Subway Prophet

…and the words of the prophets were written on the subway walls…

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Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid (A Sermon for Christmas Eve)

This sermon was preached at Memorial United Methodist Church, Fernandina Beach on December 24, 2017 at the 11:00PM Service. The text was Luke 2:1-20. This is a sermon manuscript. It does not necessarily reflect the exact words that were said. 

There is something about birth stories. My parents like to tell the story of how they were on their way to their bowling league when my mom went into labor with me. They were grabbing a bite to eat at their favorite local BBQ place and my mom comes back from the bathroom and informs by dad, “Honey, I don’t think we are going to make it to bowling tonight. We are going to have a baby.”  

I remember before my son was born. My wife and I were on our way to our last sonogram appointment and talking with each other that we really should pack our hospital bag when we got home. It was getting close and we needed to make sure that we were ready. We get to the appointment and the tech is looking at our cute baby and then she gets a bit quiet. After she calls the doctor in we learn that they did not see enough fluid around him. And so, the doctor informs us: “We’re going to send you down to labor and delivery now.” Needless to say, we were both shocked and terrified. This was not the plan. We still had several weeks, we had nothing prepared. And yet, here we were walking down the hall in a haze of confusion and fear.  

The consistent thing with giving birth is that you should expect the unexpected. Things never go according to plan.  

I think Mary and Joseph would have agreed. I imagine their birth plan included some privacy and a quiet place to give birth, perhaps it would be at home supported by her family and friends. Instead they are in a far away land, with Joseph’s family that Mary (and possibly Joseph) didn’t know very well. The place they are staying in has no more room in the guest quarters and so Mary has to give birth in the busyness of a strange place with animals looking on.  

Then in a couple of hours or so, just as she is getting cleaned up some shepherds come into the house with their eyes full of amazement and awe. They have a story of an unexpected encounter as well. They had been minding their own business, protecting their flocks when the skies opened up, angels appeared and they learned that the Messiah had been born that day. They learned that they would find their Lord, not in any of the places they would expect, but lying in a feeding trough.   

The consistent theme throughout the nativity story, and indeed the entire story of Scripture, is that God comes into our world in unexpected ways and does unexpected things. It is easy for the surprising nature of this story to get lost as we tell it year after year.   

There is a pattern that Luke follows throughout these two chapters each time angels unexpectedly appear. The receiver of the revelation, be it Zechariah, Mary, or the Shepherds, are always described as being “terrified.” And then the angels respond with the familiar words, “Do not be afraid.”  

This certainly makes sense. I grew up in a house that liked to play practical jokes. My dad would frequently pop out from around a corner or hide behind a door to see how loud of a scream he could get. I can only imagine if instead of my father a divine being with the glory of the Lord suddenly appeared. It would certainly catch me off guard.  

This sort of fear, however, may not be all of what Luke means here. While certainly angelic visions could be terrifying, the word fear in Scripture also has the sense of sacred awe and reverence. It is a recognition that you are being faced with a power that is so far greater than yourself  it makes you drop to your knees in submission and worship.  

 And so, if the shepherds are struck with awe and bowing in reverence and worship, the angel’s words to them, while comforting, may also be words of correction. What if the angels statement, “Do not be afraid,” also means, “Do not revere or worship us. We have come to point you to the good news. Don’t worship us, but instead go and worship the Lord who has been born this day. Go and worship the Lord of all who is wrapped snuggly and lying in a manger. That little bundle of joy is the true and only object of worship.” 

In this season it is so easy to cherish and revere the messenger. The garland and the lights, the family meals and gift exchanges are all such precious parts of this season. The sense of nostalgia and comfort of traditions can be appealing after weeks of frantic gift buying and meal planning. But all of these things are just messengers. Ways that we remind ourselves of the meaning of Christmas. They are important, but they are not the true focus of our worship. Shifting this perspective helps us to hold these traditions and this season lightly.  

