On the Plains of Moab Blog
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December 29, 2012, 8:25 AM

Two Sermons

These two sermons go together, the one building on the other.  They should be read together.  I am grateful for the insight of Kenneth Bailey.  His work is refreshing and encouraging.  I do encourage you to read his books...you won't regret it!

Sunday, December 23, 2012.  The Christmas Story:  The Nativity:  He was Born in Manger!

Advent Sermon #4 of 6

Luke 2:1-7

Our Scripture reading this morning should be well familiar with all of us.  This is the stuff of Christmas plays.  I remember the ones we used to do when I was a kid.  Gresham Hall at Salem Presbyterian was decorated with a cardboard stable painted brown, with some straw thrown in on the floor.  There was a gaudy yellow star just off the top of the roof of the cardboard stable.  Grace Smythe made costumes for all the kids.  We had wise men, shepherds, angels, animals and of course, the Holy family complete with the little doll that filled in for baby Jesus.  I was never big enough to play Joseph in those days!

Here's the way the story goes.  Joseph and Mary are headed for Bethlehem because they are heading back to Joseph's ancestral home to be registered so they could pay their taxes.  Mary, by this time, is very great with child.  And, the way the story is usually told, they arrived in Bethlehem late on a cold winter's night.  There is no place for the family to lodge for the night.  No one seems to have had pity on a poor woman about to give birth.  Joseph knocked on the door of the nearest inn, and a mean innkeeper told them to go away, there was no room at the inn!  No vacancy.  But then the innkeeper shrugs and points to the stable out back and says they can have that for the night.  Nice guy!

So, Mary gives birth to the baby Jesus in a cold barn in the company of a few cows, not in the creature comforts of a warm home.

That's the story.  It is the fuel of countless Christmas church plays.  The Eastern Orthodox have a little different twist on the Joseph & Mary story.  That story goes that just as the Holy couple was arriving in Bethlehem, they had to find a cave for Mary to give birth.  As Joseph leaves his wife to find a midwife, Mary gives birth by herself.  Joseph arrives back with a midwife only to find mother and child doing just fine.  The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem tracks closely with this tradition as the church is built over a cave/grotto where it is said that Jesus was born on that first Christmas morning.

Ken Bailey, a Presbyterian author who lived in Israel for sixty years as a child, as a teacher, preacher and missionary, has a different take on the traditional Christmas story.  He points out a number of places where the story has been obscured by tradition.

First off, he notes that Joseph was a descendant of King David.  Luke points this out quite well.  Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David.... (Lk. 2:4 ESV).  Bailey says that all Joseph had to do was say "I am Joseph, son of Heli, son of Matthat, the son of Levi." and they would have probably rolled out the red carpet for this son of David.

He also points out Elizabeth and Zechariah were not far off and would have been a possible place to stay, since it appears that Mary and Joseph had been in Bethlehem for a while, not, as tradition has it, that it happened just as they got to town that first Christmas night.

Bailey makes the case that in Middle Eastern culture; a pregnant woman would get first-class treatment.  That it would be a mortal shame and blight for a pregnant woman to be treated with the kind of indifference conjured up in the traditional telling of the story.

Perhaps the most eye-opening claim that Bailey makes is when he suggests that there was no inn in the story.  In older translations, the Greek term kataluma is translated here as "inn."  But, he argues that a better translation would be quite literally, “space."  The newer revision of the NIV recognizes this better translation of the word by translating it as "guest room."

What it means is that Joseph and Mary came and stayed not in an inn or a stable out back of the inn -- but with relatives in a poor, modest two room house.  The guest room in the house (the kataluma) was taken by another relative, and so Mary had to give birth in the main room, which was adjacent to the place where they brought the animals in at night.  The manger would have been right in the warm, main area of the dwelling, with many relatives attending to Mary and her needs.  The animals would have been right there as well!

Bailey's aim in clearing up the misconceptions is not merely to pooh-pooh on anyone's Christmas play.  He says that by getting this right, it brings out the meaning and significance of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem.

Jesus, the son of David, the Messiah to come, the Lord of lords and King of kings, was born in an unlikely setting -- a modest peasant's two room home -- in a way that any other, ordinary poor Hebrew boy would come into the world.  He was cradled in the manger there in the living room of that home.

The birth of Jesus in humble circumstances is not a whole lot different from the story of King David's rise to prominence right there in Bethlehem.  I think Luke intends his telling the story of Nativity to point up the similarity with David's coming and rise.

In 1 Samuel 16, the prophet Samuel is sorely disappointed with King Saul.  God told the prophet to go to Bethlehem:

Fill your horn with oil, and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons." (1 Sam. 16:1 ESV).  And, "Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do.  And you shall anoint for me him whom I declare to you." (1 Sam. 16:3 ESV).

At supper with Jesse, Samuel begins to meet his sons, and it begins with the oldest son coming in before the prophet:

When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, "Surely the LORD's anointed is before him."  But the LORD said to Samuel, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him.  For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart."  Then Jesse called Abinadab and made him pass before Samuel. And he said, "Neither has the LORD chosen this one." (1 Sam. 16:6-8 ESV).

And Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel. And Samuel said to Jesse, "The LORD has not chosen these." (1 Sam. 16:10 ESV).

