Sunday, December 27, 2015

Nativity Story: The One We've Been Waiting For

It's been six months since Zechariah returned home from Jerusalem, stunned speechless by the angel's rebuke. Once again, the great and glorious Gabriel is given a task that takes him away from the throne room of heaven. Gabriel isn't sent to a massive city like Jerusalem and the temple. He isn't sent to a priest with decades of experience and wisdom. He's sent to a little village called Nazareth, out in the backwoods of Galilee (Luke 1:26). 

Nazareth hasn't been there so long – it's a recent settlement, maybe a generation old at most. It makes White Horse look like a thriving metropolis – there are maybe a couple hundred people in Nazareth, kids included. Everybody knew everybody. Everybody helped everybody. A sweet little peasant village, surrounded by a cluster of little farms and a place to press grapes. But in the outside world, if anybody's heard the name of Nazareth, they must be a rural news junkie.

But that's where God sends Gabriel. Isn't that just like God – sending his messengers down into the nooks and crannies of our world, reaching the places overlooked by those of worldly importance? The great and glorious Gabriel appears suddenly in Nazareth to a teenage girl named Mary, a relative of Zechariah's wife Elizabeth (Luke 1:27). Maybe Mary's parents were among the first settlers of Nazareth, brought there as youngsters themselves; maybe Mary's mother was born in Hebron; maybe Elizabeth has fond memories of watching her grow up in her earliest years. But here's Mary, young by our standards but marrying age by theirs: she's engaged to a fellow named Joseph, who likely resettled there from Bethlehem, or else his parents did.

Who is this Mary? She drops into the story with scarcely an explanation. Zechariah was a priest from a long line of priests; Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron. They seemed small-town enough – but now God wants us to know about a teen girl in a small village, readying herself for marriage to a young local craftsman. 

Have you ever spent time in a poor village? I remember a few years ago, when I was in Kenya, visiting a little village called Mwimutoni up on the mountain ridge, overlooking the Rift Valley – just over five miles from the Rift Valley Academy, as the crow flies. Many houses were built of sticks and mud, at best. Goats roamed the walkways; chickens were cooped up in the homes. The gaggle of local children – mostly orphans, thanks to the AIDS epidemic – played soccer with a ball made of plastic bags and rubber bands or else rolled a tire around with a stick. One of the churches shut all the windows during prayer to keep the devil at bay. It was vastly bigger than first-century Nazareth – their elementary school alone had a higher population. And I remember meeting a girl there, the daughter of one Pastor Elijah; she might have been a year or two older than Mary. They may well have been a lot alike.

From a human perspective, at this point Mary is a nobody – noteworthy in Luke's text only because she hasn't messed around and is looking to marry a man from a decent family. But to hear Gabriel speak to her, you'd think she's the queen of the world: “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28). Gabriel sees her as a new Hannah – a woman truly “favored with grace,” destined to give miraculous birth to a man of God. 

Now, when Gabriel appeared to the priest Zechariah, the priest was filled with immense fear. Gabriel appears to this teenager, and she's simply got some questions (Luke 1:29). Have you ever noticed that? Mary is pretty much one of the only people in the Bible who doesn't nearly drop dead when an angel shows up. Gabriel tells her not to be afraid, but he didn't really have to (Luke 1:30). She's apprehensive, but not afraid. For all her youth, for all her domestic life, for all her obscurity, her strength of character comes through in this moment.

Gabriel wants Mary to know that she's going to have a son – and we know what Gabriel tells her to name him (Luke 1:31). This kid will be someone great, as God counts greatness. In fact, he's going to be God's own Son – called “the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32). This isn't where the boy's life will begin; it's already been going on from eternity past, in relationship to God his Father. 

And the Lord God – Israel's God, David's God, Mary's God – will install the boy on the throne of the Davidic dynasty, and this kingdom has no expiration date (Luke 1:33). That's a tall order! To a young girl living under the heavy hand of Roman occupation and Herod's meddling, Gabriel promises that she'll give birth to a special son who will be king – because the kingdom of God is coming, and there's a new David who'll run it!

