Christmas Is Not Your Birthday
Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 2:1-20
It may have been as many as twenty years ago that a friend of mine had an experience she couldn’t help but share with me, her preacher friend. Her daughter was about seven at the time and Charlotte had already begun a yearly tradition at our church. On the Sunday prior to Christmas, she would bake a birthday cake for Jesus and take it to her daughter’s Sunday School class where they would celebrate a birthday party for Jesus. That Saturday, her daughter had invited a neighborhood friend over to play. Charlotte had already baked the cake and was just in the process of beginning to ice it when Bethany’s friend entered the kitchen. She, with an unabashed love of cake that children do not attempt to conceal, inquired about the cake. Charlotte explained that it was a birthday cake. In response, Bethany’s little friend asked, “Whose birthday is it?” Charlotte replied that it was Christmas and they were celebrating Jesus’ birthday. The little girl looked at her with a blank, somewhat puzzled, stare and that was when Charlotte realized that this little girl had no knowledge of Christmas as a celebration of Jesus’ birthday. Oh, she was not unfamiliar with the holiday… it was a magical time to sit on Santa’s lap and recite her every wish; and then to rush toward the tree on Christmas morning to unwrap her gifts and discover if all of her demands had been met.
Now, you might be surprised to know that it took quite some time for the early Christians to get around to celebrating Jesus’ birth. They were, for obvious reasons, much more focused on Jesus’ death and resurrection. The oldest reference to Christmas that historians have been able to find dates from the mid 300’s AD. Furthermore, the birth stories we find in Matthew and Luke were some of the last pieces of the gospels to take shape. Although we think of biographies beginning with birth; the story of the earthly life of Jesus fixed its initial attention on his ministry, death and resurrection. Only much later was consideration given to his birth and childhood. As for the holiday of Christmas; well, the church fathers selected Dec. 25 as the date so that it might coincide with the winter solstice. You see, the pagans celebrated something called the Festival of the Unconquered Sun… sun with a “u” of course, like the sun up in the sky. So, as not to be outdone, the Christians selected this same time of the year to celebrate their Unconquered Son; son with an “o” as in the Son of God who conquered the power of sin and death. Now the whole winter solstice thing makes perfect theological sense. After all, Jesus names himself as the light of the world. And, as Matthew interprets the prophecy of Isaiah the birth of Jesus brings great light to those who have been stumbling around in the darkness.
And yet it would seem that, at least within my lifetime, Christmas has in fact become a pagan celebration. Webster defines pagan as “one who has little or no religion and delights in sensual pleasures and material goods.” What could be a more accurate depiction of what the 21st century American Christmas has become: for many, a time devoid of religious significance and focused, primarily, on pleasure and material goods.
But perhaps it makes good sense when one considers that a more authentic depiction of the birth of Jesus, one that would more accurately portray first century culture and context, is pretty austere and really not very pretty or pleasurable. It certainly isn’t the kind of “holly jolly Christmas” many of us know and love. It is a story whose primary characters are vulnerable, powerless and even despised.
The Life With God Bible comments, saying:
Christmas cards and other modern renditions give us glimpses of a flawless Mary in pristine, wrinkle-free clothing, a steady and unperturbed Joseph in an equally immaculate robe, a cheerful stable with clean straw and friendly animals, and the arrival of shepherds in newly laundered snow-white tunics with dirt-free sandals on their feet. It is a romanticized version, of course, and can cause problems for our own spiritual growth if we take it too seriously. Luke’s version is different: Mary isn’t even officially married to Joseph yet she’s pregnant, they have to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a distance of forty miles through the Samaritan and Judean hills. Mary goes into labor in Bethlehem, yet there is no proper room or bed for her; she gives birth – never an easy process under the best of circumstances – and has to lay her firstborn infant not in a cradle, but a feeding trough; [then] in the middle of the night shepherds burst in upon them, shepherds who smell of wood smoke, and sweat and sheep… not likely [to be] welcome intruders considering that shepherds were considered rough and dangerous. The true Christmas story seems like something of a mess.
