This is the message I presented for the 4th Sunday in Advent (December 22, 2002) at Tompkins Corners UMC. The Scriptures were 2 Samuel 7: 1 – 11, 16; Romans 16: 23 – 27; and Luke 1: 26 – 38.
The first summer I was in college I got an interesting letter from my parents. In part it read, “Don’t come home this weekend. We’ve moved.” Now, as one who grew up in a military family, moving in and of itself was no big deal. But this was somewhat disconcerting because my parents neglected to tell me where they were moving.
This was not the first move the family had made in which I did not take an active part but it was the first time that I was not there when the move took place. And so it was that when the summer ended and I was to go home and return to the normal life of a high school student, I looked forward to seeing my new home.
In the Old Testament reading for today, the prophet Nathan comes to David with a request from God. God wanted a house that He could call His own. Since the days of the Exodus and Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, God’s presence among the Israelites was in the Ark of the Covenant. Since life for the Israelites was very mobile and there was a necessity of having the Ark in front of the armies of Israel as they went into battle, the Ark must also be mobile. As noted in the reading, the Ark was housed in a tent.
But this reading starts off with David having finally established the Kingdom of Israel and there was now no need for such mobility. God wanted David to build a house in which the Ark of the Covenant could be placed. And as a reward for building this house for God, David’s house would also be established and the lineage of the House of David would pass down through the generations.
So it was that the time came to pass that Mary and Joseph would travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the City of David, for the census because Joseph was of the House of David. As we conclude our preparations and this season of Advent and we begin looking to Tuesday evening and the celebration of Christ’s birth on Wednesday, we are going to hear many variations of the story of the little family.
Some preachers will cast Mary as an unwed mother, others cast Mary and Joseph as a poor and homeless couple. But they were not homeless, just without a place to stay that night. If anything, they were the victims of a greedy innkeeper who saw the opportunity to gain a few extra denarii by renting out the space in his stable as if it were a regular room. There is some truth to that carol we sing that says “O little town of Bethlehem.” Bethlehem was a small town in those days and it surely must have been crowed beyond capacity with people coming to register for the census.
Neither was the family poor. Yes, Joseph was a carpenter but a carpenter in those days was more of an artisan and middle class than we imagine. We cast Joseph in the mold as we know carpenters today but that was not the case back then. The family was certainly not well off but neither were they poor.
And Mary was not an unwed mother, though the circumstances of her pregnancy certainly had the Nazareth busybodies working overtime. She was engaged to marry Joseph and an engagement in those days was tantamount to marriage. We are reminded that Joseph, after receiving his own visit by an angel, stayed with her and was the devoted earthly father to Jesus.
And we also hear very little about that fact that all around Jesus that night were his relatives, his aunts and uncles, and countless cousins. Jesus was born amidst his family and his ministry was first to his family, a family that expanded throughout his ministry.
So why was Jesus born in this manner? Shouldn’t have a King, especially the King of Kings, have been born in a palace? And why did the angels sing to the shepherds that night. Surely, the angels should have been singing to the royal court instead of to shepherds in the field. How can anyone bring Peace on Earth when they were born in a stable because the city was overcrowded with people?
But there was a reason why Jesus was born in the stable, in a crowded city with shepherds as his first visitors. The problem with Christmas is that we want Jesus in our image; we want His birth to conform to our ideas. So it helps us if we make His birth more tragic and less joyful. We sometimes are not willing to look at things different and to understand how God works.
It may have been confusing for Mary to be told that she was pregnant. She certainly was amazed, not only with what was happening for her but for her cousin Elizabeth who was also pregnant and about to give birth to John the Baptist. God’s work goes beyond description and the capabilities of anything we can imagine, as Mary declared in the New Testament reading for today.
Jesus came to change the world and the world could not be changed if he had been born in the expected manner of an earthly king. Charles Handy, the noted philosopher, noted Jesus changed the thinking of the time by teaching that the meek should inherit the earth, the poor would be blessed and the first would be last in the ultimate scheme of things. (Charles Handy, The Age of Unreason)
This change was evident from the very beginning. To have the shepherds hear the pronouncement of Jesus’ birth was a statement that things were changing. Because of their work, shepherds were considered unclean and could not enter the Temple, the House of God that David labored to build. By telling the shepherds that Jesus was born, the doors of the House of God were opened to all.
And Mary’s own words, the words we read as the Psalter this morning speak of the changes that would come about. “The mighty have been put down from their thrones and the lowly exalted; the hungry have been filled with good things and the rich sent away empty.” These are words of hope and promise, not to a select few but to all that hear them. That is the challenge given to us by Paul, to take the Word of God into the world for all to hear.
Jesus was born into the house of David, surrounded by cousins and aunts and uncles. His ministry began with his family and to those that needed him first. And each day, as his ministry grew, the doors to his house became to more and more individuals.
So it is that I ask you today, “in whose house will Christ be born this year?” Will he be born in your house, your soul? Will the celebration of his birth again this year enable you to meet the challenge of Paul and enable the words of the prophet to ring true?