Mary is no Zechariah. Remember, Zechariah's question, faced with Gabriel's prophecy about John, was, “How can I know?” Zechariah's reaction to the angel's words was disbelief – he wanted added confirmation of news so spectacular. Mary's question is, “How can this be?” She isn't acting in disbelief – she doesn't ask for added confirmation, just added information (Luke 1:34). She wants some clarification on the mechanics here, so that there's no misunderstanding. Is Gabriel just talking about her first son with Joseph? What does he mean? 

He explains that this child will be holy, will be God's Son – Joseph has no role to play in that. The Holy Spirit will come upon her, the power of the Most High will overshadow her (Luke 1:35). In the Old Testament, there are a handful of characters of whom it gets said that the Spirit of God or the Spirit of the LORD “came upon” them. By my count, four of those are warriors. Warriors like Othniel, Jephthah, and David get the Spirit of God coming upon them for miracle-working power to win victories and lead deliverance (Judges 3:10; 11:29; 1 Samuel 16:13). The rest are prophets. Prophets like Balaam, Azariah, and Jahaziel get the Spirit of God coming upon them to fill them with the truth-unveiling Word of God (Numbers 24:2; 2 Chronicles 15:1; 20:14). 

Mary will be both a warrior and a prophet: God's power will flood through her and accomplish miraculous feats, and the Word of God won't just be on her lips but in her womb, taking on human nature from her flesh and blood. It's impossible by every measure of the natural order of things. But “nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).

Mary could pull a Moses and complain about how ill-suited she is to the task at hand. Mary could pull a Jonah and say she just doesn't like this job and she'd prefer another. Mary could pull an Elijah and mope about how it all seems so pointless. Mary has reasons to fuss. She has an idea of how badly this all might turn out. If she consents to God's plan, how is she going to explain what's happened to Joseph? How could he ever understand? He'll surely never marry her now. And her parents may well disown her. Her friends will talk behind her back. The whole village will know in a matter of seconds. She'll be an outcast – “that woman.” She's got her whole life ahead of her. Can't she just ask the angel to come back in twenty or thirty years, once she's settled in, lived a while? 

That's something we might ask. But Mary just calls herself the servant of the Lord and invites God to fulfill his plan for her life (Luke 1:38). We could learn a lot from Mary. We could learn that God's plan trumps all our silly excuses, and even all the best reasons we wouldn't call excuses. We could learn how to count the cost and then make a deliberate decision to follow the cross-bearer.

Mary somehow gets permission to travel to Hebron in Judea to go visit her relatives for a while – not just a day, not a week, but three months. Cousin Elizabeth, now a prophet, pronounces God's blessing on Mary and the unborn child already taking shape inside her. This unborn baby, tender and small, Elizabeth worships and reveres already as Lord – and Mary is no longer just “little cousin,” Mary is “the Lord's mother” (Luke 1:42-43). Even her own unborn son John recognizes gentle Mary's little child and gets all excited. 

Filled with the Spirit, Mary celebrates in her famous song, like Hannah's song before her. Mary's God is a God who isn't content to sit on the sidelines; Mary's God gets involved. Mary's God is holy, set apart, pure – Mary's God makes Mary holy and makes this unborn presence in her holy. Mary's God is merciful from one generation to the next, always faithful to his promises and going the extra mile to show kindness to his people. The generations each prayed for the mercy of a deliverer, a new Moses, a new David; and Mary carries within her the fulfillment of her God's mercy. Mary's God does justice by turning the world upside-down, now just the same as in Hannah's day: he brings down the strong and raises up the lowly, he feeds the hungry and sends away the self-satisfied rich with zilch (Luke 1:46-55). 

Mary and Elizabeth must talk for all those three months, sharing thoughts on what God is doing for them, why God has chosen them; and then Mary has to go home, probably before Elizabeth gives birth (Luke 1:56-57). Her family needs her. Joseph misses her.

