December 13, 2010

If I Had Stuck to My Notes for the Message on The Nativity

Today we are continuing with our series titled Go Bigger by looking at the Nativity story...If you are looking for a good Nativity set you might want to check out this ad and give this guy a call. It certainly sounds like a deal!

Christmas is a great time of year. I love the lights and the decorated trees...I love giving and receiving gifts...I love the Christmas Elf...the best Christmas movie ever!

And I love making new traditions and keeping old ones. We have a few traditions that I really like...every year we hide one of Bri’s Christmas presents and then send her on a hunt to find it. We use little notes with clues on them to lead her around the house.

And every year, Lori, Bri, and I set up the Nativity scene in our house and talk about the story of Jesus’ birth. I do this because it is easy to believe that Christmas is really about all that other stuff, and I want Bri to know that while all the other stuff can be fun and good, the real meaning of Christmas is much simpler and tremendously more important.

But I haven’t always loved the Nativity story. I have only come to love the story of Joseph and Mary and the infant Jesus within the past couple of years.

You might think, “Your a pastor...aren’t you supposed to have always love the nativity story?”

And the answer is “No.” I haven’t always loved the nativity story because it always seemed a little too clean for me. The Biblical explanation, at face value, is lacking in details. And in some areas of modern Christian culture there is a desire for things to be clean, shiny, and have a soft glow around everything. There are nice pictures of the nativity with Mary smiling, the baby Jesus glowing, and a fuzzy dream-like aura surrounding the whole thing...I mean look at these pictures. This woman was supposed to have just given birth to a child in a place where cattle and donkeys fed...and she looks...happy! I don’t know of any woman that would look that good after giving birth or be that happy after having done it in a shed with cows looking on.

Lori and I have only one child, and while Lori delivered by C-section, she went through a tremendous amount of labor. And anyone who has given birth or been near someone giving birth can tell you that Mary is not going to be that cheery, that glowy, that clean.

So, I just found the portrayal unrealistic...until one day I was walking through a Christian book store of all places and found my answer. Tucked in the back corner of a Christian bookstore, I found a nativity scene that started to change my perspective. It had Mary laying back on Joseph’s lap, some of her hair draped across his leg and some of it stuck to her face from perspiration. Both she and Joseph had this look of utter exhausted, mixed with awe, mixed with uncertainty. It was an amazing piece. The artist was very gifted to be able to portray the couple in that way.

I was able to find a few pictures online that come close to this...

I couldn’t afford it, but I have never forgotten it because I always had this suspicion that the nativity was a bit messy. So I started doing a little research. Digging in to the passages of Scripture and the cultural setting of the stories of Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, the Magi, and the birth of Jesus, and found some interesting things.

This morning, I am going to do something a little different. We are going to do a kind of character sketch of the main players in the Nativity. I am going to attempt to pull out a few points based on each of the characters in the story that help us understand the story and what it means for us as we move forward. I’m boiling a lot of information hold on.

So first, let’s look at Joseph: Matthew 1:18-25
Have you ever noticed that there is not one single Christmas song or hymn about Joseph? He is completely neglected in Christian history and almost completely forgotten in Scripture.

Joseph was placed in a tough situation. He was a faithful, law-abiding Jewish male. He obviously had a love for God, and for Mary. And he was put in a tough situation. The woman he was betrothed to was found to be pregnant. This was either by his doing or by someone else’s doing.

The text sets us up a bit by telling us that Joseph was a good man and faithful to the Law. He knew that he wasn’t the father of this child. So this put him in a bit of a situation. If he were to continue with the marital plans, Joseph would be announcing that he was the father of this child and that he and Mary had been impatient. Even though they were betrothed to be married, they were not, and the child would be considered illegitimate, and the family ostracized by their community.

If he were to remain faithful to the law and guard his own integrity and reputation, he was going to have to divorce her. There were two ways to do this...openly with a public trial or the quiet but costly way.

Joseph, not wanting to expose Mary to public disgrace, decided to divorce her quietly. This would have cost Joseph a good bit of money. Today, we simply call, email, text, or change our Facebook status to give the other person the old heave-ho...But Joseph would be forfeiting a lot. Marriage was a legal and spiritual act, but it was also an economic act. The family of the groom would pay the parents of the bride a sum of money to compensate them for the loss of their daughter in the household.

If Joseph divorced Mary publicly, he would receive all the money he and his family had paid to Mary’s family back...but because he was divorcing her privately Mary’s family was entitled to keep the dowry that had been paid.

The dream here in Matthew definitely explains Joseph’s change of direction. He went from pursuing divorce proceedings to accepting Mary as his wife and claiming paternity of the child that was not his. Joseph was told to name the child...which in this culture only the father of the child had a right to do.

I find it odd that Joseph is often overlooked in the story of Christmas. Here is a man that did not defend his reputation or integrity in the face of a very difficult situation. He definitely was not taking the easy road...was being obedient.

