Posted by: Philip Rushton | December 14, 2016

Christmas For The Down and Out

(The following is an adapted manuscript from this past weeks sermon where I looked at the characters of the Shepherds in Luke 2:8-20)

One of fixtures in our home right now is the Play School “Little People’s Nativity Set.” This is not a delicate nativity set.  It is a toy – the type of toy that is made to withstand the full contact play of a four year old boy.   Various pieces tend to fly across the room and get mashed together mixed up with other sets of toys. So it is not uncommon to find odd guests showing up at the nativity scene.  Sometimes Thomas the Train pays a visit to the manger.  This week James staged a wrestling match between Scooby Doo and one of the angels. Even our Golden Retriever Sophie made her way over to the nativity.  I discovered one of the wise men next to her bed with one of his hands chewed off.   All types of unexpected and odd guests show up at our nativity scene.

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Sophie Looking Guilty With the Handless Wise Man Behind Her

In many ways, this is how the nativity story would have sounded like to first century listeners.  We’ve become so accustomed to the story that we forget how startling it is.  We have made it this tame, cute, Norman Rockwell scene, when in reality it is quite odd. There are all kinds of unexpected people that show up.

The supposed king is born in a down and out nothing of a town.   His parents are poor minorities that can’t find a place that will take them in.  The birth takes place in cowshed surrounded by dirty animals. Not Golden Retrievers mind you, but animals none the less. Three wise men, who were pagan foreigners despised as idolaters by the religious people of the day, show up and bring gifts.  The news about the whole thing is announced to nameless shepherds.

Commentators point out how the shepherds had a questionable reputation in the ancient world.  Chris Seay writes,  “At that time, shepherds were often despised as thieves unfit for more respectable occupations. Their testimony was not allowed in court nor their presence in polite society, so shepherds found their place on the outskirts of towns.”

Right from the outset of the gospels we see those on the margins taking center stage.  We begin to see that the kingdom of God is going to be an inclusive kingdom.  Jesus will be a king that makes room for the outcast, the poor, and the marginalized. Those who are looked down upon, those who you would least expect to see, take center stage in a story that would change the world.

This is confirmed as the story unfolds.  The angels say they have good news for “all people.”  When Jesus finally speaks in a couple chapters he says that he has come with good news for the poor, the oppressed, the blind, the lame and the prisoner.

There is a group of musicians from the Phoenix symphony regularly go and play beautiful classical music at the local homeless shelters.  That is the type of scene that our text is portraying.   God sends the angels to sing beautiful music to a group of rough around the edge misfits.  They do not go to a beautiful concert hall.  The do not perform for the elite in society or the people with status and power, but to a group despised shepherds.

This reminds us that the Christmas story is good news for those who can relate to the shepherds.  This story is good news for those of us who feel excluded in some way – for those who feel as if they don’t fit.

Christmas is good news families who don’t live up to the cookie cutter image of the perfect family.  Chris mentioned a couple weeks ago that 75% of families don’t fit the traditional definition of a family with 2 parents and 2.5 children.  The Christmas story reminds us that if our hearts are broken by divorce, if our kids have gone astray, if family life is hard, there is room for us in God’s kingdom.

The Christmas story is also good news for those of us who feel weak, for those who feel left behind and excluded in a fast paced society, for those who are sick, bed ridden, or unable to be as productive as we once were.  God says that there is room for you in his kingdom.  There is place for you.

Christmas is good new for those of us who are weighed down by shame for our past mistakes and our present struggles with sin.  It is interesting to note that the Shepherds respond to the angels with a sense of fear.  I wonder if this indicates a feeling of unworthiness or shame?  A fear that they aren’t worthy to be in the presence of angels? “Are they here to judge me?” “Do they know what I’ve done?”  Stepping into the light is scary because it might reveal who we really are.

My spiritual director gave me a wise word this week.  He said that the enemy wants us to feel uncomfortable around God.  That is one of the lies of the evil one.  The lie that says we’re too messed up to come to God, to be in his presence.  But God tells us to not be afraid.  He meets us in the depths.  He comes to be with us despite our struggles and our shame.   Others may despise us, and we may despise ourselves, but God sees us as worthy and able to receive the glory of God!

The Christmas story is good news for Longview and Kelso.  One of my friends commented that this story reminds us that the divine drama of God plays itself out in struggling small towns.  That God’s kingdom enfolds places with rising homelessness and economic struggles.  You don’t have to live in Manhattan to be part of something significant and important. There is room for Longview and Kelso in God’s kingdom.

The Christmas story is good news for those our culture often rejects – for the poor, the refugee, the homeless in our midst.   This passage issues a challenge to those of us who read it from a position of privilege.  It calls us to a respond with humility, generosity and hospitality to those whom Jesus seeks to elevate. The good news is not just for me. It is for all those who are feel defeated, rejected, and on the margins of life.

This is more than a call to be charitable to the poor. It is an invitation to treat those on the margins with dignity. To begin to see people who our culture rejects as people of value – people that Jesus counted as worthy to be the central figures in his kingdom.

Julie and I had the privilege of spending time with a missionary named Joel down in Guatemala one summer. He works with people who live in slums and prisons.  He spends his time with those who are often forgotten and despised.  One of the things he said to us is that grace pools in low places.  Grace pools among those who have been displaced to the depths of society.

Thomas Merton writes:

“Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it, because he is out of place in it, and yet he must be in it, his place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world.”

I wonder if God is present with those for whom there is no room because they are open to his coming? Maybe he chose to reveal the message to the shepherds because they were ready to receive it.  Maybe the poor and the excluded are at the scene because they are the ones looking for hope.  They are not attached to wealth, status and power because they are poor.

One of my professors Chris Rice once said, “to the extent that our lament is shallow our hope will be shallow.” What he means is that we will not be receptive to hope unless we have come to terms with our pain.   The joy of Christmas won’t resonate if we have distracted ourselves and numbed ourselves to the pain of life.

Maybe part of our journey toward Christ this Advent season is to take the risk of naming our brokenness.  To create space to lament where we feel excluded, weak, vulnerable, or weighed down by shame. To take the risk of journeying to those low places both in our own lives and in society so that we might discover again our need for God’s grace.

Have you ever walked into a climactic moment of a movie without having watched the first part?  You see other people crying and showing emotion and you don’t get it.  The joy, or the resolution falls flat.  You’re sitting there wondering why everyone is so emotional.

That is what celebrating Christmas without Advent is like.  That is what celebrating the hope of a savior is like when we haven’t come to terms with our need for a savior.

Advent  is a season where we rewind the story of scripture to the time when people were longing for light to dawn in the darkness. It is a time where we prepare for the coming of God by coming terms with our brokenness.

The shepherds model this for us.  For you see they are so overcome with the hope and the joy of the message that they are able to leave everything behind and go in search for king. The message of the angels is so compelling that they drop everything. They risk losing their jobs and having their sheep taken by predators or thieves. They are ready to leave these things behind because they have heard about a deeper hope.  The angels have told them that there is a new kingdom coming where they will belong.

May the wonder and the hope of the Christmas message compel us to set aside the barriers of our world and step towards this new born king. For to all of us who, for one reason or another, feel unworthy, excluded, and hopeless, God says to us:

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”

 

 

 

 

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Responses

  1. truly the good news.

  2. I love how you wove your dog into the story!


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