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God Comes in Spite of Our Expectations (December 24, 2017)

Luke 2:1-14

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 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 place for them in the inn.

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Everyone comes into this season with expectations. We bring our Christmas expectations into our celebrations, our traditions, even to this service tonight. We expect our expectations to be met. We expect certain TV specials, certain gifts, certain decorations, certain family visits, and certain songs. Either because we’ve always celebrated Christmas that way or because we were promised it was going to be that way.

We expect the people around us to meet our expectations, and are really disappointed if they don’t.

Such was the case for the people in Isaiah’s time, too. They had been promised something, and were expecting it. They’d been promised a king, someone who would restore them to the greatness they hadn’t known since King David.

Isaiah tells us the promises, and the peoples’ expectations from those promises: God to come and make things right; and a Messiah who will be a mighty, powerful king who will  be God’s agent to make things right. Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Rule on David’s throne with justice and authority. In a word, power. How else can he accomplish such incredible changes in a world where God’s people were currently being held in captivity, robbed of their homes, their religion, their identity in Babylon.

Through the centuries, these people held on to these promise; and so, yes, they had expectations. God has promised a Messiah. They expected this Messiah to be powerful enough to restore them .

We all come here with expectations—about Christmas, yes, but we expect things from God too. Maybe we expect God to cure someone we love from cancer; to find us a job; to reward us for trying to be faithful. Or maybe we’ve become jaded, cynical, or even superficial in our expectations. We expect God to simply leave us alone. Like all people in all times and places, we have expectations of God. So think for a minute, what do you expect from God? . . .

So with their high expectations, what do you think the response was when this promised Messiah, this powerful king, this one whose very presence would turn the whole world around, came in the way described in Luke? No palace with military honors. No inauguration. Not even in the major city, Jerusalem or to the people of power. But instead, born in a town that is known for being nothing. His crib was the cattle feed trough. His parents didn’t even have enough influence to get a bed in the inn.

What do you suppose the response was from those who were waiting for him to come? Disbelief? Disappointment? Skepticism? Sure, all that and more. No one came to celebrate. No one of any importance even heard, much less believed the angels’ message that God’s Messiah had come.

When God doesn’t meet your expectations, it’s not exactly a joyous experience. You feel let down, even betrayed. I thought I knew what you were about, God. I thought you were powerful and miraculous. I thought you were a force for good. I thought you helped those who love you and believe in you. I thought . . . I expected . . .

But if the best you can do, God, is a lousy manger in a nowhere little village with inconsequential parents, then I guess you aren’t the God I thought. I’ll look elsewhere for my expected Messiah. I’ll look elsewhere for my expected God. I’ll look elsewhere to have my expectations met.

You see, God, I expect you to be fixing my life, improving my life, getting me out of the smelly places in my life, not meeting me in the middle of them. I don’t want to admit my life isn’t perfect, that I’m not perfect, that I’m broken and feel like I’m faking it sometimes. I don’t want to acknowledge that my life can resemble a stable—a smelly, poor, incompetent stable. I want you to put me in a palace, and then meet me there. Fix everything according to my expectations, then meet me there. That’s what I expect. . .

Maybe the problem isn’t what God does or how God comes. Maybe it’s that we expect God to meet our expectations.

Those who were around when Jesus was born clung to their expectations instead of the reality of God present with them. A Messiah had come, but they missed it because God didn’t do it the way they expected. Their hope was in their midst, but no one welcomed the God of hope because they were looking for the god of their own expectations? God came to them anyway. The angels were singing it to the shepherds, of all people. Not the high and mighty, but the disregarded and marginalized.

Just as God comes among us anyway—not  just in palaces when things in our life are right and good.

God comes anyway—even if our lives are smelly and disappointing. Even if, in a world of royalty, we feel like nothing more than shepherds . But the angels are singing to us then.

God comes anyway–meeting us wherever we are, even if that’s in a place we don’t expect. Listen, the angels are singing.

God comes anyway—whether we want God there or not, whether we expect God there or not, whether we see God there or not. Hear it? The angels are singing.

