When you think about it...400 years of waiting really gives a different perspective on why the characters of this story...all the way back to Zechariah and Elizabeth, to Mary and Joseph and now the shepherds...why they were so exuberant in their faithful response...singing out and rejoicing at the various announcements the angel delivered to each of them. They understood that the wait was over.
The prophecy was fulfilled and the Savior, the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace...had arrived! (And yes, for those who are curious, I just heard Handel's Messiah this weekend...so I want to sing those words...but I won't. I will however weave in much of the scripture as I can!)
Now here's the amazing thing about this birth story...one might think that the King of Kings and Lord of Lords would have been born in some fancy royal setting...or at least maybe at the Temple...or to a "wealthy or priestly family" that would be able to raise him right.
But that's not the case at all. Jesus, God-with-us, Emmanuel, was born to the most plain and simple couple you could imagine. A couple that that was poor. A couple that was faithful to God but definitely part of the lower class. A couple that was oppressed into crippling poverty by the government...and shamed by the religious leaders...who reminded them that nothing good ever came out of Nazareth.
They were a couple with some complicating legalities around their marriage...even more reason for shame...and they were a real life couple that had real life issues and concerns just as anyone of us would have. They were a couple who could not even find a place to stay overnight in Bethlehem.
Definitely not your first-thought candidates for parents of the Messiah...yet, God chose to come to the world infleshed in Jesus..through these average, ordinary people. Imagine that.
Not to mention, God also chose to come at a specific time and to a specific place as well. The census that is mentioned was probably not as drastic and broad-sweeping as Luke would have us believe, but it was a way to establish the contrast between the Empire and the Kingdom of God.
Whatever the scope, the census was a way for the Emperor Augustus to quantify his empire...to stroke his ego...and perhaps to implement burdensome taxation on the people...but mostly it was a bully way to show the people who was in charge. Now put that image up against a pregnant teen on a donkey..or a baby wrapped in cloths lying in a manger. Go ahead - Luke wants us to make the comparison...because the story becomes even more scandalous if we do.
You see...there was the Empire. The Temple. The People. The Empire and the Temple leaders worked together to protect their position and power...at the expense of the People.
And God decided to reveal himself right smack dab in the middle of all that. However, not as a mighty counter-force, but as a vulnerable little baby...who would grow up into a radical, loving, compassionate truth-teller...a source of hope and healing...a giver of mercy and justice...one who would, through forgiveness and welcome and grace, remove sin and shame, replacing them with love and acceptance; making people whole and restoring them to their communities.
In contrast to Augustus' version of peace, which was gained by exerting control over the people, God, who was revealed in Jesus, came to offer the gift of true shalom peace -- the peace that makes us whole -- to those whom he favors. And according to Jesus himself, those whom he favors would be the poor, the humble, the meek...the widow, the sick, the homeless...the captive and oppressed...the broken-hearted...you know, all those folks whom the world's standard still rejects.
Well friends, after being reminded of the desperation of the first century Jews waiting for a Messiah, all I 'gotta say is praise be to God for showing up when he did...and fulfilling the promise of salvation...especially since a whole lot of our 21st Century America is starting to look like the First Century Roman Empire. We, too, need our Savior. And yes, our desperation for the Messiah is increasing daily. I suppose that's why some folks are looking so intently for Jesus' return. But isn't the point of Christmas to remind us that he is already here with us? Born in manger that Christmas night so many centuries ago...but born in the hearts of his people, this and every day.
Friends, the good news of great joy for all the people (although perhaps not the such good news for the Empire or the Temple-keepers) is that ours is a God who shows up...through his Son Jesus Christ...right where we are - in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. God chooses to reveal himself to the less than perfect...and the less than powerful..and the less than holy. He arrives right in the midst of our human experience...and understands because he also lived it. God-who-is-with-us strengthens us as we face our fears...even if they look a lot like the Roman Empire at times.
Remember, the angels proclaimed, "Do not be afraid...the One on whom the world has waited...the One who came to save... has arrived.: Well friends, the Christmas message to us is the same, even today...Do not be afraid, Love has arrived.
OK, so we don't get angels and trumpets to announce it on a daily basis, but God continues to show up in the world today...not as a baby...not as a man...but as the Spirit of Love. Wherever God is, there is Love..and wherever Love is, God shows up in the midst of it.
This week God showed up like this (pull out bags). Due to unforeseen, and unavoidable, circumstances, a family lost their housing the week before Christmas. All of the money the parents planned to use for gifts for their children had to be put toward security deposits and other bills at a new place. So, I posted a note about this on FB, and within an hour, someone I know through a Purdue parent group, but had never met, messaged me and said she and her friends would take care of it. Yesterday morning at 9AM, she brought these to my house to be delivered later today.
God showed up for Amanda in the form of 200 or more people who have been praying for her mother who was found unresponsive in her home without any explanation.
God showed up as a local attorney named Ikedigbo Nnaemeka. Nnaemeka tracked down runner Andrew Peterson and offered to help fund his trip to the Boston Marathon, where Andrew will be the first Special Olympian to run in the Marathon in more than 30 years.
God showed up here at here last Wednesday night for 17 people who needed a little extra comfort during this holiday season.
God shows up as grandparents in our community raising their grandchildren because the parents are not capable right now.
God shows up as addiction counselors and recovery coaches who offer help without judgment.
God shows up on a regular basis at Boone County Jail in the form of a certain retired German teacher who is committed to helping transform lives through education.
Recently, God showed up in Zionsville as grieving adult children who not only sold their deceased mother's home to a refugee family at a fair price, but decided to leave their mother's belongings to help the family get a good start. They even decorated the house for Christmas for before the closing.
I believe God will show up tomorrow at my friend, David’s house as he opens his table to the LGBTQ folks in his community for whom a Christmas homecoming is not possible or welcomed.
Occasionally, God shows up as a breakfast prepared and waiting for a spouse who worked the night shift.
Often, God shows up as the just right word to ease a broken spirit, or as the prayer that calms a fear, and sometimes even as the politician who does the right and just thing despite party affiliation.
And by the way, God will show up for many of us tomorrow morning as a quiet moment of gratitude before the busyness of Christmas Day sets in.
Folks, God shows up wherever God's people are and whenever we are willing to love. The question to ask ourselves is will be found waiting, with hope, ready and expectant to receive him when he does?
As we move toward the celebration of the night that love came down to earth, let us rejoice that where love is...God is...and go forth to offer #morelove to the world. Amen.