Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve Sermon: "In the Highest Heaven"

(This will be my last post here for 2013, as I take a long-anticipated vacation! =)  I'll be back after the New Year.  A safe and merry Christmas and holiday season to you and yours! -E.A.)

Luke 2:1-20

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,[a] 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,[b] praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”[c] 15 

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

“In the Highest Heaven,” Luke 2:1-20

I have a theory.  It is a time-tested theory, and by that, I mean that I concocted it late one night when I couldn’t sleep, and my REM-deprived brain decided that this was a fantastic idea.

The Christmas tune “I’ll be Home for Christmas” was originally written by Joseph.  That Joseph.

Think about it...Joseph is returning home, to the City of David, because he is of the house and royal line of David (though clearly, at some point along the line, his claim to the throne of Israel went way off the rails).  And it is the first Christmas, even though he may not fully realize it yet.  Yes, Gabriel pops up in a dream with a spoiler alert about Jesus, but really, Joseph is returning home because he has to, not because he necessarily wants to.  It is an obligation for him.

The first Christmas began as an obligation.  And ever since then, the obligations have only multiplied like proverbial rabbits. (“What is the pastor doing?!  It ain’t Easter, why is he talking about bunnies?  Silly pastor.”)  We have parties to throw and attend.  We have presents to buy and wrap.  We have credit card statements to subsequently receive and sweat bullets over.  Christmas is no longer a holiday, but like it was for Joseph, an exercise of obligations.

I distinctly remember a conversation with my college chaplain, when he told me about how each Christmas season, he is able to preach on a different aspect of Christmas—Christmas cards, Christmas decorations, Christmas trees, Christmas stockings—and part of me was impressed.  But I also realized that all of our obligations provide that abundance of material to us preachers, and so really, it is a mixed blessing—we can  talk about a lot because y’all have to do a lot.  And you do a lot because Christmas has become kind of like Darth Vader: more machine than man.

And it was then as well.  Joseph is going to Bethlehem for reasons that stretch far beyond his humble little household of himself, Mary, and Jesus-the-Miracle-Fetus.  Caesar Augustus decrees that there shall be a census, probably to expand his imperial reach by making sure every Israelite is accounted for and paying proper tribute to Rome.  Christmas takes place where it does essentially because of a huge imperial machine that pulls Joseph and Mary back to Bethlehem.

So they arrive at Bethlehem, and the one obligation they were probably counting on to make their journey easier completely lets them down: the obligation of hospitality from the “inn,” which I’m purposely putting in quotation marks; as New Testament scholar Sharon Ringe puts it:

The word “inn” is not a good translation of the underlying Greek word, which does not refer to a place of public accommodation such as one might find along the highway.  The word is not the same one as found in 10:34, for example, referring to the place to which the wounded man was brought by the (Good Samaritan).  Rather, it is the same word used to refer to the guest room or “upper room” in a private home in Jerusalem, where Jesus and the disciples would celebrate the Passover meal (22:11-12)…Joseph, having returned with his pregnant wife to his ancestral village, would have anticipated such accommodation.  The fact that none was available meant that others from a higher rung on the social ladder…had already claimed the space.  Not even Mary’s obvious need could dislodge such a firmly implanted order of rights and privileges.

In other words: Joseph (and Mary) are doing everything they can to fulfill their own obligations, but the one point in their journey where they expect to benefit from an obligation themselves—the obligation of hospitality to family—they are left high and dry because they did not constitute proper enough company to be kept in their family’s guest room.

And why the hell not?  Think about it: Mary is preggers out of wedlock, Joseph is a barely-getting-by carpenter, it isn’t like you’d be turning away the Queen of England.  We would probably do the same thing to Jesus’ earthly parents: two dirt poor young adults with an out-of-wedlock kid on the way?  We would be apt to slam the door in their faces as well.

But it’s not all bad, right?  I mean, they at least get a roof over their heads in the form of a stable…I guess the equivalent today would be being told that you could stay in the garage or the carport.  And what if you were?  Would you actually accept such an insulting offer of “shelter,” or would you tell your so-called family where to stick their manger, and sleep where you could?

And here is where the humility of Christ’s ministry begins—it doesn’t even begin with Him, at least in His earthly form.  It begins with His earthly parents: Joseph and Mary swallow their pride and stay in this stable because it is safer for a nine-months-pregnant girl than the streets.  The humble surroundings of Jesus’ birth are not limited to his physical surroundings, but to His familial surroundings as well: He is flanked by two parents humble enough—or maybe just desperate enough—to make a profoundly humiliating decision for the good of the child.

And that is the spiritual depth that the circumstances of Jesus’ birth fall to: a forced jaunt across the country (remember, Galilee is in northern Israel, Bethlehem is towards the south) that leads to being denied any real hospitality that leads to having to accept the crumbs from the banquet table that fall before you so that the Savior of the World could even enter it to begin with.

And yet, here is, as Luke says, the multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven.”  In the middle of this profoundly humiliating situation, angels decide to appear and to tell us that God, in His highest heaven, is glorified.

But God is now here.  God has finally, as John’s Gospel says, pitched His tent and now lives among us.  Which means that even in circumstances as dire and as desperate as those that Mary and Joseph find themselves presently in, if God is present, then we, too, are in the highest heaven right along with Him.  And that is the real Christmas miracle.  The real Christmas scandal, even.

In the lowest of embarrassing lows for a family, God decided that now would be the best time to make His grand entrance.  God comes for us, and for you, in those lowest of lows.  And He does not have to.  He absolutely does not have to.  But He wants to.  That is the great, wonderful, incredible thing about the Christmas story: God does not have to bring the highest heaven here.

And yet He does anyways.  Thanks be to God for that.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 24, 2013

No comments:

Post a Comment