Monday, December 26, 2016

Sunday's Sermon – The Real Christmas Surprise

Below is a copy of the sermon I preached on Sunday, December 25, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. You can find a podcast of this sermon on the Cove Podbean page. You might also want to visit the congregational website ( for more church information.

If you find this sermon meaningful, please consider supporting this ministry by sending an offering to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.

Luke 2:1-20 

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 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.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

The Real Christmas Surprise 

I think I’m pretty safe in saying that Christmas is really a season of surprises, isn’t it? I mean, just think about it, a lot of what gives Christmas its, well, pizzaz has to do with being surprised. My gosh, that’s the whole point of wrapping gifts. Man, we even wrap stuff that’s really obvious. Why? Because wrapping gives the illusion that we can keep what we’re giving a secret; therefore, the one who gets it will be surprised. And on Christmas morning, parents sure hope their kids are surprised that Santa dumped about a half his bag of toys in their living room. And I think we all know that one of the staples of daytime talk shows this time of year is having a military family in the audience who’s mom or dad is serving overseas. And then, at the right time, they bring their loved one on stage, so that the family can jump and run and cry and the audience can all say, “ah.” And of course they do all that, because they’re what: surprised. And I’ll tell you, for that reason, it really is in keeping with the season.

But of course, there are some things associated with Christmas that aren’t surprising at all, at least not to most of us. For example, I don’t think anybody is surprised by the story line of their favorite holiday movie. I mean, give me a break, we all know what happens with a bell rings or the outcome of Santa’s trial. And we all know what happens to Clark when he slides down the hill and Ebenezer when he wakes up on Christmas morning. And we all know what Flick does to the flag pole and Elf puts on his spaghetti. At least we do if we watch those movies every year. Let’s face it, there are no surprises there.

But you know, there’s something else that, for most of us, isn’t surprising either, and now I talking about the story of Jesus’s birth. I mean, even if you’re not a church-goer, most Americans know at least a little about the “reason for the season.” And so, the story of the birth doesn’t really offer a lot of surprises. For example, most of us have a pretty good idea about why Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem. They went to be registered, to be taxed, right? You see, with Mary and Joseph, the government said go, and they went all the way from Galilee to Judea; therefore, I think we should be thankful every time we have the chance to pay online. We know the why. Just like we know what happened when they got there. And I’ll tell you, modern translations may be fine, but when you’re reading something like the Twenty-Third Psalm or the birth story, as my daughter would say, the King James Version is the bomb: “And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” I don’t know about y’all but to me, it just feels right, doesn’t it? And so we know about what happened. And if we’ve ever watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” we know about who shows up first to the manger.

I’m telling you, for most of us there aren’t many surprises here.

Or at least, that’s what we think, and so if we’re serious about the Bible, we move on to more challenging passages, and if we’re not, we check out what’s on either Spike or Me TV, depending on our personal taste. But you know, before we move on, I think we should take a little time and reread the story, because if we don’t, we just might miss some pretty dramatic stuff in these verses, and I’m talking about some surprises that can change our assumptions about real, life things, you know, like political and economic and social power. Let me show you what I mean.

Remember how I mentioned that we generally know why Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem. Well, as Luke tells the story, I think he makes a contrast that points to something that, when you think about it, is pretty surprising. You see, right at the beginning he offers some names and offices, doesn’t he? “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” In other words, Luke gives us two men of influence, of authority, of raw political power. And as such, they were probably a whole lot more likely to have a son who would change the world than Mary and Joseph. And yet, Jesus, the son of the most high, wasn’t born to an emperor or a king or even a governor. The Son of God was part of a family that had absolutely no influence and no authority and no political power at all, and I think that’s kind of surprising.

