Seward United Methodist Church
Thursday, May 24, 2018
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A Pretty Picture?

Christmas Eve Sermon

 When you think about the Christmas story, what is the image, the picture, that pops into your head?  

Maybe it’s something like what you would see on the front of a Christmas card:  a beautiful, idyllic picture.  A cabin the woods under a clear sky, stockings hung on the fireplace by the Christmas tree.  Maybe it’s a nativity scene:  A stable, the manger, shepherds and wise men bowing, Mary and Joseph looking down lovingly, a bright shining star overhead in a perfect blue-black sky.  Or maybe we think of a Christmas pageant, performed by children.  There’s always that scene in the pageant where the poor, frazzled innkeeper just doesn’t know what to do with this poor couple, the wife expecting.  And his ever-resourceful wife chides him for even thinking about sending them back out into the cold.  “We have the stable.  It’s not much, but at least it’s warm and private.”  

It’s beautiful.  But is it realistic?  Is that likely how it all went down?  

Well, for starters, there are some parts of the story that we have created in our minds, rather than taking from the pages of Scripture.  

For example, the little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay, did he really make no crying?  So the hymn goes, but I’ve never read that in the Bible.  If there’s a baby out there who makes no crying, I’d like to see that!  

And those wise men, who made the journey all the way from Arabia or Persia or wherever, did they really show up just after the shepherds?  That’s an awful long journey.  Matthew’s Gospel implies that they may have shown up as much as two years after Jesus’ birth.  

And by the way, there is neither an innkeeper in the Bible nor his wife.  Many Bible scholars argue there probably was no innkeeper in Bethlehem at all.  Most people didn’t stay at an “inn” when they traveled.  They stayed with friends or family.  And Bethlehem was Joseph’s home town.  He was born there.  When your relatives come home to visit, do you send them to the inn?  You might want to, but you probably don’t!  A scholar of the Greek language would tell you that the word we usually see translated as “inn” is better understood as “guest room,” because it’s the same word that

describes the guest room, the upper room, where Jesus and his disciples ate their Last Supper together.  

So right away, some parts of the story don’t fit into the nativity scene or the Christmas pageant or on the front of the card.  And then there are all those messy details that also don’t fit into the pretty picture.  

The story begins with an out-of-wedlock pregnancy.  That might not shock us anymore, but it was certainly not a “pretty picture” in the minds of first century Hebrew people.  A woman who became pregnant out of marriage was a social pariah, an outcast.  And her soon-to-be husband would typically get rid of her.  And her father would likely disown her.  And if one of them wanted to press the matter to keep their own image intact, they could even have her stoned to death.  That sounds pretty messy.

But of course, Mary had a good explanation.  It was God’s child.  I’m sure people just accepted that, no questions asked!  And then, remarkably, Joseph believed it.  Probably right about then, the rest of Nazareth was looking for the ancient Near Eastern equivalent of a rubber room.  Mary’s gone crazy, and now Joseph believes her!  Again, messy.

But fortunately for Mary and Joseph, there was an excuse to get out of town.  The heavy-handed Roman government wanted a census so they could be sure they were getting all the taxes they deserved.  And of course, taxes are always messy.

But there was no room in the inn, or should we say, guest room.  So Mary and Joseph had the baby Jesus in a stable, and laid him in a manger.  And we have those Christmas card pictures of Mary and Joseph looking down lovingly into a manger, with all the farm animals gathered around.  Really?  For starters, the stable was probably a cave.  And I’m not sure the animals all gathered around.  And that’s to say nothing of the manure and the smell of a stable.  

Shepherds came to visit him.  Shepherds were not considered to be the cleanest or most polite of company.  They had a reputation for being rough and smelly.  Hence the reason they lived out in the fields with the sheep.

And of course the messiest part of the story is that after King Herod realized he was tricked by the wise men, he ordered all the baby boys in Bethlehem to be

massacred.  A paranoid tyrant murders innocent children.  That’s also part of the Christmas story, but somehow that part never makes it into the Christmas pageant.

So is it really such a pretty picture?  No, it’s a rather messy picture.  

But that’s just the way it should be.  We live in a messy world.  And more often than we’d like to admit, there’s a lot of messiness in our lives.  But we have a Savior who came into the mess of our world and who comes into the messes of our lives.  He comes in to offer us a fresh start.  

The Gospel of John says, “Light and life are in him, and his light shines in the darkness of this world.  And to all who believe in him, he gives the right to become children of God.”  He offers us a new beginning.  Regeneration, we call it.  Rather than leaving our world and our lives as the mess they were after sin came into this world, God came to us in the person of Jesus and offers a chance for a fresh start.  And if we turn the mess of our lives over to him, he can make a beautiful picture out of our lives.  

We have a Savior who did not just wish us well in the midst of our mess, but one who stepped down out of heaven into the mess, and leads us out of it.  So if you come tonight with messes in your life, if your Christmas isn’t shaping up to be the front of the greeting card, there is good news:  Jesus can make something beautiful in you.

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