Scripture – The Birth of Jesus (Luke 2:1-6)
2 1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. 21 This was the first enrollment, when Quirin′i-us was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. 7 And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
I bet you weren’t expecting to hear the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke here this afternoon. First of all, it’s October, even the earliest of early Christmas celebrators wait until Halloween’s over. And then there’s the whole question of suitability. We’re accustomed to hearing certain biblical texts read at certain events – I Corinthians 13 at weddings; “Let the little children come unto me” at baptisms; the 23rd Psalm at funerals. Death and Christmas just don’t go together. It’s plaids and stripes, dark suits and brown shoes, white shoes after Labor Day, straw cowboy hats in winter and felt cowboy hats in summer. It’s off, but we did it.
The last time I was with Kurt, he played me some Christmas music that he’d been archiving on his iPhone. You heard some of it here this afternoon. Because it was Kurt, it wasn’t the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing carols, or the New York Philharmonic playing the Christmas classics. No, it was the Bare-Naked Ladies singing “Little Drummer Boy,” and a 6-foot 8 clown in sad-face make-up with a voice Tom Jones singing “Silent Night, “O Holy Night,” and “What Child is This?”
You see, Kurt had every expectation of making it to Christmas. In fact, Kurt made some medical decisions and even underwent a medical procedure to improve his chances of getting one more Christmas. This was important to Kurt, and I’m sure there were lots of reasons why. It’s “the most wonderful time time of the year” after all, as the old song puts it –
“There’ll be parties for hosting,
Marshmallows for toasting,
And caroling out in the snow…
With the kids jingle belling,
And everyone telling you be of good cheer…
There’ll be much mistltoeing,
And hearts will be glowing,
When loved ones are near…
It’s the hap-happiest season of all.”
For many of us, our best memories involve Christmas. At Christmastime we think of family, and laughter, and favorite foods, and special gifts, and cherished traditions, and beautiful decorations, and tender moments. I know that one of the reasons why Kurt loved Christmas so much was because it meant he got to make the annual Santa Run with his Harley buddies. He loved gathering up those presents and delivering them. I’m sure there were lots of reasons why Kurt loved Christmas, and I have no doubt that one of them was his faith. You see, Kurt was a “Christmas Christian.”
David Bosch was a South African theologian who taught that the Gospel entails six saving events. He said that Jesus Christ is our Savior because of what He did on Christmas, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Ascension Thursday, Pentecost Sunday, and at the Second Coming. When we say “Jesus saves,” what we’re saying is that Jesus Christ became flesh and dwelt among us (Christmas), that He died for our sins (Good Friday), that He was raised so that we can walk in newness of life (Easter Sunday), that He sat down at the right hand of God the Father in victory over sin and death (Ascension Thursday), that He sent the Holy Spirit to indwell and empower us (Pentecost Sunday), and that He will come again in glory to establish His kingdom without end (The Second Coming). All six of these Gospel events are involved in God’s saving work in Jesus Christ. And we all need all six of them, however, David Bosch pointed out, most of us tend to emphasize one of them more than the others. For instance, I’m a Good Friday Christian. An Anglican minister once told Brennan Manning on a train trip across Canada that he often slipped into Catholic churches just to look at the crosses with the figure of Christ nailed on them. “There I find the essential fact of Christianity,” that Anglican minister told Brennan Manning, and so do I. I’m the kind of Christian who doesn’t feel like I’ve been to church if there’s not a communion service where the broken bread and the poured-out cup point me to the way that Christ’s body was broken and His blood was shed out of His great love for us. But in saying this, I’m acknowledging that there are Second Coming Christians, and Pentecost Christians, and Ascension Christians, and Easter Christians, and Christmas Christians too.
It’s my hunch that Kurt was a Christmas Christian. Christmas is about the Incarnation, how the eternal, invisible, and majestic God, the maker of the heavens and the earth, became small, and visible, and vulnerable in that little baby born in a manger in Bethlehem because there was no room for them in the inn as Luke told us in that passage that I read as I began.
Christmas is the blue-collar Christ event. There was nothing fancy about it. Christmas is the story of an unwed teenage pregnancy and a workman with calloused hands who could barely make the ends meet. Christmas is the smell of livestock in a dirty barn, and the sounds of a hard delivery in the middle of a dark, cold night. Christmas is about a run for the border with the authorities fast on the trail, and life as a refugee, a stranger in a strange land.
One of the books I read in seminary that stuck was written by a man named Tex Sample who was a Professor of Church and Society at a Methodist Seminary in Kansas City. He wanted people like me who were reading long books and thinking big thoughts at expensive schools to understand that most of the people we were going to be ministering to one day weren’t like that. And so Tex Sample argued that the Gospel’s most natural habitat was a honky-tonk where hard-living people gather with their friends and country music can be heard in the background. The Gospel plays there, Tex Sample said, because that’s the world into which Christ came.
I had a poster on the wall of my dorm room wall when I was in Christian College with the words of a Scottish churchman named George Macleod written on it. It said –
“I simply argue that the cross be raised again, at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles but on a cross between two thieves; on a town garbage heap; at a crossroad of politics so cosmopolitan that they had to write His title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek …at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because that’s where He died, and that’s what He died about. And that’s where Christ’s own ought to be, and that’s what church people ought to be about.”
Christmas Christians understand this. God isn’t fancy or fussy. Christmas is about how Jesus Christ is Emmanuel, “God-with-us.” Christmas is about how God meets us where we are and loves us just as He finds us.
I have a print of a painting by a 16th century Flemish hanging on a wall at home. It’s a Christmas painting but set in the context of a 16th century Flemish village rather than a first century Judean one. It shows an ordinary day in the life of an insignificant little town. A butcher slaughters a pig. A woodman pulls a load of firewood on a sled. Children skate on a frozen pond. An old woman gathers eggs. A carpenter frames a house. A young man flirts with a young woman. A couple of drunks scuffle in the street. A government official sits a table and there’s a line of people waiting to pay their taxes. And in the center of the painting, a very pregnant woman sits on the back on a donkey being led by an anxious-looking man into town. It’s Mary and Joseph. It’s Bethlehem. It’s Emmanuel.
This God was in Kurt’s life. I know. I saw Him there. You did too. And that God didn’t go away when the diagnosis of cancer came, and the decline began. This God was there last weekend when things took their turn for the worse, and this God stayed there with Kurt on Monday when the last words and gestures of love were made, and Kurt took his leave of us. This God has been around all week long, perhaps hidden just like Mary and Joseph in that painting, lost in the jumble of demands and details, but there. And in the days of sadness and healing to come, God will be there too.
It’s Christmas that tells us this. It’s because God became flesh in Jesus Christ and dwelt among us that we know God will never forsake or abandon us, and that nothing, not even death, has the power to separate us from the love of God. Kurt knew this. He was a Christmas Christian. And that’s why the Christmas story had to be read at his service here today. This Christmas, every time you hear it — think of Kurt, and give thanks to the God who is with us. Let’s pray…