Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2010
So how many of you participated in some way in the Hypothermia project last week? Raise your hands! For those of you who were unaware, our church was a temporary shelter for a week for homeless people living in Fairfax County. I grumbled a little bit about the timing since Christmas is such a busy time already. But you know, I thought about it and it’s actually very appropriate for us to spend time with homeless people at Christmas. Because the savior king whose birth we celebrate on Christmas was born homeless. If Mary and Joseph had been passing through Fairfax County with no place to stay, rather than Bethlehem, then Jesus might have been born in a sleeping bag in our Fellowship Hall!
As it was, the best place that Mary and Joseph could find was a barn where their newborn child spent his first few hours in a manger. Now who knows what a manger is? It’s a place where animals eat. So how clean do you think a manger would be? Do animals use forks and spoons or wipe their faces with napkins? Of course not. Furthermore, has anyone here been in a barn before? How does it smell in a place like that? Pretty smelly, right? Because animals are kind of smelly.
Jesus was born in a smelly, dirty kind of place, very different from the sterile hospital rooms where most of us were born. I don’t mean to ruin Christmas by making these observations. It’s just that when we think about Jesus’ birth, we usually picture the cute nativity scenes on Christmas cards instead of a messy, dirty barn. We’ve got a thick layer of “cuteness” that fogs up our view of the Christmas story, which is understandable because Christmas has become a holiday that’s mostly about taking pictures of our kids. But we have to look past the “cuteness” of Christmas to ask a very important question: what kind of God would let His Son be born in a barn?
It’s not just a smart-alecky question. God reveals the kind of God that He is through how He acts in history. The God who sent His Son to be born in a barn is the same God who, out of all the peoples of the ancient world, chose as His people a group of slaves in Egypt who had descended from an otherwise unremarkable nomad named Abraham. There were many greater nations than this small band of slaves called the Israelites, but God decided to pick these slaves as His people and deliver them from slavery. So this little band of freed slaves wandered across the desert and founded a tiny nation on at the intersection of the Eurasian and African continents, right in the crosshairs of all the great ancient empires: Egyptians to the southwest, Hittites to the north, Assyrians to the northeast, and Babylonians to the east. Somehow God kept His people together and they managed to hold onto their sliver of land for a few centuries before being conquered and exiled by the Babylonians. Once they were conquered, some of their prophets began to speak of a savior who would rise up from among these exiled descendents of freed slaves, a savior who wouldn’t just deliver His own people, but all the nations of the world.
Many centuries and empires later, much of the ancient world was under the rule of the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus, a very powerful man who could issue a census decree and force millions of people to pack their bags and journey hundreds of miles to their hometowns to be counted, just so they could be taxed. The reason that Joseph and Mary didn’t have a place to stay in Bethlehem was because they and thousands of other people had been forced to follow Augustus’ decree. And yet Mary had a king in her womb waiting to be born, a king whose importance would supersede the power of even the mighty emperor Augustus, a king who was born and laid in a feeding trough where donkeys slurped up their hay.
So why was this king born in a barn and not a palace? Why was his mama a Jewish teenager and not a Roman princess or an Egyptian queen? God could have forced a whole empire of people to worship Jesus if He had made Him a Roman emperor. But he didn’t. Instead, God chose to have His Son enter the world as an outsider, a baby who was born in a barn because there was no room for Him anywhere else. And the good news that God shows us from the manger where His Son lay is that He is the God of the people who the world doesn’t have room for.
Because Jesus was born an outsider, He can draw us out of the world we live in and into a kingdom of outsiders. The first people to hear about Jesus’ birth were outsiders on the fringe of society – shepherds who were literally homeless, spending their nights out in the open fields with their sheep. And the disciples that Jesus would recruit to follow him were a bunch of nobodies –fishermen and tax collectors. They wandered around from town to town, homeless, a lot like the throng of homeless people who journey from church to church throughout the season of the Hypothermia program. Now let me ask a tough question: what church today would nominate as its leaders people like the shepherds who were called to be the first evangelists of the baby Jesus’ birth, or the fishermen who Jesus called as his first disciples? What church today would take shepherds and fishermen seriously or, for that matter, poor, homeless kids who are born into animal feeding troughs? Well, probably not many.
Now if our king was born in a manger, then how are we called to live as subjects of His kingdom? I think we’re living in the kingdom when we step outside of the walls created by the world, when our mission experiences bring us close enough to those whom we’re serving that they become our brothers and sisters rather than people we look down on in our heads because they need someone else’s help. We’re living in the kingdom when the purpose of getting a college education is not to attain some sort of social respectability but to search for the unique role in Christ’s body to which God has called each of us. We’re living in the kingdom when Jesus is truly Lord over our time and we’re no longer owned by the anxieties of school, careers, competitive parenting, and whatever else the world tells us to worry about.
Do you live in this outsider kingdom established by the baby king who comes to us in a dirty, smelly manger to save us from the isolation of our clean respectability? That’s where I want to live, but I still belong very much to the world that can’t understand how anybody important could come to us in a feeding trough. But the good news is that this Christmas we have an opportunity to try again. Our all-gracious God invites us again to step out of the world and give ourselves more completely to the kingdom of Christ. So let’s take God up on this invitation. Let’s get out of our comfort zone, which really isn’t very comfortable but a restless place to live; let’s go to the manger and all the other dirty, smelly places where we really meet Jesus; and let’s live in His kingdom forever.