Good tidings

Goose Pond UMC
December 23, 2018

The Common English Bible, which is used now in a lot of the United Methodist Sunday School literature, has become my favorite translation, and the one I usually use while lay speaking. It’s clear, and readable, with modern, direct language, but it is a translation, and not a paraphrase, which means that a team of scholars worked on it with a goal of being as accurate as possible. I toyed with whether or not to use it this week, though, because the Christmas story is so familiar that it sounds a little awkward to hear it in a different translation.

But maybe that’s a good thing — maybe we can get so used to this Christmas story that we miss some of the details. Maybe it’s good to hear the story in a fresh way and really try to picture some of the details.

Luke 2:1–20 (CEB)

In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.
Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.
The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you — wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”
When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told.
Gerard van Honthorst

The story starts with a census — the Roman government wanted to update its tax records, and so everyone had to return to his or her home town and be counted. Joseph and Mary traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem, which was Joseph’s home town. But, according to the traditional story, when they got there, they were turned away.

When we hear the story of Jesus’ birth, we hear the phrase “no room at the inn,” and we get this horrible vision of an callous innkeeper turning away a pregnant woman about to give birth. When you think about it, you just want to slap that innkeeper for turning away Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus.

But some Bible scholars — and, apparently, the translators of the Common English Bible — translate the Greek word “kataluma” as “guest room” instead of “inn,” which gives the story a little different twist. Later in the book of Luke, the very same Greek word, kataluma, is translated as “guest room” when Jesus and his disciples are looking for a place to eat the Last Supper.

In those days, many houses consisted of a large room, almost like a barn, where various household animals were often sheltered, and a smaller room where the family would normally sleep. It was usually this smaller room that you would offer to guests.

Remember that Joseph was returning to Bethlehem, his home town, so that he could be counted in a Roman census. If the “guest room” interpretation is correct, we’re not talking about some for-profit innkeeper. We’re talking about family. Joseph went to stay with some hometown relative, and that relative already had other relatives, no doubt also in town for the census, crammed into the guest room. So they put Mary and Joseph into the main room of the house, and, because of the animals, there would have been a manger, a feeding trough, in that main room. It still seems like an indignity, of course, but it’s not the same thing as turning someone away.

I think maybe there’s a message for us in this story. It’s easy for us to look down our noses at people who turn Jesus away entirely. But too often, we’re like the family members — we’re OK with letting Jesus stay out in the garage, but giving him a place of honor in our lives would mean kicking out some of the people or things that are already in the guestroom. And we’re not ready to give up some of those things.

God wants to be our first priority — number one in our lives. Number two or three or four is not good enough. If God is number two in your life, you’re not really any different from the person who turns God away entirely.

So while Joseph and Mary were there, the time came for the baby to arrive, and Mary wrapped him in swaddling clothes. This was a sort of square of fabric, with a big long strip of fabric attached to one corner. You tucked the baby into the square of fabric, and then wrapped the little strip all around the baby, almost like a mummy, to sort of keep everything in place. And they laid the baby in a manger, a feeding trough.

The family would soon have visitors — in the form of shepherds.

It’s interesting how the passage of time has changed some of the connotations of things in the Bible from the way the original readers (or hearers, because much of what’s in the Bible was passed down orally before it was written down) would have reacted. Today, the phrase “Good Samaritan” has a warm and fuzzy context. There’s a charity in Bedford County called the Good Samaritan Association. There are laws in numerous states called Good Samaritan laws that protect people from any accidental harm they might commit while doing something like CPR.

The phrase “Good Samaritan” is one with many positive associations for us. But when Jesus first told the parable of the Good Samaritan, the whole point of the story was that his audience would cringe and turn up their noses at the mention of Samaritans. Samaritans were despised by the people to whom Jesus was speaking, and that’s why it was so shocking for Jesus to make a Samaritan the hero of the story.

The same thing applies to shepherds. We think of shepherds, and we think of a child in a church Christmas program wearing his father’s bathrobe and holding a big stick with a hook on the end.

But shepherds were not highly-thought-of in New Testament times. You see, the very nature of their work put them in contact with manure, and blood, and insects, and it made it difficult for them to follow some of the laws of Moses that related to cleansing.

That meant they were almost always ritually-unclean. They could not go to the temple, or worship, or make offerings, because they could never meet the requirements. And if shepherds were ritually unclean, and you were a good, devout, law-abiding Jew, you probably wanted to avoid shepherds, because contact with them might make you ritually unclean. Some of Jesus’ parables about shepherds may have been almost as shocking to his hearers as the parable of the Good Samaritan was.

So the fact that shepherds were the receivers of an angelic message, and then the first people to worship at the feet of Jesus, is all the more scandalous and remarkable — all the more in keeping with Jesus’ message. Salvation is available to all — in fact, those who already know they are sinners have a head start on those who, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, think they are above reproach and not in need of salvation. That’s a scandalous message, and one that some of Jesus’ hearers had a hard time receiving or understanding.

But it’s possible, according to the commentator William Barclay, that these were not just any shepherds. The authorities of the temple in Jerusalem were known to have kept their own private flock to be used for purposes of offerings in the temple, and there is some indication that this flock was kept near Bethlehem.

