The Story of God
Lectionary Texts: Luke 2: 1-20; Isaiah 9: 2-7
First United Methodist Church, Wharton
Wednesday, December 24, 2016
- On This Night
This is the night for which we’ve waited. This is the night for which we’ve prepared. This is the night that we’ve talked about and planned and for which we’ve tried our best to make room. This is the night. This is the night that the world becomes something different. Many of us will, sadly, forget to remember that. Most of us will get wrapped up in festivities and trying to make them the best they can be that we will forget the story. And all of us, all of us, will wonder what it all means. This is no ordinary night.
In just a little while, the door to the Divine will swing open and God and all of heaven will burst into the world. If you stop and listen, just for a moment, you can hear the eternal harps in the distance as they approach our lives. Oh, sure, it’s happened before. But can’t you feel it? Doors opening, light flooding in, the earth filled with a new vision of peace eternal. Maybe, just maybe, tonight will be different. Maybe there will be more of us—maybe you, maybe me—more of us that open our eyes just a little bit wider and our heart a little more broadly, so much so that we actually realize what it’s all really about, that we will actually remember the story. Maybe it’s time we do a little pondering.
That’s what the passage tells us that Mary did—pondered all these things in her heart, took them unto herself, made them a part of her. Why can’t we do that? Why can’t we take the story and make it ours? How do we do that? I mean, we know the story. We know the story well, maybe too well, maybe so well that we forget to let it come alive and live out in us.
- The Greatest Story Ever Told
So, listen. Pretend that you do not know the story. Pretend that this is the first time you have heard the greatest story ever told.
The journey took many days. They were tired and thought about turning back several times. But they had to keep moving. The time was almost here. The desert wilderness was cold and unforgiving. The winds whipped around the mountains this time of year and made it worse. The pathway was treacherous. But now they were here. Mary and Joseph have arrived in Bethlehem. The crowds are almost too much to take, pushing and crushing as the couple makes their way through them. Mary doesn’t feel well. She really needs to just lie down and rest. And when you don’t feel well, the last place you want to be is somewhere that is not home, somewhere foreign, somewhere so crowded, so unwelcoming. They need to hurry. There is not much time left.
They stop at a small house up on the hill overlooking the Shepherds’ Field down below. The owner offers a bed and a meal for a reasonable price. Joseph leaves Mary for a moment and goes to make arrangements for a place to stay. But when he returns, his face looks frustrated, almost in tears. He tells Mary that the inn is full. In fact, the whole town is full. There is no place to stay. There is no room. But he tells Mary that the innkeeper has given them permission to at least go into the stableroom in the back of the house to keep warm. He’s freshening the hay now. Well, it will have to do.
You know, I’ve said this before, but I think the innkeeper gets a bad rap. I mean, was he supposed to kick someone else out? And consider this: This was not the Hilton. It probably wouldn’t even qualify as a roadside motel. It was probably just a couple of small beds in the innkeeper’s home that he rented out to help make ends meet. And first century houses were often just a room or maybe two of actual living quarters anyway. The second or third room was attached to the house and used to house the animals that were so much a part of their life. No one in this small town would have owned a large “ranch” estate or a garage apartment. The stable probably wasn’t “out back” the way we interject into the story. It was part of the home. So the innkeeper was possibly, on some level, bringing Mary and Joseph, bringing strangers, into his home. His home became part of the story.
So Mary and Joseph entered the stableroom and, surrounded by animals, tried to get some rest. They could still hear the crowded city outside but at least it was warm. The innkeeper has actually been really nice. They could hear the Roman guards yelling as they tried to control the crowds. It made the place feel ever more foreign, even more foreboding. But directly overhead, was the brightest star they had ever seen. It was as if the tiny little stable was being bathed in light. So Mary laid down and closed her eyes. She knew that the time was almost here. She knew that the baby was coming into the world.
And on this night of nights, into a cold, dirty stable in a small town filled with yelling and pushing crowds, into a place occupied by soldiers, into a place that did not feel like home, into a world that had no room, into a back door, God comes. The door to the Divine swings open and God and all of heaven burst into our little world, flooding it with Light and Life. And yet, the child in the manger bathed in light, the very Incarnation of the Divine, Emmanuel, God With Us, the Messiah, is, still, one of us. God takes the form of one of us–just an ordinary human–a human like you and me–to show us what it means to be one of us, to be human, to be part of the story.
III. So, Do the Details Matter?
We love that story. It is our story. But, the truth is, it’s NOT just our story. It’s God’s story. It’s the story of God coming into the world and we are invited to not only read it but to enter its pages and make it come alive for us.
When I was growing up, we always a nativity scene on the table in our entry room. I loved that nativity scene. I loved it because I knew the story, I knew the story so well that I began re-writing it. And so my brother and I would change it up a bit. We’d put the camel on the roof of the stable. We’d put necklaces on the Wisemen or have Barbie or G.I. Joe watch over the sheep. We’d put the shepherds propped up on their heads and put the sheep with the angel. One time we lost the baby Jesus for several days. (That was disconcerting. It’s doesn’t speak well for your family when you lose Jesus!) It eventually showed up in my brother’s bed. Apparently, he’d been sleeping with it. (But that’s probably another sermon!) The truth was that we knew the story so well that changing the details really didn’t make all that difference.
