December 24, 2023 (Christmas Eve)
Luke 2: 8-20
So……I’m not Meg. Some of you may have heard that COVID has come to our house. As soon as she tested positive early Friday morning she pointed a finger at me and said “You need to get out of here! Run while you still can!”
Well, it worked. I stand before you Covid-negative and yet taking precautions and masking except when preaching. All to say, I appreciate your forbearance with the changes in the bulletin.
I would like to point out, however, that when Meg titled her sermon “What if…Christmas doesn’t depend on us?” she really was tempting fate.
It is 100% true of course. We don’t make Christmas happen.
This is the story of a gift given – it is God who makes Christmas happen…with us and sometimes in spite of us.
The Gospel of Luke tells the story like this:
Luke 2: 8-20
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 Saviour, 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.
Some Christmas gifts really go the distance. In our coat closet there’s a puffy, kelly-green, down-filled vest that’s coming up on 20 years old. I wear it a lot in the winter – Sometimes just to take a walk – but other times for cold-weather yard work…raking leaves, whatever… so it’s appropriately stained and discolored. It’s also not as puffy as it used to be – over time those little feathers have a way of working themselves out – but it still does the trick and it keeps me warm.
Still getting used 12 years later – I think it’s safe to say that was a great, great Christmas present. Except for one tiny, insignificant detail: I gave that vest to Meg for Christmas. It’s her vest – I’ve just been…borrowing it.
In my defense – I would like to say that this is an isolated incident – when I give Meg a gift it usually remains in her possession.
All right – that’s not entirely true. There may be as many as two Carolina sweatshirts that have migrated from her drawer to my own. And…sometimes I might use…her nice-smelling soap, BUT only when the regular Lever 2000 bar runs out on me and I forget to replace it. But let me say it again – I’m only borrowing these things.
Other than those – one, two, three, Four isolated instances – a gift given remains with the recipient. Borrowing somebody else’s gift is not how it works – not in my book.
Now – aren’t we lucky that the Bible is not my book?
Because borrowing is all over the Christmas story.
Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph laid baby Jesus in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. Now there are a thousand different books, paintings, crèches and nativity scenes that will suggest to you that the holy family spent the night in a cold, drafty barn with sheep and cows keeping reverent watch…all because there was no place for them in the local Motel 6.
But because it’s Christmas (and at Christmas you tell the truth) – I think we need to see this story again with new eyes.
There is a word in the Greek text that needs unwrapping – that word is Kataluma. Mary and Joseph laid the baby in the manger because there was no room for them in the kataluma. The Bible under your seat translates that word as “inn” – but the fact of the matter is that a small town like Bethlehem wouldn’t have a commercial “inn” in the way we think about it. No Marriotts, Best Westerns…no Holiday Inns.
A kataluma is not a hotel – there is another Greek word for that kind of Inn and Luke himself uses it later in the Gospel…so a kataluma is something different.
Your basic first century house in this part of the world had two rooms. The main living space for the family, including space for cooking and for sleeping and then the second room was the kataluma – the guest room. It would seem that when Mary and Joseph roll into Bethlehem, all the guest rooms were filled. Which tells us two things:
Number One – first-century Jews figured out Air B n’ B way before we did.
Number Two – Mary and Joseph didn’t spend the night in some stable but rather they were invited into the family’s personal space…there was really no other option.
Hospitality is one of the most important values in that culture. If a descendant of King David like Joseph wandered into Bethlehem – which is the city of David – and they did not show him hospitality, that would have been shameful. “What about the manger?” you might ask…doesn’t that suggest that they slept in a barn.
If this was Medieval Europe yes it would. But there are no barns in this culture. I said earlier that a first century house would have two rooms – the kataluma, the guest room, and the main living space where the family lived. That family room typically had one area that was dug several feet into the ground – think of it as the original split-level house – and that lower level would contain a manger or two – because this is where they brought their animals at night – right into the heart of the family home – both for protection and for warmth.
Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus spent their first nights in a borrowed home – laying Jesus in a borrowed feedbox – enjoying the best hospitality that some family could offer.
Borrowing is all over the Christmas story.
Before Joseph can even hang the blue “it’s A Boy” balloon out in front of the house, some shepherds show up – and shepherds are the ultimate borrowers. I’m not talking about the Christmas pageant shepherds dressed in borrowed bathrobes that are five sizes too big for them.
I’m talking about first-century shepherds who were not the kind of company you wanted at Christmas time – or any time for that matter. Shepherds were seen as dishonest and disreputable – they would “borrow” lands that belonged to others…and by borrow I mean they would move their flocks onto somebody’s property under the cover of night and let their sheep eat the vegetation down to nothing.
This may explain why they were so scared when the angels show up, shining a spotlight on their midnight marauding – Busted! But before one of them can say “Honestly officer – we were just borrowing this grass for our sheep” the angel cuts in, saying “I am bringing you good news of great joy for ALL the people. Underscore and underline ALL!
Luke takes special care to let us know that this baby boy is for ALL the people. He’s not just for the Jews, he’s not just for the important people…he is for everybody. And there is no better way to highlight that than to deliver this message to a pack of migrant workers scrapping out a life on borrowed lands.
It may be difficult to mess with the Christmas story we’ve known for so long – to brush off the accumulated details of the centuries that we have come to accept as “the rest of the story,” but there’s something beautiful about seeing this story through a different lens.
This may be nothing but one heck of a feat at justifying the fact that I borrowed a vest twenty years ago and have no plans of giving it back (and by the way I did replace the vest with another one that I have not touched AT ALL…not yet anyway)
But I also think that the unburdened Christmas story reminds us to be gentle with those who live in borrowed homes and on borrowed lands – that even Jesus and the holy family had to borrow a home and a cradle for their first nights together.
Christmas reminds us that the savior and the true Lord of this world – whose claim on your life goes well beyond that of any Caesar – is for ALL people.
Christmas reminds us that we are all included in this story from the very beginning – and we actually don’t have to beg, borrow or steal our way in.
It’s a gift. Always a gift.
Thanks be to God. Amen.