Just as the holy family’s plans were derailed, be prepared for things to not go perfectly. Traditions change, reality falls short of expectations. In these moments, hear the words of the angels: Do not be afraid. Do not become so focused on the events and external elements of Christmas. The God we worship is the one who came to bring peace in the midst of chaos and confusion.  

For others in this season, the empty seats at the table bring to mind traditions that are no longer possible to achieve. The sting of grief, the reality of divorce, the difficulty of deployments and all the reasons that we are forced to be separated from those we love. As these feelings bubble up, hear the words of the angels: Do not be afraid. Give yourself the permission to start new traditions, to sit out of activities that are too much, and to take care of yourself. The God we worship this evening is the one who promises comfort to those who mourn, the one who gives healing for those who are broken, and the one who is making all things new.  

And so this evening as we enter into the beautiful traditions Christmas, as we celebrate together the sacrament of Holy Communion, as we join our voices in Silent Night and let our lights together push back the darkness with hope and joy, let us be prepared for God to enter in through in unexpected places: in words we hadn’t noticed, in memories we had forgotten, and feelings and thoughts that seem to come out of no where. In these moments let us not be afraid of the distractions but instead enter into worship with the fear of the angels who inspire in us awe and wonder.  Let us approach the manger with the tender love of Mary, with the amazement and joy of the shepherds. Let us worship the God who surprises us and sustains us, who comforts us and calls us and invites us to come and adore him—Christ the Lord. Amen. 




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Salvation’s In the Details (4th Sunday in Advent Sermon)

This sermon was preached at Memorial United Methodist Church, Fernandina Beach, FL on December 24, 2017 at 9:00AM. The Scripture was Luke 2:1-20. This is a sermon manuscript, so it does not necessarily reflect the exact words preached. 

On the fourth Sunday in Advent, we traditionally focus on the theme of peace. Peace is a complex, nuanced topic. It can refer to everything from the end of violent conflict, to something more holistic that is best captured by the Hebrew word, Shalom. These themes of peace are deeply woven into the nativity story. The word peace also conjures up a sense of tranquility and calm. It is that feeling of curling up with a warm mug of hot chocolate while the fire flickers in the hearth. The day at the beach where the sun is barely hidden in the clouds, a breeze blows gently and the sea barely ripples.  

Although nice to think about, this latter feeling of “peace” might actually be the LEAST present within the nativity story.  If you are used to the nativity as told through poised porcelain figurines of a radiant Mary surrounded by well groomed visitors all dressed in their finest Renaissance attire, you may not see the difference. But one of the realities with stories that get told and retold, imagined and reimagined, is that the details of the text sometimes get lost in the retelling.  

One of the reasons for this is that Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus is lacking in the type of good juicy detail that we might expect at a baby’s birth. Today when a baby is born, we immediately ask for all the details. What was their height and weight? What time were they born? How was the birth? How are they doing now? Luke doesn’t give us any of this. I personally would love to have known how heavy baby Jesus was or how many cubits he measured. But for Luke those details don’t matter. He has a different agenda in mind.  

Luke begins his story with a detailed account of the government authorities at the time. In chapter 1, Luke sets the stage by referencing the rulers of Israel at the time. These details root Jesus’ birth in the concrete reality of history. This is not just a “Once upon a time” story. It is an event that really happened. It also serves as an almost ominous beginning like “It was a dark and stormy night.”  

Roman rule was not a pleasant thing. Rome was a brutal force that was quick to violence and reminded its subjects of their overwhelming might and power.  

Emperor Augustus was proclaimed as the bringer of peace to the Empire. However, for Rome, peace came through war and military might. Peace for them meant that the territories  they controlled were so beaten into submission that they would not even consider rising up to seek independence.  

And then there is the focus on taxation. I doubt that preparing your taxes gives anyone here warm and fuzzy feelings. However, for the Jewish people, Roman taxes were oppressive. They kept the people in poverty and supported the corrupt government officials who made their everyday lives miserable.  