Luke's story skips ahead by months – gliding right past how a visibly pregnant Mary shocked her tight-knit village community; how Joseph wrestled with his natural anger and yet, in the thick of it, mimicked God's mercy, wanting to spare her from public shame or prosecution; how God sent Joseph dreams to persuade him that Mary hadn't betrayed him, that he could still be with the woman he'd chosen to marry. Joseph stayed. An entire sermon could be preached about Joseph's strength of character. But, like Mary, Joseph chooses to embrace the stigma and the shame, opts to ignore the painful whispers of the neighbors, of his brothers and friends – so that Mary won't have to go it alone.

The year of engagement is almost over. Mary's well into her third trimester when the order comes down that Caesar wants to play around with his people some more. The Roman emperor commands everyone to go back to the family hometown. Caesar Augustus tells the world to jump; the only question they're allowed is, “How high?” He wants to register everyone for another tax census (Luke 2:1-3). Like Cain, Caesar is all about what he can own and possess and acquire. Like his petty underling Herod, Caesar is about grasping onto power and money with both fists and clenching them tight for life. In the face of a Cain-and-Abel world, Caesar and Herod are scared to death of their mortality, the possibility that they can be brought to nothing, that they can lose what they have, that they could be dethroned, that they might be forgotten someday. That, and not God's Seth-like grace, rules their lives. We see the same thing all around us today.

Joseph was a Bethlehemite – a member of the historic royal family. To locals, Bethlehem wasn't Bethlehem; it was “the City of David.” Everyone knew who David was – and they couldn't be prouder. As a descendant of the town's brightest son, Joseph was always welcome anywhere in Bethlehem, welcome to stay with anyone (Luke 2:4). He brought his fiancée Mary with him – under law of that time, they were just about as good as married, and he wouldn't want to be totally absent from her (Luke 2:5). 

Luke doesn't actually tell us how long they were there before the birth – maybe a couple days. They weren't staying at a commercial inn. A better translation is that there was no space in the guest room of somebody's house – maybe Joseph's cousin's place, or maybe an old friend, or maybe a hospitable stranger. So Joseph and Mary packed like sardines into the common room with everyone else. In a village house like you'd find in Bethlehem, the area near the door was a few steps lower than the rest of the room, because that's where the livestock would stay overnight to ensure they didn't get stolen. And at the edge of the floor before it drops off, there were a pair of stone feed-troughs for the oxen to reach. 

When the time came, the men vacated the premises so the women could help Mary – and when all was done, she rested her baby boy in the feed-trough and put him to bed there (Luke 2:6-7). It's not the image that's been passed down in Christmas carols, maybe. But it's what Luke is saying.

The scene shifts to the fields next. It's the middle of the night, and a band of shepherds are keeping an eye on their flock under the shadow of the tower Migdal Eder, the biblical Tower of the Flock that Jacob passed after burying his wife Rachel (cf. Genesis 35:21). The area's livestock were candidates for being sacrificed at the temple in Jerusalem. The shepherds have a theoretically important but practically thankless job – and one can imagine that the night shift with the sheep, in the stillness of the fields, gets lonely and boring, even on a nice night. 

The shepherds are caught up in their usual routine. They know they get no respect from city folk, out babysitting sheep like that. Maybe this shepherd here sometimes wonders if he's living up to his full potential. Maybe that shepherd over there asks himself if this is all there is to life. Maybe a third shepherd is struggling to stay awake. And maybe the shepherd on that hill is worried about scrounging up enough money to pay his taxes, when he already has five mouths to feed on a shepherd's wages. The usual routine of worry in the night.

Their silent night is about to get very, very unboring. In a flash, they aren't alone: an angel of the Lord looms in front of them, standing there in their vision. Midnight's darkness blanches and flees from the glory of the Lord that shines and engulfs them. They're terrified, scared out of their wits – as I'd be, in their shoes. The angel – maybe Gabriel yet again? – reassures them he's there with good news – with a gospel – that offers great joy to all people. The joy isn't just for some few people. It isn't just for people who are naturally “religious,” to whom going to synagogue and obeying the Torah comes naturally and easily. It isn't just for people who are “worthy” – for kings and priests and Pharisees, for the big shots or the industrious. Nor is it just for people who are “outcast” – not only for the shepherds, not only for peasants, not only for the worst of the worst.

