Kennedy at Seminary

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Christmas sermon

Sermon preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Arlington, Texas, on Christmas Day 2005:

What Christmas Is Really About
Merry Christmas. Not Happy Holidays. Not Season’s Greetings. But Merry Christmas.
Please be seated.
If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent us an educator. If our greatest need had been technology, God would have sent us a scientist. If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent us an economist. If our greatest need had been pleasure, God would have sent us an entertainer. But our greatest need was forgiveness, so God sent us a Savior.
And for that reason, I say to you: Merry Christmas.
(Step down from pulpit.)
This year, there seems to have been more controversy than usual about using generic wording to greet someone this time of year. Some companies require employees to say Happy Holidays or Season’s Greetings instead of Merry Christmas. The idea is to be more inclusive of other religions or to not offend non-Christians or something like that.
According to a poll in USA Today, about 70 percent of Americans prefer Merry Christmas. Thirty percent would choose to say Happy Holidays.
I know some Christians have gotten really worked up over the issue. There have been threats to boycott stores that require employees to say Happy Holidays.
While I think Merry Christmas is definitely the thing to say, I don’t think we should say it because, as Christians, it’s our holiday and we have to protect it. Instead, I think a better reason for insisting on saying Merry Christmas is because the phrase reminds us of the reason for the season. It’s a celebration of Christ’s birth.
Even as Christians, we fall prey to all the other stuff that is part of the Christmas season. Really, can you imagine Christmas without Santa and presents and shopping and Christmas trees and decorating the house and Christmas lights and gingerbread men and Christmas parties and gift exchanges and candy canes and Tickle Me Elmo?
None of those things are bad in themselves. The problem is that we too often become caught up in all the extra stuff and we forget what Christmas is all about.
Christmas is about Luke 2:1-20, our Gospel reading this morning. The author, Luke, states earlier, in the first four verses of his Gospel, that he had a goal. He wanted to write an accurate, orderly, historical account of the life of Jesus.
And here is the point of Christmas: Christmas is nothing other than celebrating an actual event in history.
While in St. Louis, I attended an Advent service in which elementary school kids recited the Christmas story from Luke. I found it interesting listening to the kids pronouncing names of people with seemingly no bearing at all on the Christmas story.
I can still hear all the kids speaking verses 1 and 2, saying the words very methodically and even-paced: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)”
I’m sure the kids didn’t care about Caesar Augustus. I bet they didn’t care whether the governor of Syria was Quirinius or Mickey Mouse. Who cares? Why is that in the story?
As tempting as it would be to skip those verses and move on to the more interesting parts, Luke included those words to make a point: Jesus was born in real history. This isn’t a birth that happened “once upon a time in a magical land far, far away.” It happened in a real place.
You can look at the Gospel lesson and see the names of real places. Nazareth. Galilee. Judea. Bethlehem.
You can scan the reading and see the names of real people who walked the earth. Joseph. David. Mary. Shepherds. In Matthew’s Christmas account we can read of King Herod and the wise men, too. All of them are real people.
A couple days before leaving seminary for the Christmas break, I participated in a Bible study with some of my friends at school. For our Bible study, we read the Christmas story and tried to imagine what it was like to be one of the people in the story.
One of my friends took the role of Joseph and talked about what it must have felt like to see a child come into the world. He imagined that Joseph worried about raising a child and caring for his wife, Mary.
One of my friends put himself in the place of the wise men. He talked about the long journey they made. Surely, they were exhausted from traveling. But at the same time, they must have been overjoyed to reach their destination, to stand at the feet of the newborn king.
I took the role of a shepherd. I talked about how surprising it would be that angels would appear to me to announce the birth of the Savior. Why me? I didn’t deserve to be the first to receive the Good News.
2,000 years ago, real people had these thoughts and experienced these feelings.
But when you get to the heart of Christmas, to the very core and center of Christmas, even the real people are expendable. They’re not necessary.
God could have chosen another girl to give birth to His Son. He could have picked other people to visit the baby Jesus. And Joseph wasn’t even His real dad.
Only one Person is essential to the story. There He lies in a manger, a feeding trough where farm animals stick their heads and slop up their food.