God comes anyway—even to a stable, even to a manger, even to shepherds. Even to you. There it is. The angels are singing.

When you leave here tonight, know that God has come, is with you—your expectations have nothing to do with it. That’s the good news of this night.

May God, present in a manger, present with shepherds, present in the smell a stable, be with you—not as you expect, but as you need. With the coming of Christ into your life, you are loved, and the angels are singing. Amen.

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Posted by on December 25, 2017 in Sermon

 

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Love Comes in the Ordinary, Common, Every Day (Christmas Eve)

Luke 2:1-14

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. {2} This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. {3} All went to their own towns to be registered. {4} Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. {5} He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. {6} While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. {7} 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 place for them in the inn. {8} In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. {9} Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. {10} But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: {11} to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. {12} This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” {13} And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, {14} “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

This is such an old, familiar story that sometimes it’s hard to hear it with fresh ears. When this story is read, sometimes all I can hear is Linus’ voice in the Charlie Brown Christmas. But something in this story struck me this year that has made everything new.

Have you ever paid any attention to the “sign” that the angel gives the shepherds? The sign that validates the angels’ good news that the Messiah, the Lord, has come?

You will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. That’s it.

Now remember this was during Caesar’s registration for taxation purposes. In order to keep track of whose family owned what land, the people of that region had to register in their family’s hometown. All people who were descendants of King David 1000 years ago were among those who had to go to Bethlehem. Likely there were hundreds, if not thousands were travelling there. There was no room in the inn for countless families coming to Bethlehem during that time. Because who would ever go to Bethlehem? So, as was customary, travelers could stay in homes.

It was common for homes to be two stories tall, with the family on the upper floor, and their few animals on the lower floor. It’s likely that Mary and Joseph were staying in the lower floor of one of these homes with the animals. So, of course, there would probably be a cow, a sheep or two, maybe a goat and a donkey, and, of course, a manger—the feed trough for these animals.

How many families travelled to Bethlehem with small children? Hundreds?

How many couldn’t fit into the small inn of a small town and had to sleep with the animals on the first floor of a home? Most of them?

So how many of those small children were sleeping in mangers that night? Lots of them, perhaps?

Yet the angels tell the shepherds that the sign of the Messiah is that they will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.

Couldn’t the angel come up with something a little more specific, with a little more pizzazz? Couldn’t they provide some solid evidence rather than something that would have been very common?

Then it occurred to me how exactly right that is. God is present in our lives through the most ordinary of things in the most ordinary of ways. There are signs of God’s presence all around us all the time. The problem isn’t with the sign given to the shepherds. It’s not that God doesn’t provide signs of her presence and love all around us. The problem is that we think we don’t think that’s good enough.

The shepherds went to Bethlehem, found a child in a manger, and began shouting in the streets that the Messiah had, indeed, come! God really was at work! We are not forgotten! God really does love us. God really does love all people! The sign of a baby wrapped up and sleeping in a makeshift crib was enough.

The ways of God’s reign of love aren’t always a dazzling display of lights and drama. Love doesn’t make headlines. Usually God’s presence among us is quiet, subtle, understated. A baby wrapped up and sleeping. A word of comfort. A friend sitting quietly listening. A child’s hug. A stranger showing kindness. A voice of support and encouragement. These are quiet signs of love, present all around us. God’s love has come into the world.

A baby wrapped in bands of cloth, lying in a manger with the animals all around, in the lower level of a small house in the tiny village, is enough. Love has come. The signs are easy to see. This Christmas I hope our eyes can be opened to the reality of God’s love all around us. And may we always see the signs in the ordinary, the common, the everyday.

 
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Posted by on December 25, 2015 in Sermon

 

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A Messy God (Christmas Eve)

Christmas Eve, 2012

Luke 2:1-20

 Messing up Christmas

Caroline’s confirmation class was doing a pageant entitled, “What if Jesus were born today?” Caroline had volunteered to be Mary.

