This is a version of the sermon I preached for Christmas Eve, 2020 at Broken Bow United Methodist Church. There are obvious cues in the manuscript describing adding different pieces to the crèche, which I had placed upon the table. You can view the sermon within the worship service at BBUMC’s Facebook, on its website, or its YouTube channel.
I approach preaching as a spiritual practice. To that end, ultimately every sermon is borne out of a seeking God’s message for me and for a particular people. Sometimes, in addition to a scriptural text or a theme, other events or the work of others are means through which God inspires the preaching ministry. This week, God moved my heart and mind through the work of author Sarah Bessey’s “Field Notes” email essay called “Why Everything You Know About the Nativity is Probably Wrong (or, the Joy of Being Wrong at Christmas)” (rather than give the direct link, subscribe yourself and I’m sure you’ll be able to find it – I don’t want to give out her content without her permission). In her piece she references Kenneth Bailey’s book (which is fabulous so far) called Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (InterVarsity Press, 2008). He has written two articles that cover some of the main points of his first chapter, “The Story of Jesus’ Birth” (here, and here).
The scripture text for this sermon is Luke 2:1-20.
When I was a kid, I remember playing with the pieces of our nativity scene – our crèche – much like the one we have at our house now (which is pictured on the screen). In a way, I think I was always retelling the story of Christmas when I played, and in playing like this, we learn the story. Tonight, I want to do something a little risky: retell the story by resetting the crèche. In doing so, I’m drawing upon Christian New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey’s book Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes (2008).
So, Luke tells us that during the reign of Caesar Augustus, everyone in Israel-Palestine was commanded to go to “their own cities to be enrolled” in the census (Lu 2:1). So, weeks, maybe even months before the events we celebrate today, Joseph and Mary would have set out from Nazareth to go up to Bethlehem, to “David’s city,” as it was known. But they likely wouldn’t have been alone. “Everyone throughout the empire” was to be enrolled, so others would have been traveling too. So, let’s add some others.
Now, what did they find when they arrived in Bethlehem? Well, for starters, most of our traditions emphasize Luke’s comment that “there was no place for them in the guestroom,” or the “inn” as some translations have it (v. 7). Except, whenever I think about this, here’s where my mind goes.
- Is Joseph really so inept a partner that he cannot find a place for his pregnant wife to stay? And,
- Are the people of Bethlehem really so hard-hearted that no one will make space for a pregnant lady?
I find both hard to believe, especially if we remember the story. First, Luke tells us that after she found out she was pregnant, she visited her cousin Elizabeth in the Judean hill country, in the area near Bethlehem (Lu 1:39-45). Undoubtedly, Mary and Joseph would have been welcomed by them, if a stable were the only place they found in Bethlehem. But even this is unlikely, because, as Luke tells us, Joseph is from “[King] David’s house and family line” (Lu 2:4). Going to Bethlehem, “David’s city,” all Joseph would have had to do to find a place to stay was go over his family tree and people would have welcomed them. So, here’s one of Joseph’s cousins, welcoming them into their family home.
Yes, that’s right: into their family home. We can see that this is more likely where Jesus was born, if we look at the biblical language of Luke, and the architecture of the First Century. Many translations and Christmas pageants repeat that there was “no room in the inn” but tonight’s translation is more accurate: inn should be guestroom. The word translated here is katalyma, which literally means “a place to stay.” If Luke had meant inn, like a commercial hotel, he would have used the word pandocheion – meaning “to receive all” – which he does in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lu 10:25-37). But a katalyma can be a house or a guestroom, and not, a stable or barn, which the word “manger” makes us think of. So, here’s our family house.
In our tour of the Holy Land, we didn’t see any barns or stables, but we saw many foundations of homes. They were all rectangular, single- or two-room dwellings, like the pictures on the screen. There was a place for animals – a cow and a sheep or two, maybe some fowl – and the family would bring them in each night. They’d have a manger or trough carved into the raised, family room floor, so that the animals could eat but not enter the living area. Some houses would have a guest room (bottom image) attached to the end, or on the roof, of the house. So, when Luke says there wasn’t any place in the “guestroom,” and mentions the “manger,” it means that the family already had a guest in the guestroom, so they welcomed Mary and Joseph into their own living space. So, here are the animals and the family welcoming the Holy Family.
