The Real Story of ChristŐs Birth
Pastor Jim Kniseley presented this sermon at Resurrection on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2014. The text is Luke 2: 1-20.
Dear Fellow Pilgrim on the Road to Bethlehem,
Tonight I invite you to consider the real story of what actually took place on the first Christmas Eve so long ago. To do that we must give up some of the commonly accepted ideas that have been so ingrained in our minds and hearts.
The gospel writer Luke presents the story of JesusŐ birth so simply in 3 scenes:
The first scene:
While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.
And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth,
and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
The second scene:
Luke goes on to tell the story of the angels announcing the birth in the heavens and singing Ňglory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favorsÓ.
The third scene:
Luke presents the shepherds arriving at the manger to worship the baby Jesus and tell everyone the message of the angels.
Basically thatŐs the whole story of what we know took place on the first Christmas Eve. ItŐs such a simple story, but believers ever since have wanted more. So we have filled in the story with kings and a variety of barnyard animals and every crche has an angel hovering nearby. The simplicity of the Bible account makes us beg for more and gets us thinking and asking questions.
I wonder: if you and I had been there that night in Bethlehem, what would we have seen and heard?
*If we had been out in the fields that night with the shepherds, would we have seen and heard the amazing announcement and song of the angels, or would we have just seen the multitude of stars in the heaven and experienced the cold east wind and observed the sheep at rest for the night?
*If we had been present at the stable in Bethlehem, would we have seen the star overhead that announced the birth of the Messiah, or would we have just seen two poor and frightened kids having a baby in dire circumstances?
I am convinced that 2 people being there that night could have heard and seen 2 entirely different scenes. With angels singing in the skies, how come more folks didnŐt hear and see this great spectacle? In MatthewŐs Gospel, we hear of a star that shone over Bethlehem. How come the Magi saw it from afar and yet when they finally arrived, King Herod seems to know nothing about a star in the sky? And so we come to a truth that I think is very biblical: God comes to us in different ways and our open hearts and minds make a big difference in how we receive the messages of God. I have no doubt that here tonight that some of you will hear messages of GodŐs love and desire for peace, and others will simply hear stories and words that seem to be juvenile and uninspiring and out of touch with your reality.
I have a wonderful book by Roland Bainton that contains excerpts from 30 years of Advent and Christmas Sermons by Martin Luther. Luther could be humorous and even a bit corny at times. He suggested that God turned the star on and off to encourage the Wismen at times and to discourage them at other times. Luther wrote words for a ChildrenŐs Christmas Pageant that was very creative, but also noted in his sermons that he thought that some of the artistic renderings of the nativity scene made Mary look like a wealthy queen with lots of servants to attend her, and often Mary is pictured as immediately getting on her knees to worship the infant right after the birth. Luther stressed how real to life the birth of Jesus was and how poor and dangerous were the circumstances. To gloss over that realism and make it all look so easy was an affront to God, thought Luther. For God wanted to identify with the poor and the downtrodden of this world.
You may say that if I had been there that night I would have seen the heavenly spectacle and heard the message of the angels. I would have been among the first to go and worship the infant Jesus as he lay in the manger.
I love the way Luther said it to his congregation in Wittenberg one Christmas Eve:
There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves: If only I had been there. How quick I would have been to help the Baby! I would have washed his linen. How happy I would have been to go with the shepherd to see the Lord lying in a manger!Ó Yes you would! You say that because you know how great Christ is, but if you had been there at that time you would have done no better than the people of Bethlehem. Childish and foolish thoughts are these! Why donŐt you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbor. You ought to serve him, for what you do to your neighbor in need you do to the Lord Christ himself.
So JesusŐ coming down from heaven was the great wonder for Luther. The manger and the cross are never far apart in LutherŐs thinking. I am sure that some here may be surprised and even offended that we speak of the cross on Christmas Eve. Let me try my best to explain the intimate connection between the cross and the stable.
Please look at the cross here in the front of the church and see that it is visually touching the stable. God came down from heaven in the form of the baby at Bethlehem. The stable represents Jesus coming into this world. The stable is forever linked to the cross, for the cross represents the purpose for which Jesus came: To take upon himself the sins of the world and bring us to everlasting life. The cross and the stable rise over the altar that contains the Bread of Life, even Jesus himself. And we remember that the name Bethlehem means in Hebrew, ŇThe House of Bread.Ó
And when we turn off the lights we see symbol of peace that reminds us of the words of the angel on that first Christmas Eve, Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!Ó Amen.