Is it possible that these shepherds were the ones who kept the sacrificial lambs, which were slaughtered to atone for the sins of the people? We don’t know for sure, but as Barclay says, it’s “a lovely thought” that these particular shepherds would gaze upon this baby, who would be sacrificed himself to take away sin, this Lamb of God who, in adulthood, would take on in reality the work of atonement and reconciliation that had been symbolized by all of those lambs at the altar.

A lot of people know that the Wise Men, the Magi, did not show up on Christmas night. According to the Bible, they came some time later, after Joseph and Mary had moved into a house. But we associate them with the Christmas story as well. 
 
It’s a beautiful contrast between the lowly shepherds and the exalted leaders, both groups following the same star. It reminds us that the baby in the manger has two identities, two lineages. He is both fully human and fully divine. And that is the key to his role as the Lamb of God, his sacrifice that will reconcile a sinful world to its holy creator.

It also helps remind us that the message of Jesus is for everyone — for common shepherds and exalted wise men, for those who know they are sinners and those who think they are holy.

Mary, Jesus’ mother, hears all of the amazing things that people say about her son, and she files them away in her heart. Mary has been visited by an angel. Joseph has been visited by an angel.The shepherds tell her that they’ve seen an angelic choir. The wise men tell her that Jesus is the fulfillment of a prophecy. Even the unborn baby of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, who we know as John the Baptist, leaps in the womb when Mary and her unborn son are nearby.

Mary, who was probably quite young, still a teenager, feels the same things that any mother feels on the birth of her child. She is happy and frightened and not quite sure what is going on.

When I turned 50, my brother Michael e-mailed me a photo he’d discovered of my mother, in 1962, holding a very, very tiny infant in her lap. She has a very serious, and sort of nervous, expression on her face, like she’s not quite sure what to do next. I’m sure there are a lot of new mothers who feel just the same way.

That baby in that photo was just a normal baby, who grew up into an overweight newspaper editor and occasional lay speaker. But Mary had to deal, not only with the normal highs and lows of motherhood, but with the knowledge that her son — that tiny little baby, who needs to be fed and cleaned and burped, and protected from the world — is somehow the greatest figure in history, the focal point around which everything else revolves.

Thirty-three years later, Mary’s heart would be broken as she watched her baby boy nailed to a cross and executed in a painful and gruesome fashion. But on this Christmas night, she’s a scared young woman — not far from a child herself — holding her little baby in her arms. The Bible said she committed these things to memory and thought about them carefully.
 
This Christmas story is a thing of beauty and wonder. It reinforces that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. The nature of that paradox — the Incarnation — is one of the hardest things for us as Christians to fully understand, and it’s been discussed and debated throughout the past two thousand years. What did Jesus know or understand? What emotions did he feel? Jesus prayed, in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if it’s your will, take this cup of suffering away from me. However, not my will but your will must be done.” That starts out as a very human-sounding prayer, but then becomes a divine-sounding one.

And here, we have it all in miniature. The human baby, with all of the attributes and needs of any human baby. In the hymn “Away In A Manger,” we sing the line “Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes,” but I strongly disagree with that. I think Jesus cried just like any baby, and his diaper had to be changed, and he spit up just like any baby. He was fully human.
And yet, he was fully divine — God in human form.

Listen again to the beautiful words shared by the angel with the shepherds: “The angel said, ‘Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you — wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.’ Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, ‘Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.’”

The shepherds heard those words, and then they went and saw Jesus for themselves. Too often we hear the news of Jesus, and nod our heads, but we don’t want to get too close. We don’t want to encounter Jesus too directly, because we’re afraid of what he might ask of us.

We’re not so frightened of the baby Jesus, I suppose — it’s the adult Jesus who makes demands on us. It’s the adult Jesus who says all of those inconvenient things about loving your enemies, and turning the other cheek, and giving up what’s important to you in order to follow Jesus and serve the Kingdom of God.

But we don’t get to pick and choose. In one of his movies, Will Ferrell plays a character who prays to the Baby Jesus instead of to the adult Jesus, because he says he likes the Baby Jesus better. We don’t get to make that choice.

Jesus, the Son of God, a part of the holy Trinity, requires us to encounter him in his fullness, or we’re not really encountering him at all. We have to make room for Jesus in the place of honor in our lives — the room for the special guests, not the room where we keep the livestock.

The Bible tells us not only that the shepherds heard the angels’ message, and that they came and saw the baby Jesus, but it also tells us that they “returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.”

When we truly bring Jesus into our lives, when we truly open ourselves up to God and God’s kingdom, the natural response to that is one of praise and gratitude — not in a boasting sense, or in a sense of trying to put others down, but in the sense of naturally wanting to share the joy of the precious gift that we were given on Christmas night.

On Tuesday, people will get excited about the presents they receive. Some of them may take photos and post them to social media. When we go back to work, we’ll talk excitedly about that big special gift and the person who gave it to us.

But the greatest gift we’ve ever received isn’t something that comes under a Christmas tree. And if we really do recognize it, if we really are grateful, we’ll be just as excited to talk about what God has given us as we are to talk about what our friends and family have given us.

As we enjoy fellowship this week with our families, and gifts given and received, let’s take the opportunity to make sure that Jesus’ gift is part of the celebration, and that we’ve reserved for Jesus the prime place in our hearts and in our lives.