Then Samuel said to Jesse, "Are all your sons here?" And he said, "There remains yet the youngest, but behold, he is keeping the sheep." And Samuel said to Jesse, "Send and get him, for we will not sit down till he comes here."  And he sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome. And the LORD said, "Arise, anoint him, for this is he." (1 Sam. 16:11-12 ESV).

David was the youngest and the smallest and he was the one with the dirty job of shepherding for his father.  This choice was unconventional, to say the least.  Kings aren’t cut from that kind of cloth!

But David became a great King.  He was a man after God’s own heart.  He was a King for the rich and powerful; but he was also the King of the lowly and meek.

The Messiah wasn’t supposed to come into the world the way Jesus did, either.  If you look through the OT descriptions of the Messiah to come, you won’t find any hint that he would come the way that he did.

The key thought in our passage today comes in the last line:  Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger…. (Lk. 2:7 ESV).  Jesus was cradled in a common manger.

When we speak of Jesus coming, we say that God condescended to us by becoming one of us.  But he did so much more, he came all the way down to the lowly cattle feeding trough.  Next week, we will see how important this is as we are introduced to the shepherds.  The lowest and most ill thought of in that culture.  Not long after the visit of the shepherds, the Magi – representing the powerful -- appear on the scene paying homage to the King of kings.

Often during the holiday season, we here the same old battles about whether it should be “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.”  But perhaps we ought to come up with something completely different, and perhaps a little more spot on with the season.  May I suggest that we greet one another with this:

Greeting:  The Savior is born.

Response:  He is born in a manger.

You have heard the Word of God.  Now consider it so very well.   Amen.

Monday, December 24, 2012.  Christmas Eve --The Christmas Story:  The Shepherds

Advent Sermon #5 of 6

Luke 2:8-20

Yesterday, my message was centered around the Nativity of Jesus.  The gist of that message was that Jesus was born in humble circumstances, just as any other poor, peasant Hebrew boy may have come into the world.  In a little two room dwelling.  Wrapped in swaddling cloth and laid in a manger – a feeding trough -- right there in the family living room.  A common Messiah given for all people.  A coming King who can command the powerful and empathize with the weak.

The way Jesus entered the world helps you to understand the story of the shepherds from Luke 2 tonight.  Immediately following the account of Jesus birth, it goes like this, and in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.... (Luke 2:8-9 ESV).

The shepherds will be the very first group of people to hear the news about the birth of this Savior.  From the perspective of the world, a very odd group of people to share this unbelievable news.

Shepherds were lowly class of people.  They were mostly poor.  They were  mostly uneducated.  In fact, rabbinic traditions label them as unclean.  In fact, “five lists of ‘proscribed trades’ are recorded in rabbinic literature and shepherds appear in three out of the five.” (Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p.35 quoted from Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus.)

And yet, the angels came first to this group outcasts!

...And they were filled with great fear.  And the angel said to them, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:9-11 ESV).

Now, I must tell you, that these shepherds were wise to be fearful of the appearance of a heavenly messenger.  But, the news from the angel must have unsettled them even more.  The Savior born?  The Messiah?  THE Son of David that has been promised for so long?  Happening tonight?  And you are telling us?

From the shepherds point of view, if the child really was the Messiah, his parents would surely  reject the rag-tag shepherds when they came to the door.  How could they expect a welcome?

But listen again what the angel said, "Fear not, ...I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  This will be good news for ALL people.  Rich and poor alike.

The next words from the angel was given especially for these fearfully skeptical shepherds:  "And this will be a sign for you [this is your sign, you shepherds!]: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger."

The babe is of poor means, just like you.  You will find him in an ordinary, peasant home, such as theirs.  You will find him wrapped just like what peasants and you shepherds do with your newly born children.  You will find him in a manger!  He is your Savior and King, too.  For all people!

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,  "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!" (Luke 2:12-14 ESV).

Perhaps they would not be chased out.  Perhaps they might find an open door.  Perhaps this was their sign, a sign for lowly shepherds!  This sounds too good to be true.  But, just maybe....

Mary, in her song, did say that God has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate….(Luke 1:51-52 ESV).

So...the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us." (Luke 2:15 ESV).

..[The shepherds] went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.  And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.  And all who heard it wondered [marveled!  astonished!] at what the shepherds told them....And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:16-18, 20 ESV).

*There are four things about the shepherds' visit to the manger that I want to leave you with this Christmas Eve:  (*From Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes.)

1. The shepherds were welcome at the manger.

2. The unclean shepherds were judged to be clean.

3. The outcast shepherds became honored guests.

4. The song of the angels was sung to the simplest of all.  The shepherds.

My friends, what can this mean for you tonight?  The shepherds' story is your story.  The shepherds' story is my story.  The baby cradled in that manger was the bearer of good news of great joy...for all the people.

God had come wrapped in human flesh.

The Son of David to rule all nations.

The King not only after God's heart; but the King with God's heart.

The beginning of the reign that would bring everlasting righteousness over evil and sin.

The Kingdom of God come upon the world that would show the way to true peace.

That baby born in the manger in Bethlehem was your sign as well.   Amen.

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