I often find that my obedience is not easy. God asks us to follow Him, and then explains what that means for us. I have been asked time and time again to be obedient and very few times have been easy. I was asked to give up my career plans and pursue the ministry. I was asked to forgo the traditional route of the pastoral career in established churches, and have now planted one church and we are working on this my never know where your obedience will take you.

God is going to ask you to be isn’t always safe. It isn’t always easy. It isn’t always going to turn out well in the eyes of the world.

But I take courage from the story of Joseph. A man that was more concerned about being obedient to God than he was about his reputation and others perceived his integrity...He simply obeyed.

Mary: Matthew 1:1-16; Luke 1:26-38, 46-55
Mary, who receives a lot of emphasis in the story, is definitely deserving of our respect.

Mary would have been somewhere between the age of 13 and 20, and was being asked to accept the most phenomenal of situations. The angel Gabriel told her that despite the fact that she was a virgin, she was going to have a baby. Who was she going to tell? Who would believe this incredible story? There are many today who still do not believe this fantastic tale of the virgin birth.

When she first heard the angels words, I am sure questions of: What will Joseph think? and what will my parents think? were topping her mind. She has just been faced with one of the toughest situations anyone has ever had to deal with. And despite all these questions and doubts that must have swarmed her mind, I want you to hear Mary’s response, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”

For Mary, being the mother of God’s messiah, was going to be a road filled with derision, put down, sorrow, and heartache. Her reputation as a godly woman—was shot to pieces. She would be forever known as the woman who got pregnant before her wedding. Feel free to add any derogatory word you have heard to help you imagine what she went through.

Every woman in Israel prayed they would one day be the mother of the Messiah, but no one expected this.

Mary and Joseph were placed in a difficult situation, and yet they both obeyed. Despite all outward appearances to the contrary, they were obedient to the will of God.

In the church membership class at the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, the pastor tells potential members, “I don’t know why anyone would want to be a member of this church. Being a member of this church means we are going to ask you to attend services and tithe regularly. We are going to ask you to serve in a ministry of the church, and serve other people outside of the church. We are going to ask you to take responsibility for your spiritual growth, and it means you can no longer park in the visitor’s parking spaces close to the door. Being a member makes you no different and gives you no more privileges than anyone else in this church; it just gives you more responsibility.”

I would say that is what being a follower of Jesus means—Joseph and Mary were no different than any other lost, broken, and hurting person walking down the street. They had no more privileges than any one else; they were given more responsibility. And when we sign on to follow Jesus, we are asked to do that same thing. Obedience isn’t easy, and any Christian who says it is is a liar. It isn’t easy, but it certainly is worth it.

The Shepherds: Luke 2:8-20
In first century Judaism, many people groups were not welcome to enter the Temple area due to laws of cleanliness. Shepherds were one of those unwelcome groups. These men worked in the fields, watching over the sheep that would be used in the sacrifices at the Temple, but were considered unclean and unworthy of entrance into Temple.

Because they were unable to be part of the Temple, they were unable to receive the benefits of the sacrifices, they were unable to hear the Scriptures read, they were unable, according to the Jewish beliefs, to be in the presence of God—because God’s presence was in the Temple. They were separated from God and from “normal” Jewish like other groups of “unclean” people, they banded together because they were on the fringe of society.

There were other reasons, of course, that people didn’t want to be around the shepherds. I haven’t lived with sheep in the fields for several weeks, but I have spent a few days backpacking in the woods without a shower. And I noticed something—people don’t like to be around you when you stink. People who stink seem to be able to associate with other people who stink because their stink seems to cancel each other out, but no one from the outside wants to be around this stinky person. And because these shepherds lived in the fields with their sheep, they stunk. They smelled like sheep.

They also had a reputation for being rather off-color. I can imagine these shepherds sitting around the campfire, watching the sheep, telling dirty jokes filled with expletives of the day. They were a rough group. A group that was not welcome to be part of Temple worship, and as a result, unwelcome to worship in the presence of they lived they were out of God’s presence.

So I find it very interesting that when God became part of our world, He did not send His angels to the house of the high priest. He did not send His angels to the any of Pharisee’s homes. He did not send His angels to the homes of any of the good, Temple-going folk. God sent His angels to this group of rowdy, course, dirty-joke telling shepherds who smelled like sheep.

These shepherds, whom the religious leaders had barred from Temple worship, were the first people God invited to worship Jesus at the manger. With all their pains and problems, they were invited into the presence of God. His life was no different. Jesus continued to reach out to the tax-collector/traitors, to the prostitutes, even to the Pharisee. Everyone rejected, sent away, those who were lost, broken, hurting—Jesus called them all to find the peace and love offered by God.

Today, He continues to call for people to receive His love and forgiveness. He works through lost, broken, hurting people like you and me to tell other lost, broken, hurting people about His love and acceptance. He desires that His church be a place that invites, welcomes, and loves those who have been rejected and hurt, the smelly and unlovable, those who tell dirty jokes and fill their speech with curse words.

