Note from CM: We are on the road for a few days, so no Sunday sermon for this post. Here is the sermon I preached on Christmas Eve, giving a different perspective on what that first Christmas might have been like.
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Sermon: Christmas Eve 2019
The first family Christmas
The Lord be with you.
I read a very interesting article by Todd Brewer at Mockingbird recently that challenged some of our common understandings of the Christmas story as the Gospel tells it here in Luke, chapter two. I’m still thinking about it, but I thought I’d share it with you tonight, because I think, if it’s accurate, it has some relevance to our own Christmas celebrations.
In the article, Brewer describes what I think is a fairly common understanding of the Christmas story.
Mary, about to give birth, treks down with Joseph to the backwater town of Bethlehem to fulfill Caesar’s census decree. They arrive at Joseph’s hometown and are greeted by “no vacancy” signs at all hotels…. The snow begins to fall. They are jet-lagged from travel. The only accommodation they can find is some dingy, smelly, cold cave [or maybe it’s a stable], full of animals. The soon-to-be parents are alone as Mary goes into labor and Joseph stands helplessly by. Finally, the moment comes and Jesus is wrapped in tattered clothes as he is placed in a feeding trough, an unassuming birthplace more fitting for a lamb than a King. The Son of God comes into the world just as he left it: poor, destitute, and rejected by those he came to save.
The problem, as the author says, is that we have misunderstood what it means when the Gospel says, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
I don’t know about you, but when I think of the word “inn” I imagine a Holiday Inn, a Hampton Inn, or a Fairfield Inn – a hotel — or maybe some local bed & breakfast that calls itself an inn.
However, if you read the New International Version translation, which gives a more literal sense of what the word meant in that culture, a whole new picture emerges. It reads “and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.”
The author explains that Joseph and Mary likely had relatives in Bethlehem, and that the couple would have stayed in one of their homes. Now the homes in those days usually had space for the animals as a part of the house and not in a separate facility. The animals’ quarters may have been on the ground floor with the family living space above or they may have been attached to the house in some other way. At any rate, it wasn’t like the farms many of you have or see in our area, where the house is for people and the barn or the stables are for the animals. People and animals lived close together in the same dwelling. There are still many parts of the world where this is the arrangement.
When it says that Joseph and Mary could find no room in that setting, it means that the house was so crowded with relatives that all the guest rooms were taken, all the spare beds were being slept in. The family members that had gathered there in Bethlehem were so numerous that they had overflowed into the part of the house that was occupied by the animals.
What this means, if this is accurate, is that we have far too few pieces in our Nativity sets!
Joseph and Mary weren’t alone in Bethlehem, they were likely surrounded by aunts and uncles and cousins and all manner of distant relatives. The birth of Jesus didn’t take place on a “silent night,” it happened in the midst of a crowded home full of noise and conversation and anticipation and support. Jesus was born in the midst of a joyful gathering of loving and excited kin.
Maybe the birth of Jesus was more like the following description.
Mary, about to give birth, treks down with Joseph to the royal town of Bethlehem to fulfill Caesar’s census decree. They arrive at Joseph’s hometown and are greeted by … hoards of his second cousins, great-aunts and -uncles, and distant relatives. The whole gang is in town, and together they trade travel stories while quietly cursing Caesar’s ridiculous decree. Tired from the journey and the hot sun, Mary goes into labor surrounded by extended family and the local midwife. Finally, the moment comes and Jesus is swaddled as he is placed in the living room feeding trough because the guest room was already full of out-of-town guests. The Son of God comes into the world and everyone rejoices in song at the birth of the newest addition to the family.
You may not know this, but my wife Gail gave birth to three of our children at home. We had other kids running around, a doctor and a midwife who came to help, friends we had asked to be there, other family members who had come in from out of town to either witness the event or support us afterward. We weren’t tucked away in a hospital room with only the medical staff present. It was a family occasion, a time we wanted to share with others, a time of joy and rejoicing.
So, if what this author describes is a more realistic setting for Jesus’ birth, our Savior was born in the same kind of context. The angels weren’t the only ones singing that night. The shepherds weren’t the only ones running with excitement to see the baby and spread the news. Mary and Joseph were surrounded by a large, extended family who rejoiced with them when the baby Jesus was born. It may have been a quiet birth from the standpoint that the world outside took little notice, but in a house with its attached animal quarters in Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary’s relatives were having a Christmas party. The first Christmas family gathering.
I say all this to encourage you to enjoy this Christmas with your family and friends. I encourage you to sing. I encourage you to laugh, to feast, to tell stories, play games, and make it a family get-together to remember.
It seems as though that’s exactly what the first Christmas may have been like — an occasion for family and friends to come together and make merry over the good news that a baby has been born to bring us joy forever.
A very merry Christmas to you all. Amen.