It’s been a while, but here is the text from my Christmas Eve sermon. Feel free to offer feedback.
In the Middle of it All
I. The Gospel Story and a Singing Santa
In the country of Turkey, 99% of the population is Muslim. Needless to say, not many Turks celebrate Christmas. However, Christmas tradition is migrating over to Istanbul in Turkey. If you were to walk down the main streets of Istanbul you would see shop windows decorated with garland and tinsel, Christmas trees decorated with ornaments on the streets and in homes, and even men dressed as Santa Claus selling lottery tickets.
One woman was buying gifts and decorations for a party: she has a tree at her apartment and she was on the hunt for more ornaments–and a Santa Claus. That is the biggest selling item this Christmas in Istanbul–and even in New Delhi, India–an electronic singing Santa Claus. You know the kind–they spontaneously break out in a “ho, ho, ho” and begin singing Jingle Bells.
I’ve had bad experiences with these sorts of things–especially the kind with motion sensors. I remember staying at a friend’s house and searching for a bathroom in the middle of the night and walking in the wrong room only to be greeted by a chorus of Billy Bass singing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” and being insulted by a plastic deer head hanging on the wall. I almost didn’t need to find the restroom after that!
All I could think of was Jeff Foxworthy in the Blue Collar Comedy Tour movie: If you own more than three of these things, you might be a redneck! (Don’t worry about that, if you were to walk in my back yard right now you would think that I embodied all of the Jeff Foxworthy sayings!)
But that’s what’s selling right now in Istanbul–singing Santa Clauses. A reporter spoke to a man in Istanbul that was purchasing one of these Singing Santa Clauses and asked him if he had a Christmas tree. The man replied: “Yes of course we have a tree at home and we decorate it and…but the truth is we don’t know what really Christmas is. I like it. I enjoy it but we don’t know what the true meaning of it is.”
In the middle of all of the tradition, in the middle of trees, ornaments, garland, and singing Santa Clauses, this Turkish man isn’t quite sure why he was celebrating Christmas. You can even hear a hint of longing in his voice: why? I desperately want to know why are we doing this? I know it is special, but why are we doing this? What is the meaning of it all?
That scene is not too far removed from our own experiences with Christmas. After Thanksgiving, our homes turn into displays of lights, our streets are lined with snowflakes (or sand flakes, if you will), bells, Christmas trees, garland. Our stores are filled to the brim with Christmas decorations, gifts, and foods. Every show on television has a Christmas special (even if we watching last year’s Christmas specials). We have parties. We get out of school. We have a few days off of work. We even spend time with family and give to each other and, even better, we give to those who are less fortunate than we are. But in the middle of all of this, how many of us ask ourselves “why are we doing this? This is tiring. What is the meaning of it all?
I’m sure that we can give you the infamous kindergarten Sunday school answer: “Jesus.” I can tell you exactly how an angel gets his wings or talk about Tiny Tim and Ebenezer Scrooge. Or even quote our favorite Christmas rhyme of all: “Jesus is the reason for the season.” And talk about hope.
The fact of the matter is that head knowledge and rhymes don’t always get to the heart of it. You can’t always have hope when you hear the story over and over about the world changing birth of Christ and you look around at the world and you see terrorism, war, and our very own brothers and sisters injured, gossip and backbiting in our own churches. How can we continue to have hope?
What do we do when the very story that is at the heart of Christmas becomes routine? The story that I have a lot of trouble re-hearing every year and really getting into. What do we do with a story that even the most faithful Christian can dismiss saying “I know, I know, Jesus was born and there was no room in the inn, blah, blah, blah.” What do we do with that? How do we take a story like that and let it go from our ears into the heart of who we are? How can we let this story full of so much peace, and joy, and hope get from our ears into the heart when we look around and it seems like the world has never changed?
How do we take this Gospel story and prevent it from becoming another Christmas tree, Singing Santa?
II. The Decree of Caesar Augustus
Let’s start in the most unlikely of places: Caesar Augustus. Today and tomorrow are likely the only times any one will think about the Roman Emperor Augustus for an entire year—some of us go years without thinking about Augustus. He is not one of those characters that we associate with great Christian inspiration. He is one of the few characters from the stories of Jesus birth that is absent from the Nativity scene! We have Jesus (of course) we have Mary, Joseph, donkeys, oxen, shepherds, sheep, angels, and wisemen but we don’t have a little figurine of Augustus with his little olive leaf plaited crown taking notes like “Ahh, yes, I will collect millions based on my census”.
We don’t hear about Caesar Augustus except for the beginning of the Christmas Story in Luke. That’s how he starts his story, so it is difficult to ignore. We have to be very careful about taking this part of the story and saying “he’s not part of the Christmas story, this is just a historical marker.” There’s more to it.. Luke sets this up for us by opening with a decree from Augustus: that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.
You know a couple of things: You know that Augustus didn’t take this census himself, he probably just told his minions to do it. You also know that this isn’t because he is a great administrator and excellent record keeper and wanted material for historians to find later. It’s about two things: taxes and the military. When you know how many people there are, you know how much money you can expect to wring out of them. When you know how many people you have, you know how many people you can draft into the military to scare the neighboring countries.