Don’t hear that and think I’m saying people shouldn’t become more like Christ as they grow closer to him, but we shouldn’t expect people to walk in here and have their act together when we first meet them.

Matthew 9:12-13 says, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” NIV

The Magi: Matthew 2:1-18
Technically, if we were being completely true to history, the Magi were not at the manger. The Bible tells us their visit took place sometime within the first two years of Jesus’ life, but they are included in every Nativity scene you find. Even though they aren’t technically part of the birth narrative, they do play an important part in understanding the impact of Jesus’ birth.

For thousands of years, people have looked to the stars. Some looked for information, some for enjoyment, and some looked to the stars for guidance. Magi looked to the stars for guidance, but differed from modern astrologers. They gave counsel to Kings and rulers, and worked in the area of the sciences of their day. They studied the heavens to determine seasonal changes, calendar and time, and to foretell important world events.

The star in the East was just such an event. So when it appeared in the sky, these men packed up their belongings, and headed out to find the one who had been born King of the Jews.

The Magi were from the region of the old Babylonian empire—the site of current day Iraq. This was the same Babylonian Empire who had conquered and taken captive the people Israel more than 1,000 years before.

The journey was long. It would take at least a year to travel from their region to Israel. It probably took longer because of the size of their traveling party. Typically when we think of the visit of the Magi, we think of three men carrying boxes. First, the Bible doesn’t tell us how many men came. Second, men of this stature and wealth would never travel alone, especially with the dangers of such a journey. Their party could have easily been a couple hundred people: soldiers, attendants, and slaves—not to mention the animals needed to carry the equipment and necessities for such a journey.

What I find interesting about this passage is that the leading priests and teachers of the law, men who understood, studied, and sought to live out Scripture, knew where the Messiah was going to be born, and yet they did not even attempt to search for Him. Not one of them offered to go along with these foreigners.

I can’t imagine the confusion these travelers must have had. “This is your King,” they must have thought, “and you are not interested in going to meet him!” “What kind of people is this!” they must have thought. “They are expecting the arrival of their Messiah. They know what city He is to be born in, and yet they seem uninterested.”

These leading priests and teachers of the law should have been the first to search for the Messiah, but for some reason they did not. They should have been the first to worship at His feet, and they weren’t

Instead, it was a group of foreign-born men of a pagan religion who offer us a profound example of what it means to worship...

First, joy was their main feeling...It would be awkward if we translated the original Greek directly to English for verse 10. It simply says, “When they saw the star, they were filled with joy!” If we translated it literally it would say something like, “They rejoiced with great joy at seeing the star.” They were filled with joy at what they were about to experience.

Second, they bowed down. In Middle Eastern and Asian cultures bowing is a sign of respect, and the lower a person bow, the more respect and honor is being given. For men of this stature, wearing their robes and finery, to bow to an infant was a big deal. And not just bow, the text tells us that they lay prostrate before the child; meaning they laid flat out in front of that is show of worship.

Third, they brought gifts...and not just any gifts...they brought the finest they had. Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. God has set things up differently than any other religion in the world. In other religions you give to a god to appease him so that he will do good things for you. When we enter the presence of God to worship we bring him our best out of joy because we know He has already given us His best—His Son, Jesus Christ.

This leads us to the centerpiece of our Nativity...

The Infant Jesus: Luke 2:1-7

God’s desire was to bring blessing, grace, and peace to His people and to His world, and the Messiah is the one prophesied to bring that peace. Everyone in Israel longed for the day when the Messiah would come and bring peace, but they misunderstood how He would do that and many missed Him entirely.

They expected a mighty warrior and they got a defenseless infant. They expected a Triumphant King entering the city on a white horse, and they got a misunderstood prophet and teacher riding a donkey. They expected a warrior to overthrow the Roman government, and they got a suffering servant who defeated the kingdoms of this world and established His own kingdom through His death.

No one expected Jesus, and yet it was this unexpected Messiah that gives us the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation with God (Romans 5:1-2).

Let me wrap this up by reviewing what each person teaches us...

In Joseph and Mary we discover the need for an obedience that costs us something. We see that this obedience requires an absolute trust in the goodness of God even when we don’t see it.

In the Shepherds we are challenged to see people as God sees them. People far from God are being called into His presence to worship...often entering long before the good, church-going folk even realize who they should be worshipping.

In the Magi we see a model for, humility, and sacrifice for a God who has given His very best for us.

And in Jesus, we find forgiveness and reconciliation with God...even when we don’t deserve it.

They say that a sermon should have one point and make that strongly...I have failed because you got several different points this morning. But I hope that you are able see God’s hand at work in the Nativity, and God’s hand at work in your life through these characters.

I apologize for the quickness with which we had to look at these characters because they offer us a lot of insight into our relationship with God, and can change the way we view the Nativity. Go back an read all the Scriptures attached to the sections, and spend some time this season reflecting on the story that helps define who we are as Jesus’ followers.

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