And I’ll tell you why I think it’s important for us to remember. Sometimes I think we both fear and trust political power way too much. I mean, since the election, there’s one group of Americans who are happy and feel incredibly hopeful while there’s another group who are depressed and feel absolute despair. Of course, in 2008 and 2012, the two groups were reversed. Remember how we were suppose to be under Sharia law by now? Well, the groups were reversed again in 2000 and 2004, again in 1992 and 1996, and again in 1980, 1984 and 1988. And during those thirty-six years, in spite of what a lot of people said, we’ve neither seen the destruction of the republic nor the dawning the God’s kingdom. You see, whether you’re talking about emperors and kings or presidents and prime ministers, political power is limited, but that’s not the case with God. And I’ll tell you, if given the choice between trusting the limited or the unlimited, the finite or the infinite, the temporal or the eternal, well, that would seem to be a no brainer. I mean, dah. But this is something we might miss if overlook the surprise Luke offers right at the beginning of his story.

And you know, the same kind of thing can occur if we assume that we know all we need to know about what happened in Bethlehem. Now remember that Luke tells us that Joseph was from the House of David and that’s why he needed to go to Bethlehem in Judea. In other words, he was royalty and Bethlehem was his home town. Now I think that may certainly infer some economic clout. But even if he was a poor relation, it would seem doubtful that he didn’t have some contact back home. At the very least, he could have dropped the name David into the right ear. Now that’s what Luke sort of leads us to consider by offering Joseph’s lineage. But then he spins us around by telling us that not only was Joseph not wealthy but there was no place for them to stay except a stable. The Lord, the Christ, the Son of God was laid in a feeding trough because there was no where else for him to be born. Let’s just say, he was on one of the lower rungs of the economic ladder. In a word, man, he was poor with a capital “P”.

And that’s also something we might want to keep in mind before we start measuring our value and the value of others based on how much stuff we or they have. You see, our closeness to God isn’t determined by our portfolio, and our spirituality isn’t indicated by our bank balance. In fact, when Jesus said, “blessed are you who are poor for you will receive the Kingdom of God” and “woe to you who are rich for you for you have received your consolation,” I believe he meant it. And I don’t think he was messing around when he told the rich young ruler to “...sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” You see, no one lacks value in the sight of God. We’re his children. And we’re all equally loved by him. And if we want to follow the example of his son, we might want to adopt this vision ourselves, something else we might never do if we miss this surprise in the story.

And finally, I want you to think about who were first to visit the newborn Jesus. I mean, clearly this was a big deal in both heaven and earth, because God sent a chorus to announce the birth. And since he went to all the trouble to send down the “heavenly host,” we’d certainly expect the announcement to be made to folks who were important, you know, the movers and shakers, men who could make a difference. Those are the ones I would contact. But those aren’t the ones Luke said first heard the message. Instead, they were shepherd out in the field watching their sheep. And even though the imagine of shepherd has a lot of theological weight, in first century Palestine, shepherds weren’t exactly the cream of the social crop. They spent all their time with sheep, for crying out loud. In other words, they didn’t have a very high position in their world. And yet, it was to them that the angel made the announcement. And the heavenly chorus sang to them. And it was this bunch of shepherds who dropped what they were doing and went to see the child and his mother, and that’s a surprise too.

And because of that, maybe we should take a half step back the next time we feel intimidated by somebody’s education and social position. I mean, if God can announce the birth of his son to shepherds, it’s reasonable to assume that, in his kingdom, we all have a role to play, regardless of how we’re seen by the society that surrounds us. And again, this we might miss, if we were not sensitive to what really is another surprise in this passage.

And you know, because of that, maybe this really is the right story to read this time of year. I mean, given the fact that we tend to wrap everything in sight and that Santa can deliver so many toys in such a short time and that some people stationed overseas will continue to find their way onto talk shows, why shouldn’t we also have a story with more than a few twists and turns, one that reminds us that the ultimate king will grow up as the son of a pretty average couple and that his birth will have more to do with those who are down and out then with the well to do and that those who first came will be the socially challenged rather than the cultural elite. You see, the fact that God chose to enter human space in this way, well, that I think that may be the real Christmas surprise.

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