In this context, Luke’s story is a far cry from one of peace or calm. Each step of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem to add their names to the tax lists was a reminder of Rome’s rule over their people and over their lives. The baby that Mary was carrying, however, was a sign of hope that the oppression of Rome would come to an end, and that God was still present with them. Several verses later, the angels will announce peace because of his birth. This peace proclaimed by the angels, stands in stark contrast to the peace promised by the empire. Instead of a peace through violence, God’s peace is one that comes through a baby being born, a life of faithful love, a sacrificial death, and a victorious resurrection.  

When it comes time for Jesus’ actual birth, Luke thankfully skips the details. For anyone who has been there for the birth of a baby, it is not a calm process. Birth is messy, painful, difficult, and stressful…and that’s just for the guy. But remember, Mary is a new mother. She has never done this before and she is a long way from home.  

It is the scene around the birth that often gets the most attention. The lack of vacancy and the manger for a crib are all specific details that Luke gives us, however, he doesn’t dwell on them much at all. I think that this is interesting. Perhaps Luke didn’t want to talk a lot about it because he knew that every preacher for the rest of time would do that for him.  

Traditionally, we are used to hearing the translation, “there was no room for them in the inn” “The greek word for “inn” here is kataluma. It can mean a room for people who are traveling, but it is probably not an “inn” in the sense that we think of – like a hotel. Rather, it is a room in a personal house which you stay in for free. This word stands in contrast to another word for “inn” that is used in the parable of the Good Samaritan. When the Samaritan takes the wounded man to an inn, Luke uses the word, pandacheon which is more like a hotel or hostel which you have to pay for.  


So, as we picture this story in our minds, we should think of Palestinian peasants homes which looked a bit like this. There are two and half levels. The main floor was where you cooked your meals and lived most of your life. To one side of this room was a slightly lowered area where the animals stayed. And then the top floor was the kataluma, the sleeping area which had a section for guests to stay. This setting makes more sense given that Joseph is traveling to his family homeland. Undoubtedly he has relatives in Bethlehem, and in Biblical culture, it would have been very rude not to stay with family. However, given how much family was in town, it makes sense that the guest rooms in Bethlehem were full.1 And so, Mary and Joseph were invited into the main living area of the house and when the baby was born they laid him in the best crib option they could find right next to them. And so instead of picturing Jesus being born in a distant remote stable surrounded only by animals, the image that Luke’s readers would have had was a busy home bustling with people and animals.  


I find it particularly powerful that Jesus comes into this world, not in our guest rooms, but right smack dab in the middle of the house. I don’t know about your house, but our guest room and guest bathroom are the cleanest rooms in the house. Before anyone comes over those are the rooms we give an extra wash, making sure we are more attentive to the clutter and that things are ready for anyone who stays.  

God, however, had the ultimate place to stay. In choosing to enter into our world, God left the high and perfect heaven to come into our everyday normal lives. God does not ask for special treatment, or clean linens. God wants to join us as we are. When we welcome God into the messy busyness of our lives, the brokenness and the vulnerability, God’s grace begins to recreate and restore us to the wholeness and peace that we were originally designed for. The more we allow God’s peace to reign in our hearts and then overflow into lives, the more we begin to live into the Shalom that is God’s desire for the world. 

As Luke’s story shifts from the manger to the pastures, the birth of Jesus, an event which happened in the privacy of a home gets announced from the heavens with shouts of: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to those he favors.” The peace which the baby Jesus brings into our world is a peace which lies beyond our ability to comprehend or imagine. It will be a peace that will bring an end to oppression and violence and redemption to the broken places in our lives. However, just as the baby must grow into the man he will become, so too does this peace growing in our world. All of us can attest that the peace of Christ is far from complete both in our world and in our lives.  And yet, this story of Jesus birth serves as a reminder for us that the Prince of Peace is present and at work around us. And that is a story worth telling again and again.  


New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary