A long long time ago in a pastoral appointment far, far away….
There was a bible. Actually, there were a lot of bibles. That church, not unlike this church and almost every other church, had invested in a bunch of bibles. I don’t know if “bunch” is the technically correct group term for Bibles. You know, like gaggle of geese, pride of lions, congress of crows or committee of vultures (You gotta love those last 2!).
Anyway, this church had quite a few bibles. A pantsload of bibles. Maybe even a small boatload. You get the idea.
One of these bibles, at least only 1 to my knowledge, had an error.
I’m not talking doctrine here. Get your mind out of the theological gutter.
I mean the cover was put on backwards. And, therefore, upside down.
Which, I don’t mind telling you, was more than a little frustrating, at least for me, when I’d open it to read it.
I know, plenty of us read the bible on your phones now, and your phone has this little thingamabob called an accelerometer. The accelerometer is what turns the screen the right way when you, maybe, pick your phone up upside down to read the bible.
This bible that I’m talking about didn’t have an accelerometer.
So, you know how sometimes youth find things funny that other people might not think are funny? And you know how sometimes youth have this built-in alert system that catches all us adults when we do something that we would ordinarily tell youth they shouldn’t do?
Well, here’s how that works. With a totally hypothetical story:
Just say, maybe, you were the pastor at a church that had bibles. Bunches of bibles. Maybe even a small boatload of bibles. And 1 of those bibles had an error.
YES, I still mean that the cover was applied backwards. And upside down. Come on!
And just say that, as the pastor, you were, one night, leading a youth bible study, and happened to pick up this particular bible and open it to read from it.
And it didn’t have an accelerometer in it, so you opened it upside down when you thought it was right side up.
And then imagine, because, again, this is all hypothetical, that before you stopped to think about it, you slammed the book shut and tossed it across the table.
And then imagine you said something. Something you might regret as the words were coming out of your mouth.
Something like, “I hate this book!”
Again, this is all hypothetical. Except that it actually happened. I was there. I saw it.
Yep; that pastor? That was me.
Didn’t see that coming, did you?
So those youth had caught me, their pastor, saying, about a bible, “I hate this book!”
I am SO thankful I had enough of a relationship with those kids that they laughed it off. They knew I didn’t actually mean that about the bible.
And for the rest of my years there, they never let me forget about it!
And you might wonder why I would tell you that story tonight, on Christmas Eve.
I told you that story because I think it can help us understand the scripture for tonight.
The Christmas story. You might say it is Luke’s Christmas story, which would be true, but perhaps misleadingly so – Luke is the only one with an actual Christmas story.
Matthew comes close, telling us about how the angel appeared Joseph (we don’t get Mary’s side of the story at all), then skipping to “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem….”
Luke gives us the details. But do we really want details? I mean, we don’t need the bible for details; we make up our own! Many of us include the wise men in the story, though they appear in Matthew, not in Luke, and came looking for the babe as much as two years after the birth.
But, really: who wants a 2 year long Christmas pageant?
So: we usually end up reading in one of two ways. The first is like this. https://youtu.be/suowe2czxcA
The second is like this: https://youtu.be/BqpJvey-7-s
I worry that we make Christmas either a sappy, sentimental thing for kids or a anachronistic stepping stone on the way to something else.
Honestly, I don’t think, and there is no indication, Mary felt very sappy. Giving birth is hard work – I’ve witnessed it! And when Rachel was about to deliver Eliza, one of our favorite songs came up on the playlist we’d curated for the morning.
I lovingly and gently pointed it out. Rachel, in the process of delivering her first child and having had no pain killer, wasn’t feeling “loving” or “gentle.” In retrospect, I can’t blame her.
Pretty sure Mary wasn’t in the mood for hosting a “live nativity scene” either. Doubtful that was a silent night.
Don’t get me wrong: I like Christmas Pageants. But, folks, This incarnation thing isn’t JUST that.
There’s one thing that probably did happen that first Christmas that I’ve seen at most live nativity scenes. At least the one with animals. Instead of just standing there like a petting zoo, the donkey, or one of the sheep,, will likely relieve itself just when you don’t want it to.
Hey, donkey, that wasn’t in the script!
Which brings me to another point. We tend to read the Christmas story like it was a stage production. As if Luke’s gospel had been written in heaven from the foundation of the world, and finally, here and now, Mary, check, Joseph, check, Bethlehem, check. Places, folks – and – action!
Luke is telling the story after it unfolded, not writing the script for how it was to unfold.
Which leads me to George Washington in the Dodge Challenger. That’s a different kind of in car nation.
We tend to tell the story of Jesus’ birth as though it only really happened so that he could die on the cross about 33 years later.
That’s getting the story out of order and reading something that happened later in history onto an event that happened before it.
Yes, Jesus is the Lamb of God who was slain from the foundation of the world. But that “slain from the foundation of the world,” a phrase we get from Rev 13:8, is more a reference to the character of God than to an event that happened.
In other words, Jesus’ crucifixion isn’t a story about what happened to Jesus, but about who Jesus is.
Jesus, God incarnate – that is, in human flesh, is a God who suffers at the hands of the powers of the world.
Jesus, born an innocent, fragile baby, is another picture, at the other end of his earthly life, that tells us the same thing about God. That God comes to us, that God’s hope for saving the world, come powerless, vulnerable, and at the mercy of those created in God’s very image.
At this end of the story, vulnerable, powerless God receives care and love and attention. Born to a lowly woman – a woman who has powerful introspective and reflective thoughts. If you doubt it, check back into 1:46-55, or you catch it here in verse 19: “Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully.”
What God was doing in that first Christmas God has been doing since the creation of the world, and God continues to do today. Tonight. In the morning.
You remember, don’t you, after Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the ONE TREE God had told them not to eat? God comes walking in the garden (do you worship a God who takes walks in a garden?), and they hide because they are “naked and ashamed.” God calls out, “Adam, where are you?”
Like God didn’t know?
No: like God is a god who comes to us, a god who came to the world God had created, as humbly and vulnerable and powerless as possible.
Because you love someone, you don’t approach them in power. You approach them humbly and with vulnerability and powerless as possible.
And that’s the way the Bible actually tells the story. My prayer is that tonight, and in the morning, you and I will hear it that way.