The Mystery of Christmas: “Mystery Surrounds Us”
Rev. Sandy Johnson
December 24, 2015
This Advent season we have been paying close attention to the mysteries of Christmas. Those things that we read in scripture that are mysterious, or unexplainable. Angelic appearances to Zechariah, Mary, and Joseph; a post-menopausal woman, Elizabeth, who becomes pregnant; a virgin betrothed to a carpenter, who then becomes pregnant by the Holy Spirit; Elizabeth knowing that Mary is pregnant with the Messiah even before Mary tells her; and the ultimate mystery, Joseph not only listens to the angel but doing what he was told, and takes Mary as his wife.
Tonight we heard the final part of the story, as we read the birth narrative as told in the Gospel of Luke. Mary and Joseph were forced to leave their home in Nazareth and travel to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem for the census. I can’t imagine either were too excited for the nine day trip, especially Mary in her condition. I’m not sure who had the harder time, Mary in her pregnant state, or Joseph having to listen to her. “Oh, my feet hurt, my back is killing me, when are we going to get there. Hang on, Joseph, I need to stop again.” It was a difficult journey to be sure.
When they arrive in Bethlehem, the town was filled to over flowing with all of the descendants of Bethlehem’s residents, come home to be counted. We can imagine that Joseph had relatives there, after all that is where he was from. But when he requested lodging with them, as was their custom, there was no room for them. The story traditionally says “no room at the inn” but the word “inn” is translated more correctly as “guest room.” In first century houses there was often an extra room used for guests and also a room for their animals. Having been turned away from proper accommodations, Mary and Joseph are forced to accept all that was left, the place the animals bedded down for the night.
The time came for the baby to be born and we believe that Mary was attended by a midwife, although this detail isn’t recorded in scripture. The custom would certainly have been for Joseph to ask his relatives to send for the midwife. Joseph and Mary would not be required to birth this Child King without help. And in the usual way, the Baby Jesus was born into this world. He became like one of us. As the new couple settled in with their newborn baby, there was commotion out in the fields. The night-shift shepherds, anticipating a quiet night, were astonished to see before them an angel of the Lord. “Do not be afraid!” The angel says. And then the angel delivers to them the most amazing news:
“I’m here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide: A Savior has just been born in David’s town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master. This is what you’re to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger.”
Without waiting a minute, the shepherds agreed to go and look for this child, this Messiah they had been waiting for. When they approached the place where Mary and Joseph were, baby snug in their arms, the shepherds fell down before them and worshipped the baby. They knew something mysterious had happened and they were privileged to be a part of it.
I love how God shared this most monumental news with the lowliest of the low. These men were uneducated, were likely poor and we can imagine they were a bit smelly, given all the hours they spend among the animals. Shepherds were tolerated but not highly esteemed by others. “When Luke tells us that shepherds were the first to be invited to see the Christ Child, first-century hearers would not have found this endearing, but shocking!”
What is God trying to prove? Why use those who live in the margins of society for such an important mission? And why is it that God refers to himself as Shepherd and his people as sheep? Well, we all know that sheep aren’t the brightest animals don’t we? “And when God chose a people for himself, God chose sheepherders. When God chose young David to be the great king over Israel, God was choosing a shepherd boy. And when God promised one day to send a new king, like David, God described that coming king as a shepherd who would search for the lost sheep. (See Ezekiel 34) When the child born in the stable became a man, he would describe himself as “the good shepherd” who would lay down his life for his sheep. Once again we find the story of Jesus’ birth to be not like a fairy tale or myth, but instead quite “earthy” and marked by humility.” Yes, God chose to share this news first with the local shepherds.
I am reminded of an old African proverb which says “it takes a whole village to raise a child.” I see Jesus surrounded by his village. First his parents, Mary and Joseph were there to take care of him, to nurture him physically, emotionally and spiritually. God provided them community beginning with that very first night, when he sent angels and then shepherds. Many months later the wise men would come from the East to offer encouragement to the holy family.
Being part of a community makes raising a family better. Being part of something larger than ourselves brings meaning to our lives. We are drawn to this manger each year seeking the feelings we experience each Christmas Eve. The mystery surrounds us; we can’t quite put our finger on it, why is it we continue to return, here, tonight? This mysterious feeling, the sights, sounds and emotions are not just found one night a year. Those who follow Jesus Christ are able to be surrounded with this feeling, every day. We call it the love of Christ which becomes palpable as we approach Christmas. We all long for the peace that Christs provides us.
