“Words that Move Us Heavenward,” a Christmas Eve Sermon, translated from the German Advent Christmas Eve Service in Manteca, California November 27, 2011
Words that Move us Heavenward
German Advent Christmas Eve Service in Manteca, California
November 27, 2011
Luke 2: 1-20: We need to imagine ourselves in the time of Jesus. It was a difficult time, when the decree went out from Caesar Augustus, while Quirinius was the governor of Syria that all of the world should be registered and taxed. Now we usually take care of our taxes in mid-April, and as difficult as that is, at that time it was far more difficult. Everyone had to register and pay a tax in their ancestral city. If we imagine a gigantic empire today, where North America and Europe would be one, then I would have to return to Lübeck in Schleswig-Holstein, the city my father came from to register and pay it, or perhaps back to Erfurt in Thuringia, but there we were only refugees.
Can you imagine? What city or the capital of what province would you have to return, to register and pay your taxes? [I ask the congregation.] This registration and tax payment that the Roman Empire required disrupted everyone’s life and of course, they did not make an exception for a pregnant young woman, like Mary. Great with child, she had to leave home and travel with Joseph her husband all the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Now the text does not mention a donkey. Because we feel sorry for Mary, I think we give her a donkey to ride. But one is not in the text. She probably had to walk the seven day journey.
Thus right after coming into Bethlehem, she went into labor. They went to the inn but it had no vacancy; this registration had everyone on the road. So all poor Joseph could find was a stall meant for animals, not at all suitable for human habitation. In this kind of a shelter most likely all alone, Mary had to give birth to her firstborn and can you imagine, she had to lay the baby into a food trough for the animals. We now call a cradle a crib, but in Greek the word Phatné means a manger, a food trough for animals. In her need Mary had to be resourceful and she had to use a food trough for a cradle. The birth of our Savior Jesus Christ was that poor and desperate. Can you imagine that?
There is also nothing in the text about cows and sheep around the manger. But the Prophet Isaiah wrote, “The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (1:3). That is why we have the dear animals around the crib of Jesus, because the animals recognized our Savior before we human beings did.
No one in all Bethlehem was aware of the great event taking place that night. Everyone lived selfishly and watched out for themselves. “We all sat in darkness and in the shadow of death” until in “tender mercy and compassion” (Luke 1:78-79), God opened the heavens, first of all, naturally, to bring the Christ-child to us and then to send the Angel of the Lord to proclaim the Good News to us.
Now the “Dawn from on High,” who came down to us, did not come to be born in a royal palace, nor to rich nobility, nor to other respected and worthy people to proclaim the Good News, but to lowly shepherds in the fields, who watched over their flocks by night. Now Bethlehem is a city that sits on a hill and the hills where the shepherds watched over their flocks roll down from the city. It is probably the city set on a hill that Jesus compares with a lamp on a lampstand in his Sermon on the Mount (Mat 5:14).
In those days shepherds were not respected. They had the lowest work, had to overnight in the fields, they probably smelled, because there was no way that they could wash and shower out in the fields. On top of that they sinned a lot, because they had to survive and somehow muddle through. It is precisely over these shepherds that God opens up the heavens. It is above these humble, despised, and rejected folk that our loving God opens up the heavens and then commissions them to proclaim the Good News to all the world! What an honor! What tender mercies! God chooses precisely the most needy among us, the people we don’t even see, people the world considers completely unworthy, in order to demonstrate God’s almighty love.
And the glory of the Lord shone round about the Shepherds as the Angel of the Lord strode before them and the night began to shine with a heavenly glow, like the glow at Christmas. The glory of heaven shone round about the shepherds and they were terrified. “Now what have we done wrong? Now we’ve had it!” They ran around looking for a place to hide. Ba-ba-ba! The sheep also ran frantically in every direction, running into each other, also trying to find a hiding place.
But the Angel said to them, so that they would not hide themselves and not hear the Good News that he now proclaimed: “Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing good news of great joy for all people. (The angel was saying that all people would experience this joy, not only those of God’s favor, but all sinners, like the shepherds, and we ourselves, who say in our liturgy in Manteca, “Unto us a child is born and now we are all shepherds.”)
The angel said, “Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing good news of great joy for all people; for unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: [up there in the city] you will find the child rapped in bands of cloth and lying in a food trough.”
With open mouths the shepherds looked up into heaven and the awe-struck sheep also calmed down and became strangely peaceful. The shepherds saw the angels ascending and descending, like on the ladder in Jacob’s dream, and with uplifted hearts, they saw the multitude of the heavenly hosts, singing the Gloria, which we now still sing every Sunday in our worship services:
Glory to God in the highest,
On earth peace, good will to all.
And as the angels flew under the shepherds, around the shepherds, and over the shepherds, celebrating the birth of God’s Son, the whole world began to glow with a new light, like the shining face of God. That’s because, by the tender mercies of God, God’s-self came to dwell with us in this little child, in Jesus. The “Dawn from on High, as Luke seems to call Jesus, came “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet onto the way of peace” (Luke 1:78-79). Jesus is our Prince of Peace!
And the shepherds ran up the road to Bethlehem and there they saw the glory of the countenance of God shining on the face of the Christ-child, lying in the manger and all wound up with bands of cloth. Mary his mother was also there, as well as the faithful Joseph. And the shepherds proclaimed the Word to them that the Angel of the Lord had proclaimed to them. And Mary treasured these words and pondered them in her heart. In the German it says, “Mary kept all these words and moved them in her heart.” She let these words move in her heart the way the baby had moved inside her womb before he was born.
Now we ourselves need to listen to the angels and the shepherds and make room in our hearts for the birth of the Christ-child. As we sing, “Come into our hearts, Lord Jesus. There is room in our hearts for you!” In the glow of Christmas we also want to bow down and adore the child and we also want to let the words of the pastor enter and move our hearts, because as you know, “pastor” is just the Latin word for “shepherd.” Thus let us hold and move the Good News, just like Mother Mary kept, moved, and pondered them in her heart. When the Christ-child moves into our hearts, then we will not only have a stall for him, but a spacious and grand, wonderful hotel. Then our hearts will start to glow, just like the glistening and sparkling room we decorate for Christmas.
And when we listen to the shepherds and to this pastor and hear and take in the Good News of the birth of Jesus Christ, then our hearts will be strangely moved heavenwards and our feet will find the pathway of peace. Then we will celebrate Christmas like the shepherds, who were the first people to proclaim the Good News among us.
How will our Christmas room glow and glisten? (This is the line from a Christmas song.) When we adore the Christ-child like the shepherds, then it will glisten and glow like our hearts! How will our eyes sparkle and glisten, when we believe the Good News? Just like the eyes of children as they see all their Christmas presents under the Christmas tree! How will our souls glisten, glow, and shine? Just like the shimmering angel hair hanging on the decorated Christmas tree with candles in the branches burning brightly.
When the Christ-child moves in our hearts, the way God’s Word moved in the heart of Mother Mary, then we move heavenward and we don’t only find the pathway of peace. (Yes, when the tender and loving Word of God moves our hearts, then we always move a little more heavenwards.) But we are also transported into the love, hope, and faith in our heavenly Father, so that we also sing: “Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, good will to all.”
Through the Good News of the Birth of Jesus Christ there in Bethlehem with Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the dear animals, we become moved and transported into the heavenly glow of the light of the face of God, who did us a real favor, who here and now, gives us a present, and the wonderful favor of the gracious gift of coming to us in this divine and human birth, a birth that God gives us always, now, and forever and that is why we wish each other, a “Merry Christmas!” Amen.
Pastor Peter Krey