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"God is Nearby"

A sermon based Luke 2:10-20

December 24, 2017 – The FOURTH Sunday in ADVENT

Angels and shepherds, a baby in a cattle stall, Mary and Joseph… the whole menagerieis so very familiarto us that we could put on a costume and act out any one of those characters!(Iwant to thank Jeffrey Mindock, and Kristen & Nathan Barden, Gavin& Grady, Xander & Ayla, Christin Sobeck, and baby Ty Barbeau for helping out this morning as a Living Nativity!)

We know the Christmas Nativity story so well, that if I were to choose any othersubject for today’s sermon, you’d probably wonder "why?"! After all, this is Christmas Eve –Dec. 24! Either we "go, tell iton the mountain" or we go home!(Right?)

The fact is, in our day, a lot of attention on Christmas Eve is given over to looking for Santa Claus to arrive, carrying gifts for good little girls & boys. NORAD radar goes on-line tracking the jolly old elf and his sleigh full of toys, pulled by eight tiny Rein-deer–the front one with a bright, blinking red strobe-light nose.

Church-going folks like us, however, remember that "Jesus is the Reason for the Season." We may "deck the halls"… and drink "wassail"… and sing "jingle bells" right along with the rest of our society –there’s nothing wrong with any of that frivolity and festivity! –but we also remember that this is the Advent of the Messiah, the coming of Christ, the birth of God’s own Son --the Prince of Peace, King-of-kings, and Lord-of-lords: Jesus!

Since the Jews believed that their long-awaited Messiah would come from the line of King David, would come from the City of David, and would assume the throne of David to reign in glory in Jerusalem…one would think that all the eyes of the waiting world would be turned toward the Royal Palace of Jerusalem, and the Temple dedicated there to the God of Israel… not toward the little village of Bethlehem, some five miles away and behind hills upon which hard-working shepherds kept watch.

Furthermore, if a new rulerwas expectedto appear (if push came to shove), the odds would be in favor of King Herodthe Greatand his henchmen --or Caesar Augustus and his Roman legions --to win the day. Not some obscure infant born to a homeless couple living in a barn.

And yet the Christmas story reminds us that God is found in un-expected places. Not necessarily where the media is focused;and not in the halls of political power and military might. God is found among ordinary people, like us.

The Christmas story (as told in churches) also reminds us that God's greatest work in the world begins in a tiny way, with all the fragility and sensitivity of a newborn baby's skin!

I don't know why that should surprise us. After all, it seems to me that all the big things of nature have little beginnings... atoms, molecules, embryos, seeds... Furthermore, history teaches us that big events all have little beginnings,too. So why does Christmas surprise us that God's coming among us (to be with us) started so humbly?

It may be because we are accustomed to equating "big-ness" with "power." Big names, big money, big business, big government...theyseem to get their way in our world. They get the big incomes, and the big tax cuts, and the big media attention. While the common folk feel so small so often.

It must have felt that way to Joseph and Mary, caught in the pincers of politics and religion (as we spoke about last Sunday, when Marilyn Kettler read the very same Bible text as Jim McNeil did this morning). Under the edict from Rome to register themselvesfor the census, Joseph and Mary pushed themselves (despite her ninth-month of pregnancy) over eighty miles from Nazareth to arrive un-welcomed in Bethlehem…shut out from the only inn in town, surrounded by grunting barnyard animals and the desperate sweating cries of labor pains. There was no doctor on call, no midwife nurse, no clean sheets nor running water. It was night-time alright, but it didn't feel all that "holy"of a night,and it sure wasn't "silent!"

Just after the commotion of the birth, some shepherds arrived (according to Luke’s Gospel as Jim read for us this morning). Unwashed, unlearned, unexpected common folk --laborers from the fields... Probably not the kind of bedside help Mary and Joseph would have looked for!

And shortly thereafter (we are told in Matthew’s Gospel) some foreign wisemen came on their quest;looking in on the Christ child,and leaving gifts behind: gold, frankincense, & myrrh. And with them came the warning that King Herod's troops (the occupying army) were hunting the child as well. (!) In January, we will talk about how the baby Jesus & his parents narrowly escaped a terrorist massacre in Bethlehem...

The point is: when all the parts of the Christmas story come together --without the romantic music and sentiment of the season --we have a picture of people caught by surprise far from their homes (dislocated and then refugees).

The Nativity is a story of faithful, humble people swept up in moral confusion, physical suffering, chaos in the streets, talk of divorce, harsh poverty, clashing expectations...

If you were going to plan for the birth of the Messiah--a long-awaited, hoped-for Savior… a Prince of Peace --you'd probably do it a little differently, wouldn't you?

Why should God "break in" to this weary world of sin at the rawest, helpless, powerless, underbelly of homeless poverty, instead of in the halls of power!? Why come to people (like them, like us!) who are so poorly prepared, who are rushing about with other agenda, and are oh so tired?

I think it is because that's where we need the reminders of the Christmas story the most! When we are tired from our travels, wearied from physical burdens & emotional pressures, morally confused about who really is in charge of this world...

We need the Christmas story for ourselves when we are most like Joseph and Mary: feeling left out, shut out, thrown to the animals... (Right?) We need the Christmas message when our hopes for a meaningful career have been reduced to bare subsistence, and so we see ourselves like the shepherds: common laborers punching a time-clock, keeping night-watch.

Why would God break in to our weary world of sin at the point of its most raw birth-pain... with infant helplessness... the scandal of an unwed pregnancy... the powerlessness of homelessness and poverty, instead of in the halls of power and economic security!?

I think it is because God graciously chooses to meet us (in this weary world)right where we are, just as we are.We don't have to try to block outthe hectic pace of the holidays, the chaotic emotions, the sputtering of the politicians, and the tragic reality of life and death that goes on around us to "feel" Christmas.

To the contrary… That's precisely where God comes to us (where God is most near-by): where we are most in need, aggrieved,and in pain... where we feel small and helpless... into the smelly, grunting, dark corners of our stable-like lives... the Christ comes!

In the carol "O Little Town of Bethlehem" we hear these words: "How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of heaven. No ear may hear Christ's coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in."

To a world, overwhelmed by big problems (and big powers), deafened by big noises (and by big mouths)... it is surprising to realize that when God begins to do something in history-making proportions, it starts in a way that seems weak and foolish... Small. Infant-sized.

This is the way God works, friends! Starting the greatest redemptive program the world has ever known in ways that seem small, negligible, ridiculously feeble, and oh so easily overlooked:a baby, wrapped in cloth, lying in a manger.