The birth of Jesus was hardly a festive occasion… at least not in the “deck the halls, trim the tree and stuff the turkey” sense of the term. It was the pain and struggle of a young peasant couple giving birth “on the road,” so to speak. Now, it is not a matter of Mary and Joseph being poorer than all their neighbors. In fact, life for most Palestinian Jews living under Roman occupation was hard. Nazareth was a simple agricultural village. In digs, archeologists have not unearthed any luxury items. Life for first century Jewish peasants living under Rome’s thumb was no easy existence and the infant mortality rate was quite high. Life certainly would have been easier – safer, more secure – had God chosen a palace for Jesus’ birth. Even the fact that the Son of God would have chosen to take on human form just doesn’t seem very wise. That God, a mighty Savior and Divine Deliverer would come in the form of a baby born to the likes of Mary and Joseph sounds perfectly natural to us today. But it was far from expected for a good, first century Jew… or even a pagan for that matter.
And then there’s the whole matter of those shepherds. Being a shepherd was no easy job. It should have been an honorable occupation. Yet, by the time of Jesus’ birth, shepherds were, in fact, looked down upon. Educated Jews and Romans alike were more interested in their books. They had little time for those who would smell so foul after a hard day’s work. Though the image of God as a “shepherd” (such as we find in the 23rd Psalm) remained a popular religious image, it had, by the first century, been completely separated from the day to day employment of shepherding. In other words, shepherd might be a good symbol for God. But, no one really wanted to have a shepherd for a neighbor. That those ordinary, even despised, shepherds would have been the first to receive the good news of Jesus’ birth would have seemed absolutely ludicrous in the eyes of that 1st century culture. If you were curious about my vocal inflection of verse 15, here’s your explanation. Even the shepherds themselves were likely shocked; not only by the appearance of an angel… which is frightening enough; but shocked as well that they would be the recipients of this remarkable news. And so they said, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” I mean, seriously, wouldn’t God have entrusted such important news to the religious experts; folks who were well educated and articulate? And so those shepherds make their way into town, no doubt clearing their own path as passersby crossed to the other side of the street, moving to avoid contact with these smelly, shifty characters; despised characters that Joseph and Mary accept into their presence… at a time when they are vulnerable, probably quite exhausted, and without much in the way of resources. But, I suppose by this point in time Mary had had plenty of opportunities to grow comfortable with being in a vulnerable position devoid of resources: A female, young, a peasant and pregnant out of wedlock. Anyone of those by themselves would have rendered her powerless and vulnerable.
And so, here has been gathered this motley crew: a young, peasant girl with her unassuming husband and a bunch of dirty, smelly, rough and tumble shepherds hanging out together in a barn with plenty of noisy, smelly animals in their midst no doubt; staring in wonderment at a baby sleeping in a feeding trough. Try that on a Christmas card; just as it is, without any attempts to scrub it all clean and tie it up in a nice tidy bow.
And so at Christmas, it is wise for us to keep in mind that it is not about us and it is not our birthday. It is not about toys and shiny things; it is not even about pies and parties. It is about Jesus, a Savior who came to us in bodily form as an embodiment of God’s values and God’s priorities. If we are truly to celebrate Jesus’ birth, then we too must turn our attention to those whose lives are hard, to those whom others despise or ignore, to those who find themselves in vulnerable positions; and to those whom others cross the street to avoid.
And that is why this year at Trinity, I want you to celebrate a Different Kind of Christmas. I want you to join me in scaling back what you spend on gifts for family and friends. And then, to match what you spend on family and friends with giving to those whose lives are hard. For example, if you ordinarily spend $500 on Christmas gifts for family and friends, why not scale it back to $300 and then give $300 to those in need. And because today, just as in ancient Palestine, children continue to be vulnerable and powerless, Trinity is focusing on missional outreach to children.
A recent report revealed that 1 in 30 American children have been homeless over just the past year. That’s an historic figure and yet it’s on the rise. It represents 2.5 million children, more than half of which are under six years old. 1 in 5 children in America live below the poverty line.
There are three opportunities, or venues you might say, for your giving. I want to invite you to open your program for this morning…
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