I have another story that I have borrowed from Jim Bankston, who was a previous Senior Pastor of mine. Jim tells this story of something that happened at John Wesley UMC when he was serving there. They were having a children’s Christmas pageant where the children became the characters and got to act out the story. I love that. It’s a great way for children to learn the story, to become the story.
So, here they were, these children’s versions of Mary and Joseph, making their way through the streets in search of shelter. So they come to the innkeeper’s house and they knock on the door. The innkeeper opens the door and the little boy playing Joseph, with perfect memorization, asks the innkeeper if there is room for them at the inn. (You know the story!) Now the innkeeper was a little on the young side. (I guess they thought that maybe he could handle a small one-line part.) So, when it came time for his one line, with all the gusto he could manage, his answer came. “Sure! Come on in!” (OK, that’s not the story.)
Well, poor Joseph knew that this wasn’t the way it was supposed to be and that, in fact, it would indeed change the course of the rest of the pageant and perhaps the whole Christian story. In fact, this was never going to get them to the manger! So, his quick-thinking response came. “This place is HORRIBLE! I wouldn’t stay here if you paid me. We’re just going to go out to the stable and stay there!”
Well, maybe the details DO matter. But when it’s all said and done, this story is our story to do with it what we will. We can clean it up and make it a pretty little Christmas story and then put it back in the box with the decorations at the end of the season. We can pick it apart until we don’t really know what to believe. Or we can just enter it and let it this story of God become ours. It’s a story like no other. God came. God just came. God came unto us. THAT’S the story.
- More to the Story
There is not one of us that does not love The Christmas Story. It’s got it all–heartache, darkness, intrigue, danger, animals, innocence, an oppressive government, and a baby to boot. It’s got all those things that make great tales. No wonder it’s a bestseller! No wonder there are so many songs written about it and paintings depicting it. But for all the romantic notions of a baby born into a cold desert night in a small town on the other side of the world to poor, struggling parents, this story is not about a birth. It’s not a story about Jesus. This is the Story of God.
But sometimes we Christians seem to think that Jesus just sort of dropped out of the clouds into the manger that night and replaced the story that was already in motion. But, you see, the story did not begin on this night. It began long before this. It began in the beginning. It began when God breathed a part of the Godself into being and created this little world. And as the story unfolded, as God’s Creation grew into being, God remained with them, a mysterious, often unknown Presence, that yearned to be in relationship with what God had breathed into being. And once in a while, God’s children would stop what they were doing long enough to know and acknowledge the incarnations of God. Once in awhile, they would encounter a burning bush or a parting sea or an unfathomable cloud on the top of a mountain. Once in a while they would stop, take off their shoes, and feel the holiness beneath their feet. But more often than not, they struggled in darkness, they struggled in war, they struggled in oppression and injustice because they didn’t see the Light that was with them. God called them and God sent them and some were prophets and some were wise and some were yearning themselves to be with God. Some wrote hymns and poetry telling of their yearning and others just bowed and hoped that God would notice.
But this wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough for the people and it wasn’t enough for God. God yearned to be with what God had created. God desperately wanted humanity to be what they were made to be, to come home to the Divine. And so God came once again, God Incarnate, into this little world. But this time, God came into Creation itself, came as what God had created. And so God was born into a cold, dark night. But the earth was almost too full. There was little room for God. But, on that night, in a dark grotto on the outskirts of holiness, God was born. The Divine somehow made room in a quiet, little corner of the world. God came to show Creation what had been there all along. And, yet, there was Newness; there was Light; there was finally Meaning; there was God Made Known. And it was very, very good.
- So Why Do We Tell the Story?
The truth is that the Bible is not about people trying to get to God; its about the story, the story of God. And this part of it, this chapter that we relive tonight, this holy night is not the climax of the story; it is a new chapter, a new beginning. 19th century American author and clergyman Henry Van Dyke once asked, “And not that this story is told, what does is mean? How can I tell? What does life mean?” And then he answered himself, “If the meaning could be put into a single sentence, there would be no need of telling the story.”
This night, THIS Incarnation, is God’s unveiling. It is God coming out of the darkness and out of the shadows and showing us what we could not see before. God became one of us to show us how to be like God in the world. So, in this season, we again hear the story. We hear the story of God. But unless we realize that it is our story, it still won’t be enough. God came as God Incarnate into this little world to tell the story that goes back to the beginning. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.[i]
Just now, the light is beginning to dawn. It is not a new light, but the light that was created in the beginning. But, this time, THIS time, let us finally see the story it holds—because it is the story of God, the story of God who loved us so much that the heavens would open and spill into the earth so that we would know the story, know the story so well that we would have a part in rewriting it, in moving the characters so that the story will become the one that God envisions.
Tonight is not the beginning of the story; rather it is the chapter in which you and I come to be, the very dawn of redeeming grace spilling into a waiting story-filled earth. Tonight a baby is born and we continue the story. What will you now do with your chapter? Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace, goodwill toward all.
[i] John 1: 1-5