Of course, this means that Mary gave birth to Jesus likely surrounded by many people. In a certain way, perhaps this is off-putting, but it seems much more likely. There were always multiple people in the room when our children were born, and it’s always seemed odd to me to think that Mary was off in a cave alone somewhere. Especially because this was a family’s house, Mary most certainly did not labor alone. The host family was there. Plus, Joseph was a good man. He would have found someone, a midwife or at least an older woman, to be with Mary. So let’s add in some skilled, caring women.
Finally, our crèches often have some shepherds. Luke tells us about them, how they were sleeping in the fields with their sheep – a summer-time practice. And, we likely have heard that shepherds were often looked down upon by others. This may be true, but it’s to them that God sends angels to announce Jesus’s birth, giving them a sign they are comfortable with – a manger in a home. If the angels had told them to go to a palace, they might have been too afraid to go. But they knew about houses with mangers. Likely their own houses were the same. And so, they went, and were welcomed, to see Jesus, wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. So, let’s bring the shepherds in.
To reset the crèche and retell the story this way feels important to me, maybe every year, but especially this year. In a year in which we’ve felt and talked about isolation and loneliness, in a year in which we may be celebrating Christmas differently, and digitally, this simple fact feels very important: Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were not alone. They were accompanied along the way to Bethlehem. They were welcomed into a family’s home. They were fed from a family’s table. Mary was attended to by skilled and compassionate women. Neighbors felt comfortable to come visit.
Having seen that, let’s flip this scene another time, because, as Luke tells us, and as we well know, Jesus is not just any baby: he is the “savior” of the world, “Christ the Lord” (v.11). Over the past weeks, we’ve explored the names of Jesus: God-anointed King, Savior, Emmanuel, and Light of the World. Jesus is the full presence of God in the flesh. The birth of Jesus reveals Godself fully in our human experience.
Jesus, throughout his life, will show us God who walks with us on all our journeys, even our dark and challenging ones – like people walked with Mary and Joseph. Jesus shows us God welcoming us – like the family who welcomed Mary and Joseph. Likewise, Jesus will say to those who ask where he’s staying, “Come, and see” (Jn 1:39). Jesus shows us God serving the needs of others – like the women and midwives serving Mary as she labored. Jesus reveals God with us: God who saves us from sin, death, loneliness, and despair; God who leads us and walks with us; God who shines on, in, and through us. And in the events of Jesus’s birth, when we reset the crèche, we see that God is revealing Godself through the ways ordinary people act, the way they welcome Mary, Joseph, and Jesus.
So the question tonight, and each day, for us as followers of Jesus is simply this: will we welcome him? Will we invite Jesus to take the center place in our hearts and lives? Will we welcome him into our homes, not just going to see him sometimes. Will we get to know him and ask him about our lives, inviting him to help us see ourselves and our situations more fully through him? Will we turn ourselves out to welcome his presence in others – like those who opened their home to Mary and Joseph – showing kindness to others in response to the kindness of God reveals in Jesus? Will we give of ourselves and that which is dear to us – like space in our single-room dwelling – so that we can bless others and empower ministry together? Will we live with his light, a proclamation that darkness is shot through with the unquenchable light of God?
Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were not alone, because God’s welcoming light was shone through all those around them. We, too, are not alone. In Jesus, God comes near to us, welcoming us. And through us, God welcomes others into God’s unquenchable light and life. May it be so.
- Resetting the crèche risks upsetting long-held interpretations of the Christmas story we think we know well. How does this telling of the Christmas story sit with you? What of it is compelling? What of it is challenging?
- I’ve found Bailey’s work, reflected in this sermon, extremely convincing and faithful to both the biblical text and First Century Palestine. For me, it answers questions I’ve always had about the Christmas story. What questions of the Christmas story do you have? What questions does this sermon answer? What questions does it leave unanswered? What new questions does it raise?
- Think about a birth story you’ve experienced or heard about. What about that story and its circumstances informs how you understand and think about the birth of Jesus?
- The sermon concludes by asking questions of our willingness to welcome Jesus. They imply certain ways I believe the text, and the whole story of Jesus, shows us to welcome Jesus and live as his disciples or followers. What are the implied ways to welcome Jesus? What ways do you welcome Jesus? What ways of welcoming Jesus seem challenging to you?