The Scandal of Christmas
2:1 In those days, Caesar Augustus made a law. It required that a list be made of everyone in the whole Roman world. 2 It was the first time a list was made of the people while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 Everyone went to their own town to be listed.
4 So Joseph went also. He went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea. That is where Bethlehem, the town of David, was. Joseph went there because he belonged to the family line of David. 5 He went there with Mary to be listed. Mary was engaged to him. She was expecting a baby. 6 While Joseph and Mary were there, the time came for the child to be born. 7 She gave birth to her first baby. It was a boy. She wrapped him in large strips of cloth. Then she placed him in a manger. That’s because there was no guest room where they could stay.
8 There were shepherds living out in the fields nearby. It was night, and they were taking care of their sheep. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them. And the glory of the Lord shone around them. They were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news. It will bring great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you. He is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 Here is how you will know I am telling you the truth. You will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a large group of angels from heaven also appeared. They were praising God. They said,
14 “May glory be given to God in the highest heaven! And may peace be given to those he is pleased with on earth!”
15 The angels left and went into heaven. Then the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem. Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph and the baby. The baby was lying in the manger. 17 After the shepherds had seen him, they told everyone. They reported what the angel had said about this child. 18 All who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary kept all these things like a secret treasure in her heart. She thought about them over and over. 20 The shepherds returned. They gave glory and praise to God. Everything they had seen and heard was just as they had been told.
Luke 2:1-18 (New International Reader’s Version)
This story that some of our children just read is the story that brought us all here tonight. It’s a story that unfolded more than 2,000 years ago, and it’s a story that’s been told every year since. It’s been called the greatest story ever told. And it’s been called the greatest story ever told because this story tells what Christmas is all about. Christmas is about our Savior being born.
Christmas is about our Savior being born.
And the simple truth is that I could finish this Christmas Eve sermon right there. After all, there’s nothing more important for us to hear when we’re only hours away from Christmas Day than the true meaning of this season: that Jesus Christ has come.
But don’t start logging off your web browsers, shutting down your computers, or turning off your smartphones just yet. I’m barely a minute into this sermon, so there’s clearly more to this message than the unforgettable story that our children read to us this Christmas Eve...and it’s a message that we need to hear.
But we’re going to take the scenic route to get to that message. And this route starts with another story…but this story doesn’t involve overflowing inns, shepherds out in the field, or swaddling clothes. This story doesn’t even involve Christmas at all.
This story began on an April day more than eight years ago. It was a day that had begun like so many others, but it was a day that had a once in a lifetime kind of ending. That April day was the day that Ashley and I welcomed our little girl into the world…the day I became a father.
I can still remember holding Hannah in my arms for the very first time. I can still remember her scrunched up little face and that new baby kind of smell. I can still remember the tears that rolled down my cheeks as I met my little girl for the very first time. And as I sat in that room, holding her tight in my arms and close to my chest, I can still remember thinking that this is what it meant to be a father.
Now, more than eight years later, I can honestly say that’s one of the most naive thoughts I have ever had in my entire life. And I started learning that lesson pretty quickly. I started to get a real sense of what it actually means to be a father a few hours later when a crying baby woke me up in the middle of the night for the very first time. And then again the next night, when I struggled to change her clothes for the first time and ended up putting her onesie on upside down. Soon being a father meant being able to rock my daughter to sleep, getting her to take her bottle, or successfully changing a diaper without ruining an outfit—hers or mine, just for the record.
But that role quickly changed as well. It wasn’t long before I became an encourager, cheering her to roll over for the first time. Then there was time spent as a role model crawling around the floor, hoping that she would follow my lead. Then I became the great protector, baby-proofing every surface in our home…and vocally wondering why every piece of furniture has to have such sharp corners. Then I became a steady hand helping as she took her first steps, and soon I felt like a marathon runner chasing her all over the house.
A few years later, I felt like my role as her father was to be a bit of a con-artist trying to trick my daughter into eating her vegetables. Or to be like a wrangler trying to get her out the door in time to make it to school at a reasonable hour. But I’ve also had the role of being the storyteller who regales her with tales of her favorite princesses, and the dance partner that twirls her around whenever she decided it was time for a dance party.
And these roles and responsibilities have continued to change because my little girl just keeps on growing up. She’s not that newborn baby with a scrunched up face anymore. She’s now a full-fledged kid who is getting too close to being a tween for this parent’s comfort. She’s an avid reader who tears through more books in a week than some people read in a lifetime. She loves learning and dreams about becoming a veterinarian when she grows up...even if she doesn’t want to be the one to give any animal a shot. She’s someone who makes me proud every single day, and that’s especially true as I’ve watched her handle this pandemic over the last nine months.
Of course, by now I’m sounding way more like a bragging parent than like a pastor...and I’m not going to apologize for that. But you are probably wondering if this sidetrack really has anything to do with this sermon. And the answer is: of course it does.