There lies God, a pink-faced baby. Coughing and sneezing. Snot running from His nose and drool dripping from His mouth. Making weird noses and emitting weird baby odors. There lies the only part of the Christmas story that really matters, the God-baby. A Real Person. His name is Jesus.
Relient K, a Christian rock band, sings my favorite Christmas song, called “I Celebrate the Day.” Some of the lyrics are: “And the first time that You opened Your eyes, did You realize that You would be my Savior? And the first breath that left Your lips, did You know that it would change this world forever?”
Ever since that day in history, the world was changed forever. “Our greatest need was forgiveness, so God sent us a Savior.”
God came as a Real Person to save real sinners. He came to save people like you and me who are desperately in need of forgiveness. People who have hurt others. People who have fallen flat our faces over and over. People who have cheated, stolen, lied, and cursed. People who have brushed God to the side and forgotten what Christmas is all about.
For messed up people like you and me, God humbled Himself and became a baby.
And so we celebrate the day God became a baby.
One way we remember the meaning of Christmas is by reliving the story each year. A nine-year-old boy named Wally did his part to relive the story by being in a Christmas play. Although he was old enough to be in fourth grade, he had been held back and was only in second grade. Most people in town knew Wally had trouble keeping up. He was big and clumsy, slow in movement and mind.
Still, Wally was well liked by the other children in his class, all of whom were smaller than he, though the boys had trouble hiding their irritation when Wally would ask to play ball with them – or any other game in which winning was most important.
Most often they would find a way to keep him out, but Wally would hang around anyway – not sulking, just hoping. He was always a helpful boy, a willing and smiling one, and the natural protector of the underdog. Sometimes if the older boys chased the younger ones away, it would always be Wally who would say: “Can’t they stay? They’re no bother.”
Wally thought it would be cool to be a shepherd in the Christmas pageant that year. But the play’s director assigned him to a different role. After all, the director reasoned, the innkeeper didn’t have too many lines, and Wally’s size would make it more forceful when he told Joseph to take a hike.
And so it happened that the usual large audience gathered for the town’s yearly extravaganza of fake beards, crowns, halos, and a whole stage full of squeaky voices. No one on of off stage was more caught up in the magic than Wally. They said later that he stood in the wings and watched the performance with such fascination that from time to time the director had to make sure Wally didn’t wander onstage before his cue.
Then the time came when Joseph appeared, slowly, tenderly guiding Mary to the door of the inn. Joseph knocked hard on the wooden door set into the painted backdrop. Wally the innkeeper was there, waiting.
“What do you want?” demanded Wally, forcefully swinging the door open.
“We need a place to stay for the night,” came the reply.
“Look somewhere else.” Wally looked straight ahead as he spoke vigorously. “The inn is filled.”
“Sir, we have asked everywhere in vain. We have traveled far and are very weary.”
“There is no room in this inn for you.” Wally looked stern.
“Please, good innkeeper, this is my wife, Mary. She is heavy with child and needs a place to rest. Surely you must have some small corner for her. She is so tired.”
Now, for the first time, the innkeeper relaxed his stiff stance and looked down at Mary. With that, there was a long pause, long enough to make the audience a bit tense with embarrassment.
“No! Be gone!” The director whispered from the wings.
“No!” Wally repeated automatically. “Be gone!”
Joseph placed his arm around Mary and Mary laid her head upon her husband’s shoulder and the two of them started to move away. The innkeeper did not return inside his inn, however. Wally stood there in the doorway, watching the couple walk away. His mouth was open, his forehead creased with concern, his eyes filling unmistakably with tears.
And suddenly, this Christmas pageant became different from all others.
“Don’t go, Joseph,” Wally called out. “Bring Mary back.” And Wally’s face grew into a bright smile. “You can have my room. I’ll take the stable.”
2,000 years ago, God traded places with us. He didn’t do it because He was foolish or because He had made a mistake or because He couldn’t think of a better solution to rescue us from our sins. He did it because He loved you.
He came to the earth, born as a baby. He lived the perfect life we could not live. He died on the cross, in our place, taking away our guilt and shame. And He rose from the dead in victory.
God acted in real human history to save you and me.
And it all began in a stable in Bethlehem, with a pink-faced, runny-nosed baby lying in a manger.
Merry Christmas. Amen.


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