December 21, 2005

The Scandal of the Nativity

I am not given to placing my sermons on my blog. I recognize that in written form they seem to lack the Spirit of the sermonic. I place this here just to remind us that the Nativity is more than just a glass or ceramic decoration, and it is certainly not just a "nice story."

Here goes:

The past couple years we have done something special at our house to help our daughter understand that Christmas is not just about Santa Claus, Christmas trees, or pretty lights. We put up our Christmas decorations, and “save the best for last.” After the tree is up and all the other things my wife makes me put up, we go to a built-in area near our kitchen and put up the nativity. I tell my daughter, that the real reason for Christmas is not the lights and trees, but the story of Jesus’ birth. As we put out the pieces of the nativity, I retell the story of Jesus' birth.

The story of the nativity as it is told to children and by “good, Christian” folks is really rather tame. It is sterilized for our protection. All offensive things are removed in the way we tell the story. So tonight, I want us to look at a few of the people who gathered around the manger.
We should probably start with the most obvious, Jesus’ parents.

Read Luke 1:26-38.

Mary was a young, engaged-to-be-married woman chosen by God to be the mother of the Messiah. Young women everywhere prayed that God would give them the privilege of being the mother of the Messiah, but they certainly didn’t expect this—a virgin, not yet married, and pregnant.

The social pressure of the day would have been almost unbearable. It doesn’t take much to remember a day when the stigma of unwed pregnancy here in the United States drove many young girls to unthinkable depths of hopelessness. Mary’s day was not that different. Young, unwed, pregnant girls were looked on with suspicion, and rejected by others in their village.
The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Joseph knew this pressure all to well. I can only imagine his pain when he learned that his bride-to-be was pregnant, and he knew he had nothing to do with it.

Read Matthew 1:18-25.

Joseph was going to put Mary away, grant her a certificate of divorce, in privacy to help save her as much embarrassment as possible. Granting Mary a private divorce meant Joseph would forfeit all the money given to Mary’s family in exchange for her. This young man, whom Matthew calls a righteous man, was willing to give up his financial claim in order to spare Mary embarrassment.

Following the angelic visit, Matthew tells us that Joseph “did what the angel of the Lord had commanded.” Joseph’s decision to obey God forever tarnished his “righteous man” image. Now he was simply the carpenter who got his fiancĂ© pregnant, and he, along with Mary, bore all the reproach… and the whispers… and the gossip of his community. Joseph finalized his obedience to God and his claim as father of this child when on the eighth day he presented the child for circumcision and named him Jesus.

But Joseph and Mary were not the only ones present that night.

Read Luke 2:8-20.

Shepherds were a necessary part of the Jewish religious and economic culture. Having religious worship that required the sacrifice of sheep, means that the shepherds were necessary. Without shepherds there was not worship. But, here is the problem, shepherds, because of their job, were not welcome in the temple. For the Jewish people, the temple was the one, true place to worship and know God. It was the place to find forgiveness for sins. It was the place to pray. Jesus later drives the merchants and money-changers from the temple not because they were selling within the walls of the church, but because their buying and selling was taking place in the only place the Gentiles could pray in the temple.

So here are these shepherds watching their sheep next to a small fire on a hillside. They smell like sheep. They are a course, bad-joke-telling group living on the hillsides. And they are taking care of the sheep that people will use to sacrifice to a God they are not allowed to worship.
And here comes this angel to tell them that God has sent the Messiah, and they are invited to His birth. Of course they leave the sheep and God. Of course that is Good News! They are not allowed in the temple, but God has invited them to this holy event.

Let’s look at one more group.

Matthew is the only one to include the group we have come to call the Wise Men, but were called Magi. Though, historically they were not present at Jesus’ birth, they are included in our nativity sets, and I will include them here. They probably arrived about the time Jesus was two-years-old or so.

Read Matthew 2:1-12.

The Magi held a special role in their culture. They were a combination astrologer/scientist. They believed that by watching and studying the natural world around them, they could receive wisdom and guidance. They were not astrologer/fortune-tellers like we have today, but they certainly believe that natural occurrences could predict the future. Oh, and they were also Gentile.

Gentiles were outsiders, unwanted by the Jewish people. In the temple courts they were given the area farthest from the Holy of Holies, where the presence of God was to be. This is where the merchants and money-changers set up their tables because no one really cared whether the Gentiles were able to worship.

These pagan, Gentile astrologer/scientists came searching for the Messiah, and when they found the infant, they worshipped Him. The Greek word is proskuneo meaning, “to fall down.” These royal, dignified elite members of their society bowed themselves face down, flat out on a dirt floor before a two-year-old child.

This wonderful scene that so many of us put up in our homes is absolutely scandalous to first-century Jews—an unwed, pregnant mother; the father of the illegitimate child; dirty, smelly, unruly shepherds; and pagan, Gentile royalty. Not the group you would invite to the birth of your child.

Just as interesting as the people who showed up to Jesus’ birth are the people who were not there. The good, religious people, the priests, the Jewish royalty, none of them were present. Even at the birth of Jesus, God was saying I am offering grace, hope, and love to those who are on the outside. The Pharisee’s had a name for this group of people. They called them, “tax collectors and sinners.”

Caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the alien is a major theme throughout the Bible and in Jesus’ preaching and life. He begins His public ministry in His home town of Nazareth with these words, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor” (Luke 4:18-19, NIV).

And the crazy thing about Jesus’ mission to these losers and outsiders, is that He calls you and me to do the same thing. Leslie Newbigin in his book The Open Secret says, “There is no acceptance of Christ without acceptance of His mission.” Our salvation is not just a one way ticket into heaven, it is not just our escape from hell, our salvation, God’s blessing on our lives, is so that we can be a blessing to others. God transforms us so that we can be part of His mission to transform the world. The glass and ceramic nativity scenes are nice, but they are scandalous. They remind us that God is not after the spiritual elite, but after the brokenhearted, the poor, the hopeless, the lost cause. And He calls us to care for them as well.

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