In preparation, the confirmation class had to do some research and creative interpretation of the Christmas story from Luke’s Gospel. They determined that today, Mary and Joseph would be a homeless couple traveling to a new home with all of their belongings in a shopping cart. There would be no “donkey” for Mary to ride as in the Bible, so they chose a rusty 1969 Chevy Impala for that task. There would be no room for Mary and Joseph at the Motel Six, and no hospital in “Hicksville” where they would settle, but a temporary room was found them in the back of a barn. Caroline and her friends started to really get into this.

But Caroline felt that there were further details of the story neglected by the previous pageants. She made plans to correct those, hoping she wouldn’t offend the good people of her congregation. She made her secret plans and carried them out without anyone noticing. She looked radiant during the scene in which an angel appears on her television screen to announce that she would have a baby. She cried appropriately when she had to tell Joseph, her fiancé, what was going on, and cried again when he informed her that he loved her anyway and would still marry her. Then, as the scene changed, she disappeared backstage to prepare for the “journey and birth” portion of the play.

When she emerged for the final scene, walking slowly with Joseph, she brought gasps and not a few nervous throat-clearing from the congregation. Caroline had tied a pillow under her “Mary” costume, clearly indicateing that she was expecting a baby. When “the time came for her to be delivered” Caroline imitated full-out labor pains, complete with screaming. Some people were shocked at how far Caroline carried her assignment. It was just that no one had ever seen Mary “pregnant” in a pageant before. Caroline had given them an image that disturbed the clean pictures of Jesus’ birth that we normally see.

Mary and Joseph’s Experience

Over the years we have cleaned up the Christmas story, made it something only for children. But that’s not the story in the Bible, and it’s not the “good news” God has for us.

We sanitize this story to the point that it’s separated from our own life stories. The shepherds were hired hands and represented the lowest levels of society in the ancient world. Those who spent time only with animals would not be quite so well behaved as we command our pageant shepherds to be. We imagine a quaint manger scene in a nice cave or clean little grotto for the animals. But we usually neglect to imagine the animal manure, and its accompanying smell, in our minds eye. And of course, few of us actually dare to imagine Mary as really pregnant.

As a result, we can’t imagine a holy God to coming into the middle of a messy world, where shepherds sleep in the dirt after drinking too much, where animals do what animals do, and where pregnant women scream in labor pains. We place God in this story only in such a way as to keep a clean God separate from the harsh,  shameful mess of our world—and of our own lives.

God in the Midst of the Mess

When we do that, we fail to understand what God is doing on this night. God chose to be born into our messy, despairing world, into the middle of hopelessness. God chose to come not into a cleaned up palance, but into the squalor of humanity’s injustice and cruelty to one another, into a family that wanders homeless, announced to shepherds in a pre-dawn stupor, in a place only good enough for smelly barnyard animals. God chooses to be in our mess. We just choose to ignore it. And so we tough it out with an image of a distant God too holy and clean to be in our unholy and messy lives.

The message of Christmas is that the God of creation is not clean, but messy. On this night, God chooses the dirt and grime, the pain and suffering, the very human and worldly stuff of pregnancy and childbirth. This is the lengths to which God will go to be in this broken world and in our broken lives.

The Presence of Christ

God comes into the mess. He comes right into history, into a despairing world, so that he can set us free from hopelessness. For as we see Jesus in a cattle feeding trough, we can no longer see God as separate, distant, clean. What that means is that no matter how messy, disgusting, shameful, or broken our lives are, God chooses to be in it with us. And when God is present, our hope is revealed.

That’s why we sing with joy this night of nights. Not because we’ve cleaned ourselves up good enough for Christ to be with us, but because when we are unable to clean up our lives, God chooses to come to us.

In the end, I think that Caroline had it right. Christmas reveals God bringing our hope into the stuff of a messy life.

So for those whose lives are a mess, for those who aren’t clean enough to be with Jesus, for those who just can’t seem to get things together, Merry Christmas. This night is for you. This place is for you. Tonight your hope is revealed.

 
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Posted by on January 28, 2013 in Sermon

 

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