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The Journey to Bethlehem: Who’s Going With Us?

A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on December 4, 2011.

Luke 2:1-20

Morning Prayer:

Our Father, we are convicted by the words of the prophet for we recognize that a deep darkness does cover the earth.  We find ourselves both amazed and overwhelmed at how the sin in the world does bring about darkness of war, darkness of poverty, and shadows of both cruelty and apathy.  We confess most of all that we are surprised by the darkness that still finds a place in our own hearts.  We pray that your light would come, that your light would rise up today.  May the light of peace rise in our hearts and may we allow it to shine forth in our homes, in our jobs, and in our schools.  We pray today that you would speak to our hearts in such a way that we are convicted by your spirit and unable to hold back the light any more.  If we have withheld kindness to make some other person’s life dark, if we have withheld grace, forgiveness or anything that would be a tool of goodness in your hand, forgive us.  We pray that because of worshiping here today we would indeed now speak kindness, demonstrate grace, and forgive one another.  Convict us this very week of what our part might be in shining light in the darkness so that all souls might look towards you.  We pray that in the world, between nations, that the light would shine as well.  For those who find themselves in the darkness of a cell, particularly imprisoned for their faith, may the light of peace shine.  May those who find the darkness of hunger find the peace of food today.  Because of Son, and through the power of his resurrection, may all the forces of darkness, all the powers that bring about hate, all the powers that bring about war, find themselves in retreat today.  We offer ourselves as ambassadors of your light and peace, and we pray that, in this Advent season, you would demonstrate ways to us to perform these acts in the world.  May your light shine in the darkness.  May we participate in that shining.  In Christ’s name we pray.  Amen.

Meditation Text:
 

The birth of Jesus Christ was not revealed to kings or rulers. It was not revealed to the religious elite. When God came to earth, He let the world know by announcing the birth of His Son to lowly shepherds. Why? Perhaps He wanted the poor and outcast of society to know that they were important too. It may have been that God wanted the lowliest of humanity to realize that His love included them, especially in a world where they were normally excluded. Moreover, it seems to me that He wanted all of us to understand that the qualities of love, mercy, and compassion were to be extended to everyone regardless of their social standing.            

                                                                                                —Richard Gobel 

Let’s start with a few fill in the blanks. 
Hey, a group of us are getting together to . . .  go to lunch, have a guy’s or girl’s night out, play tennis, go shopping.  Why don’t you come and go with us?

Your response, Who else is going?

Another fill in the blank:  Honey, we have been invited to the ______’s  house.  What should I tell them?

Your response:  Who else is going?

Have you ever made a decision about going somewhere or participating in something based on who might be there?  I thought so.  Sometimes we know that someone else is going who is so much fun, appealing, or pleasant and we enjoy being around them or it might present an opportunity to talk with someone. 

You say, Yes, tell them we are coming.  We wouldn’t miss it for the world

But then, maybe there are times where you find out somebody else is going and you know they want something from you.  They tend to cling to you in a crowd, they are needy, or they are rude and hog the conversation.  Maybe you can’t put your finger on it but they just make your radar go off.  So you say, No thank you.  I will pass.  Ask me the next time.

Whatever the event may be, we want to know, Who else is going to be there before we give a yes or no answer.  Of course, this even relates to Christmas, doesn’t it? 

I mentioned last week that second only to shopping is traveling as the major activity in the Christmas season.  Sometimes, traveling is part of a gift.  You might hear someone say, I gave myself a cruise this year.  I decided I did not need anything else and I thought this would be fun.  There are also times where traveling at the holiday season is a chance to avoid family or certain people because we know who is going to be there. 

Fill in the blank:  Two days is about all I can stand with _______________.

Fill in the blank:  My ________ drives me crazy.  So we are going on a cruise.  Yes, on Christmas Day, we will be in Cozumel. 

Some people use traveling around the holidays to limit the amount of time they can be with family or to totally replace the time.  I am really sorry we will not be able to come this year.  We have had this trip planned since last December 26

Some of you think, I can’t believe he is saying this, and others of you know that I have blown your cover but it really is the holiday equivalent of, Who’s coming?  Who else will be there before we decide what we are going to do?  We often travel now to avoid certain people around the holidays.

If we had been in Palestine on that first Christmas, we can imagine the invitation from one of the shepherds, Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has been told to us.  If we were to ask, Who’s going? here are some of the answers:

The Wise Men will be there.  They are really great conversationalists.  They have been around the world.  They are so interesting, and they are rich.  You will enjoy your time together.

We have a false understanding of angels.  If you notice, when the angels speak to the shepherds, they are terrified.  Almost any time in scripture when an angel speaks to a person, it means your life is getting ready to change, and most people are afraid.  The angels are coming.  Maybe you don’t know that about angels, and you think, That sounds good.  But then somebody says, “The shepherds will be there.”