So often, we think that the gospel is limited in scope. Maybe we think that the gospel isn't for us because we just aren't the “religious type” – we don't especially like going to church, we don't find that prayer or Bible reading comes easily. God never promises it'd come easy – but he did say that the gospel is for you. It may make demands on you, but it makes them on you, not just your “naturally 'religious'” neighbor. 

Or maybe we think the gospel isn't for us because we aren't “worthy” – we've done bad things and we doubt that God wants to forgive us, or we're just so small and ordinary and we doubt that God really pays much attention to what happens to us. If you've sinned, if you feel ashamed, if you feel small and insignificant – the gospel is for you. 

Or maybe we're in the other boat: we think the gospel isn't for us because we aren't “that bad” – we may have lied that one time, or we may have walked past a homeless guy and forgotten about it, but come on, it isn't like we're an addict or a convicted felon. That's who really needs the gospel, right? Surely not us – but if you think of yourself as “not that bad,” then you're in denial of the reality of sin. The gospel is for you every bit as much as for Saul of Tarsus, every bit as much as for every converted gang leader or redeemed miscreant in history.

The angel tells the shepherds what the good news is. Over in the City of David, a Savior has been born. Not just born – born to them. A Savior – we domesticate that word so easily. We've packaged it up neatly as one of those special “religious” words. But a savior is someone who saves, who rescues. We have a problem, and a savior comes riding in like a hero and snatches us out of our predicament. He swoops in and scoops us up at the last second, knocks us out of the way of the freight train barreling down on us.  

That is a savior. And he's who the shepherds need – a savior from their monotony, a savior from their outcast life, a savior from their sin and their estrangement from God and from their neighbors. And we need a savior every bit as much as they did. We continually get tied down in trouble. We enmesh ourselves in sin, in rebellious alternatives to the kind of well-balanced life that God wants for us; we alienate ourselves from God, from one another, from the world in which we live. 

We need a savior. And the good news is that on the day the angel came at midnight, that Savior showed up! And he's not just any savior. He's the Lord Messiah – the Promised One, the One we've been waiting for. All the prophets were looking forward to him. He's the answer to Israel's plight. He's the answer to every country's trouble. He's the answer to the problems of every life – he's an answer for Mary, he's an answer for Joseph, for Caesar, for Herod, for shepherds and sages and for you and me.

When the shepherds hear the word “Messiah,” can you imagine how relieved they must be? From the time they were little boys, learning in Bethlehem the old, old stories, sitting in the synagogue every sabbath to hear the prophets read, taking pride in living at David's city – well, they grew up yearning for the Messiah, the final Anointed King who would set the people free, who would turn back the clock to a better time, and go beyond even that. Maybe as youngsters, they argued as they walked down the street whether the Messiah would be born in their lifetime – maybe it was some grown-up they knew, or maybe one of their friends, or maybe it'd be another hundred or thousand years. And now he's here – and they're supposed to go look for him? Why on earth would the Messiah's parents even want to see them? Isn't he in a huge palace behind some locked gate, with a 24/7 security detail? How are shepherds supposed to slip past the bouncers? Isn't this just another set-up for failure – to be turned away? 

That's why the angel adds that he'll be wrapped in swaddling clothes and resting in a manger: the Messiah isn't in a big mansion, he isn't in a palace, he isn't on the seventh floor of some massive castle, surrounded by elegant purple curtains and gold finery. When they get there, he'll be in a village house like theirs; Mary did with him what their own wives maybe did with their own babies. The Messiah isn't from an elite caste, isn't separated from them by class or culture. The Messiah is like them. His mom won't turn them away.

So, after a performance by heaven's official army band, proclaiming glory and peace, the shepherds decide to dare and go pay a visit to this newborn Messiah. Hearing about him isn't enough. Talking about him isn't enough. They want to see him, see him with their own eyes. There's no time to delay! There's no time to argue about it! The shepherds “went with haste” to go into Bethlehem – did they abandon the flocks, or did one of them draw the short straw and stay behind? – and in a small town home to just three hundred people, it doesn't take long for the local shepherds to find the right house. 