You see, every year when December rolls around, we turn our attention to the arrival of Jesus in this world. So every year, we hear the stories about Mary and Joseph. We hear the stories of Herod and the wise men. We hear the stories of the shepherds and the angels. We have heard these stories so many times that we can practically recite them word for word whenever the preacher begins to read them.
So we know this story. We know that Mary was just a girl who was thrown into the deep end of the pool when she learned she was with child. We know that Joseph was a poor carpenter who had every right to divorce a fiance who was carrying someone else’s child. We know the shepherds did not deserve to hear the good news—that Christ had come—before anyone else. We even know that the wise men didn’t show up on the scene while Jesus was still in the manger, but came a couple of years down the road. We know this story.
But sometimes we forget that this story doesn’t end with the manger.
We forget that this story doesn’t end with the manger.
Sometimes we forget that Jesus didn’t come to this world just so we could celebrate Christmas, and “ooh” and “aww” at the newborn baby in our nativity scenes. Jesus came into this world for something far greater than that…but we don’t always want to hear why a Savior was born in the city of David on that day.
And we don’t always want to hear why a Savior was born because, the truth is, that baby Jesus is easy. Baby Jesus is easy to understand because baby Jesus was like any other baby who only needed to be rocked, or fed, or changed. And baby Jesus is easy, because honestly, who of us has ever met a baby that you just could not stand.
But baby Jesus doesn’t remain a baby.
Baby Jesus doesn’t remain a baby.
Jesus grows up. And that cute, innocent baby, who wise men once flocked to see becomes a rebel that royalty and religious leaders want to kill. Because Jesus didn’t come into this world to bring a warm fuzzy feeling to our hearts one month out of the year. Jesus came into this world to bring the good news of God to all the world.
The book of Isaiah explains what this good news is to us in our scripture reading for this today. And the book of Isaiah is the work of a prophet named Isaiah--appropriately enough. And a prophet’s job was to speak on behalf of God. And basically, God always had one of two messages that he wanted his prophets to speak.
When the people of Israel weren’t doing a great job of following God, God wanted the prophets to tell the people to straighten up before it was too late. Or, if the people didn’t listen to that message and they started reaping what they had sowed, God wanted the prophets to remind them that it wouldn’t always be that way.
And the passage that we’re going to read today, from Isaiah 61, is the second kind of message. The people had messed up. They’d turned their backs on God. And things weren’t going real well for them. So in Isaiah 61, God tells them that they won’t always have to suffer. And he promises them that he has something big planned.
So let’s listen together to these words from Isaiah 61. We’ll start reading in verse 1, which says:
61:1 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. 4 They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
Isaiah 61:1-4 (New Revised Standard Version)
When we first hear what this good news is, it’s hard to understand how this message could ever get Jesus into trouble. After all, this entire passage from Isaiah seems to be filled with nothing but hope. Hope for the oppressed. Hope for the brokenhearted. Hope for the captives and the prisoners. Hope for those who mourn.
So we hear these words, and the corners of our mouths begin to rise and a smile starts to creep across our faces. Because we need to hear these words of hope. After all, there are times when we all feel like we’re oppressed and brokenhearted. There are times when we feel isolated and even imprisoned. There are times when we mourn and long for comfort. But these words take on an entirely different meaning when we look past ourselves and honestly try to understand who they are really meant for.
Just think about one of the images mentioned in this passage, the image of prisoners. Who are these prisoners? Well, the easiest answer is that they are people who are in prison, people who have been convicted of crimes. In 2020, over 55% of prisoners incarcerated in state prisons are serving sentences because they have committed violent crimes—which run the spectrum from assault to murder. But this passage of scripture from Isaiah, a passage that Jesus himself says he fulfills in Luke 4:21, says that God will set the prisoners free.
How does that make you feel?
Or what about the captives? Like soldiers who are captured during war? We may like to hear that God will proclaim their liberty when we think about our nation’s POWs, but do we feel the same way about the soldiers that our armed forces have taken captive during war?
You see, this is the scandal of Christmas. Jesus didn’t just come into this world for you or for me. Jesus didn’t come just for the family we’ll send presents to, or the friends we’ll bake cookies for this time of year. Jesus didn’t come just for the folks we’ll invite to our Christmas banquets or Christmas parties when COVID-19 is under control.
Jesus came for people that we’d never think to send a present to or bake a cookie for. Jesus came for people that we’d never invite to Christmas dinner. Jesus came for people that we wouldn’t even send a Christmas card to. Jesus came for all people. Jesus came for all people. And we need to understand that that means all people...especially the people that most of us look down on.
The scandal of Christmas is that God loves us all.
The scandal of Christmas is that God loves us all. And God loves us all not because of who we are or what we do. God loves us because of who God is and because of what God chooses to do.
Our choice is to join God in this work. Our choice is to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
After all, this is what Jesus came to do.