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.