Shepherds stink, literally.  They smell because they work with sheep.  Shepherds cannot be trusted.  They are roving workers.  The sheep graze a little here, and they graze a little over there.  They are always going back and forth so they had a reputation in the time of Jesus as being people who were untrustworthy.  Their testimony was not accepted in a court of law. 

In almost every culture, there is some way to talk about the common people we don’t really want to associate with—hoi polloi.  In the rabbinic time, they were called am ha´aretz (people of the land) and their ignorance and crudeness always kept them from observing the Jewish religion like it should be observed.  They were perfect examples of the people of the land, people who were not welcome. 

If we said, “Who is going to Bethlehem to see this thing which is told us?”  Wise Men.  Sounds good.  Angels.  I am all for angels.  Shepherds you say.  Shepherds.  I don’t think I will be going if shepherds are coming.

We have seen too many Christmas pageants with cute children in bathrobes to realize just how crude, how suspect, and how unclean shepherds really were.  They were the people of low class, no class, and they were very untrustworthy.  It would be very easy to look in a manger scene and say, “Why are they here?  How did they get in?  Who on earth invited shepherds?”

We are at the first Christmas, and we are invited by the angels.  Would we accept if someone said, “and the shepherds will be there?”   There is good news and bad news about this.  The good news is that we cannot go back in time, so we really don’t have to worry.  The bad news is it really represents the advent journey in the Christian life.  There is always this question when we decide to engage our faith in an organization that we call the church.  There is always this opportunity for there to be people around that we might not choose to go to Bethlehem with, to walk the journey with, or to serve Christ with.  There is always the opportunity for somebody to be there who has treated us wrong, somebody who holds a grudge, somebody we think is beneath us, somebody we don’t understand or somebody who gives us the creeps.  In a church of any size, there is always the reality that in the family of faith, there are going to be people that we think, If I am going to worship, I might end up sitting next to shepherds. I don’t think I will go today. 

Jesus did not come to acknowledge the tolerance of the educated.  Jesus did not come to admire the self-sufficiency of the clever, and he did not come to applaud the advantage of the upper middle class.  Jesus came to save sinners from their sins.  When we realize that and really take it to heart, we come to the awareness that we are all probably shepherds to somebody else.  There is always somebody who is probably looking at us as the shepherds.  The truth is that the shepherds in the story are there to show that the Good News is available to all people.  If they had been rich sinners, royal sinners, or somebody of the upper class, we might be able to think, in some way, that is what saves these people.  Because they come from the low class and are not cared about by nearly anyone, we are reminded that the message is for all.  Who would decide who the Good News is for?   How would you know?  It is for all or none.

So who is going to Bethlehem?  Who is going to be on this advent journey as we prepare our hearts for the birth of Christ?  We are all going, and the only way we get to go is to acknowledge the need of the Christ child in the manger.  There will probably be some people walking the path with us that we might not choose to include, and as other people look around, they are looking at us and wondering why we got to come.  We are all sinners.  We don’t like to admit it.  We would like to think there is something else that is innately good or qualifies us for participation in the birth of Christ, but the truth is we are all sinners.  All of us.  There is darkness in the corners of every person’s heart.  There is an unkindness that each of us could remember this past week.  There was a coldness of heart, an icy response.  There was a grudge that we have held.  There has been something going on in our hearts and we think, How long have I been trying to get rid of this?  We realize how helpless we have been, and that there is no other option but to count on the grace of Christ.  He comes as a baby so that we will not be afraid to approach, that even we with our great sin will not think that it is too much.  How could we approach the throne?  So all we have to do is approach the manger.  Christ is there waiting for us.

Different products on television use the following type of commercial.  Often there is somebody who is starting down a street in a big city.  As they get to the corner, other people funnel in from other streets.  As they move on down, more people begin funneling in.  Soon, they are all heading towards something.  Whatever it is that the commercial is about, they are all moving together.  If we think about the journey of advent or the Christian pilgrimage, and all we focus on are the people coming around us, we will probably see somebody that we would prefer was not joining us on the journey.  It is only when we focus on Christ and realize where and why we are headed that we recognize that everybody else in this journey suffers from the same kinds of limitations, the same kinds of weaknesses that we do.  The people who are gathering together from side streets and major boulevards funneling toward the manger are part of the fellowship of sinners in which there are no divisions.  We are all the same.

If we were to accept the invitation and make it to the stable, we would find there both the wise and the foolish, the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor, all nations and all peoples.  The only thing they all have in common is their one need for the grace of God.   And one other thing:  They all share the same joy for having received the grace.  If it were not so, how would we have been invited to begin with?

Copyright 2011.  P. Joel Snider.  All rights reserved.