In the midst of filling his bank account and growing his army, Caesar Augustus is hailed as one who brought peace to Rome. Augustus was later worshipped throughout the Roman Empire as a bringer of peace! The Romans even built what is called the Altar of Majestic Peace to honor the peace brought in under Augustus. It’s the kind of peace that forces a pregnant teenager and her fiancé to travel on foot 100 miles just to be taxed. I can only think that it wasn’t the shepherds and middle classes that thought Augustus was bringing peace—it was the boundaries of the empire, the elite, the government officials, the rich that reap the benefits of this kind of peace. A top-down peace that stopped moving down at the top.
Little did Augustus know that his very own decree would bring another kingdom into power–the kingdom of God. This very decree brought the law-abiding Joseph, with his betrothed Mary, into the city of David his ancestor–it brought him into Bethlehem where the baby was to be born in fulfillment of the prophecies—in the town of David would come the messiah. God will have His way, won’t he?
III. The Decree of the Angels
And so you have this decree from the emperor of “peace.” In the introduction of this story, you have 2 short verses about the actual birth of Jesus. Out of an entire book of 1151 verses, 2 deal directly with the birth of Jesus: “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:6-7).”
That’s what we see and then Luke cuts the camera to a different scene. We know that this is a birth that will change the world—you’d think that the angels would surround Jesus and glorify Him, but Luke cuts to the next scene: another “decree.”
Luke starts with a decree from Caesar Augustus and then moves to a heavenly decree brought by the messengers of the Lord himself. To who? To shepherds, watching their flocks. Shepherds. Nomadic people moving their flocks from pasture to pasture and field to field. It is in this decree that we see peace.
“But the angel said to them, “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.” (Luke 2:10-11) There is a lot of peace that comes into your soul when the messengers of the Lord himself say do not be afraid that God is here. Do not be afraid because this is good news. In the town of David (which triggers the thought of the prophecy) a Savior is born. He is Christ, He is the anointed one. The one you have been waiting for, the one who will bring you peace. Not only is he Christ, he is the Lord. The Lord himself. The Lord sent an angel to the shepherds and Jesus is the Lord.
Here we see that God is not in the top-down business, he is in the coming-down business. He did not make a decree and with a flash of light change the world. Instead he came down and in a flash of light he reveals himself to lowly, nomadic shepherds—you would think that he could reveal himself to someone greater than them. He did not make a decree and banish all evil from the world in an instant. Instead He came down to the world to change it one heart and soul at a time. He is the Savior. For unto you a savior is born—this is good news of great joy for all people—not just Roman citizens, or emperors, or to the rich, or those who can claim citizenship in an empire, this is good news for all people. Do you know who all people are? It is those very shepherds. It’s me. It’s you. Good news. To you this day is born a Savior—to bring repentance and forgiveness of sins from God himself.
IV. Bringing Peace into Your Heart
It seems kind of strange, but we can’t get to the heart of the Christmas story without traveling to the cross and arriving at Easter. “This will be a sign….” This angelic decree keeps getting repeated over and over. The shepherds go to see the thing “that the Lord has told them about,” Mary ponders this very decree in her heart, and they leave glorifying God for what they had seen “which [was] just as they had been told.”
This is a sign to you: you will find him wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Why is he in a manger? Why is he in a feeding trough for barn animals? Why is he laying in hay?
My wife and I will be having a baby soon. If I were to say “Honey, I don’t think I want to work on the nursery, instead I would like for you to have this manger and this bale of hay,” I think I would get in a lot of trouble. Instead, we are painting, putting in carpet, buying blankets. Our child will have a nice, warm crib to sleep in. But Jesus is laying in a feeding trough on a bed of hay.
Why? The simple answer is this: There was no room for them in the inn. This very statement also gives us the hope of resurrection. When we read v. 7 in the original language, we see “there was no room for them in the kataluma.” That’s Greek. It’s all Greek to me. “Inn” is a good translation of that word. More importantly, though, is that the word kataluma appears only 2 other times in the entire Bible referring to the same exact incident. This leads me to think that the story of our Savior’s birth is also about resurrection. Luke 22:11 has Jesus saying: where is the guest room, “kataluma” where I may eat the Passover with my disciples? This is the very upper room in which Jesus eats the Last Supper. As a child coming into the world, there was no room for him in the inn. At the very end of his life he has been offered a place in the inn where he “took bread, gave thanks, and broke it, and gave it to them saying ‘this is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” On that very night, Jesus was crucified and rose again from the dead. This Christmas story brings us good news of great joy that to all of us is born a savior. He is the anointed one. He is God himself.
You have a decree from Caesar Augustus, the emperor of peace, and a decree from the Lord that brings us true peace and leads us to salvation.
What do I do with a Christmas story that I have heard so many times that even the most faithful have trouble getting back into year after year? How can I hear this word and find hope in its promise when all around me is war and terrorism, backbiting and disappointment—and the world hasn’t changed?
I hope that you see that in the middle of it all God is with us. God is not in the top-down business, he changes the world by coming down and changing our hearts. One heart at a time, the glory of God grows upon the earth. That’s how God brings the Kingdom. We are not simply satisfying a far away man, but we are worshipping “God with us” who works in each of our hearts.
As we come to the table, I hope you feel the presence of Christ with us, that you feel the hope and peace of the salvation of God. I hope that as you come the Christmas story is not just another ornament or singing Santa that we can pass by and never take notice, but that it is a story of peace and love.
Merry Christmas. Amen.