They call at the door, somebody opens, they crowd in among the animals – and there, just below eye level, resting in the manger, is the child. Having been told what the meaning was, now they're ready to see him. But they had to be told first – they wouldn't have gone unless they already knew what was so important here, what the event meant. Now it's their turn to amaze, with stories of angels and glory and prophecies galore. 

And when the shepherds leave, they go away changed. This wasn't an ordinary night. They go away “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (Luke 2:20). They heard about the Messiah, they saw the Messiah, they encountered him for themselves as one person to another, and their lives will never be the same. May it also be with us!

Eight days pass. Still in Bethlehem. The time comes for the child to become a full-fledged son of Israel, to be subjected to the Law of Moses and the covenant with Abraham. At his circumcision, it's time to name the child, the Messiah. And what will be his name? The same name that Gabriel told Mary before the child was even conceived. The name is “Jesus.” It sounds majestic and tender to us. We forget that in Galilee and Judea, “Jesus” was one of the most common names a boy could have. Gabriel's message must have sounded to Mary something like, “And behold, thou shalt bear a son, and he shall be great, he shall be the Messiah, he shall be the Son of God, and because he is so very special, thou shalt assuredly call him by the very special name: 'Bob'!”

But it doesn't matter how common the name was. What matters is what the name means – because in this child, it will take on its full meaning. The name 'Yehoshua' means: “Yahweh is salvation.” And isn't that the honest truth? In Jesus, Yahweh – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God of Moses; the God of Hannah and Samuel – is present on earth, his autobiography being transcribed not in ink and parchment but in the messiness of human flesh and blood – and he's here to come to our rescue, showing strength and, above all, mercy (Luke 1:50-51). 

In Jesus, the powerful God descended from his throne to lift up lowly sinners like us. In Jesus, the Rich One emptied himself to sate our hunger with lavishly good grace (Luke 1:52-53). In Jesus, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth (John 1:14) to drown out the sins and chaos of a world gone wrong.

All the Bible's nativity stories point to this one. He's the One we've been waiting for all along. He isn't like Cain, grasping at every last straw; nor is he like Caesar or Herod. That's not what kingship means to the Messiah. Kingship means humility; kingship means sacrifice; kingship means generosity and surrender. To be the Messiah is to step down and throw aside the glory to embrace shepherds, peasants, sinners. Where Abel's nativity was a cry of lament over the transitory nature of the world – everything dies, everything goes away, everything is dull and pointless – this Nativity heralds something that doesn't fade with the passing of time, a kingdom and a King who have no end. This Nativity is appointed by God, like Seth's.

Maybe you're here this morning, and as you think about the baby in the manger, you realize that you've known where God wanted you and what he wants you to do, and unlike Mary, your answer hasn't been, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). 

Or maybe you realize that you've heard the gospel, you've heard the news, you've heard about Jesus... but unlike the shepherds, you've never gone into Bethlehem to see Jesus, to meet him, to encounter him yourself and find out that the saving promise of God has come true for you

Maybe you've heard that Jesus is a Savior but haven't prayed for him to rescue you. Or maybe you think you met him once, maybe you try to visit Bethlehem once or twice a year, but in between you've forgotten the love and grace in the baby's eyes. 

Maybe as you live your life, you realize that you don't experience rest from the curse of the ground like Noah, you don't find the truth of the promises of God like Isaac, you aren't set free from bondage like Moses to be free indeed, you haven't looked to Jesus and seen for yourself that God has been listening to your prayers and has sent you an answer like Samuel. But that rest, that promise, that freedom, that answer – it's all there in the manger, all there in Jesus, the Messiah, the Lord, the Savior born for you and for me. 

This Christmas – and make no mistake, Christmas is a season, not a day, and it's still going strong – don't leave here without meeting Jesus and finding good reason to return home glorifying and praising God for all that you've heard and seen... just as it had been told you (cf. Luke 2:20). He's the One we've been waiting for. Amen.

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