I read a story about “two Christian missionaries who answered an invitation from the Russian Department of Education to teach morals and ethics in a large orphanage. About 100 boys and girls who had been abandoned, abused, and left in the care of a government-run program were in the orphanage. It was nearing Christmas and they decided to tell them the story of Christmas. It would be the first time these children had heard the story of the birth of Christ. They told them about Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem. Finding no room in the inn, the couple went to a stable, where the baby Jesus was born and placed in a manger. Throughout the story, the children and orphanage staff sat in amazement as they listened. Some sat on the edges of their stools, trying to grasp every word. When the story was finished, they gave the children three small pieces of cardboard to make a crude manger. Each child was given a small paper square, cut from yellow napkins that they had brought with them.
Following instructions, the children tore the paper and carefully laid strips in the manger to represent the straw. Small squares of flannel, cut from a worn-out nightgown were used for the baby’s blanket. A doll-like baby was cut from tan felt which the missionaries had also brought with them. It was all going smoothly until one of the missionaries sat down at a table to help a 6 year old boy named Misha. He had finished his manger. When the missionary looked at the little boy’s manger, she was startled to see not one, but two babies in the manger. Quickly, she called for the translator to ask Misha why there were two babies in the manger. Crossing his arms in front of him and looking at this completed manger scene, Misha began to repeat the story very seriously. For such a young boy, who had only heard the Christmas story once, he related the happenings accurately until he came to the part where Mary put the baby Jesus in the manger.
Then Misha started to ad-lib. He made up his own ending. He said, “And when Mary laid the baby in the manger, Jesus looked at me and asked me if I had a place to stay. I told him I have no mamma and I have no papa, so I don’t have any place to stay. Then Jesus told me I could stay with him. But I told him I couldn’t, because I didn’t have a gift to give him like everybody else did. “But I wanted to stay with Jesus so much,” he said, “so I thought about what I had that maybe I could use for a gift. I thought maybe if I kept him warm, that would be a good gift. So I asked Jesus, ‘If I keep you warm, will that be a good enough gift’ And Jesus told me, ‘If you keep me warm, that will be the best gift anybody ever gave me.’ The boy said, “So I got into the manger, and then Jesus looked at me and he told me I could stay with him–for always.”
As little Misha finished his story, his eyes brimmed full of tears that splashed down his little cheeks. Putting his hand over his face, his head dropped to the table and his shoulders shook as he sobbed and sobbed. The little orphan had found someone who would never abandon nor abuse him, someone who would stay with him–FOR ALWAYS. ”
Each of us can be like little Misha, humbled and willing to give what Jesus needs from us. As we consider the mystery that surrounds this night, those mysteries that we can’t explain, the mysteries that we believe and trust by faith; let us always and everywhere lift up the needs of others, let us be the light that shines in the darkness and provides hope to a hurting world.
We, all of us here tonight, can share God’s love in remarkable ways right here in Boulder City and in doing so we can bring about a transformation of our society as our neighbors and friends experience the peace of Christ and the incredible love of God in ways that may be a mystery to them. But the mystery will be revealed when they see God’s love through our eyes, through our actions and through our love and care for others. This, sisters and brothers is the mystery that surrounds us.
Let us pray:
Gracious God, how easily the words of Christmas roll off our tongues. We are warmed by their familiarity and sometimes settle for our past, rather than hearing that your gift of the Christ is as new today as it was two thousand years ago. By the power of your Spirit, love is the present tense. By the goodness of your grace, we claim not only that God was love but that God is love.
You have walked this earth, holy Jesus, so you know what it is like to live in a broken place. You have embraced lepers with peace, so you know what it is like to be among those the world rejects. You have fed those who brought only their hunger, so you know what it is like to find haves and have-nots. You have seen the beauty of lilies and heard the chirping of sparrows, so you know what it is like to care for the created order. You have borne blame for sins you did not commit, so you know what it is like to hear cries of injustice.
You have been hear, Lord. You are here, Lord. From Bethlehem to this place is only the distance of a heart of faith, so we receive gladly the news of your birth again – and again- and again – and again. Tonight we pray for all those present in this space, that their hearts would be touched, that they would feel your love and your grace. Especially bring comfort Lord Jesus, to those who are experiencing this Christmas without a beloved friend or relative; bring healing to those who are ill and lift all those who are down trodden. Allow this sacred night to bring the peace that we are desperate for. Amen.
 Hamilton, Adam. Not a Silent Night. Mary Looks Back to Bethlehem. Abingdon Press. Nashville. 2014. 118.
 Luke 2:10-12. The Message Translation. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+2%3A8-14&version=MSG
 Hamilton, Adam. The Journey. Walking the Road to Bethlehem. Abingdon Press, Nashville, NV. 2011. 113.
 Hamilton, Adam. The Journey. Walking the Road to Bethlehem. Abingdon Press, Nashville, NV. 2011. 114-115.