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