Sermon Title “Out of the Box” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
What a privilege it is to get to share this text with you on Christmas Eve. You will hear it read again during the service this evening, but for those of you who won’t be able to attend that service, or will be busy in the nursery or kitchen, this is one of the iconic scriptures of Christmas. Perhaps you read it as part of your own celebration on Christmas Day — if you can get everyone to sit still for long enough to do that.
It is the final Sunday of Advent, and we are still asking ourselves the question How Far is it to Bethlehem? How far was it for Joseph, for Mary, for the shepherds? And this morning we ask How far was it for Jesus to Bethlehem, and what does the birth of Jesus mean for us. Many people in this country have at least some context for the story of the birth of Jesus — and most probably know it has some connection to Christmas, although that connection may not be entirely clear. I remember a story which one of my seminary professors, Alan Kreider, shared about his time as a missionary — in England, a Western country where many of our Christmas traditions come from. In that post-Christian society, many people, especially young people, had never heard the story of the birth of Jesus. There was a nativity scene set up outside the place of worship where Dr. Kreider was serving, and a kid of 9 or 10 was curious and asked about it. Dr. Kreider told him what it represented, and the story of Jesus Christ. And the child said, “Thank you so much for telling me that story! I had never heard that before. I just have one question: why did the parents give the baby a swear word for his name?” That was the only context this child had for Jesus Christ.
As you may be aware, nativity sets — figures of baby Jesus and his parents, shepherds, animals, wise men — have been used in the Christian world for about 1500 years. I’m sure they began as a way to present this story to folks who were not literate, did not have access to manuscripts or didn’t have the Bible in their own language. We can now find nativity sets carved from wood, made of porcelain, molded from plastic, knit from yarn, shaped from metal, or carved from stone. In late November, I invited you to share photos of nativity sets which you have in your home. I was delighted by all the photos I received! I know many of them must have stories to go along with them, but we won’t have time for those stories this morning. At least one of these sets had an angel who was de-winged by accident after the photo was sent to me. Some of these should look familiar because they are from here at Creekside. Some are family heirlooms; some were made for children to handle. There is one photo of a nativity figure which should NOT be inside anyone’s house — see if you can spot it. We’ll look at each of these 35 or so photos and I’ll make comments afterward. Note what is different, and what is the same as they go by. Thanks to all of you who shared these photos, and to Lisa Vardaman for putting the slide show together. [Slide show]
Did you see the camel? That photo was from Tim and Shelly Randall, and was taken in Carefree, AZ, where the Zeke the camel probably felt pretty much at home.
All of these figures point us to Jesus’ birth. They represent the characters we’ve been talking about and exploring Advent alongside. But no physical representation, inanimate or in-person, can answer the question How Far is it to Bethlehem? That answer is something which we must believe and experience for ourselves, in our own hearts and lives. The distance to Bethlehem is the distance between us and God — the human and the divine. For Jesus, this was no distance at all: he was the Word of God made flesh — both human and divine at the same time. For us, and for everyone else in the nativity story and everyone before or since, there is a distance between the human and the divine, and we cannot cross that distance on our own. If we are aware of our sins and shortcoming and the ways we fall short of the divine, it may seem like that is a long way to travel — an impossibly long way to travel. If we’re confident of our good works and our righteousness and the respect we’re entitled to — we may have an even longer distance to travel. Wherever we locate ourselves, the Apostle Paul tells us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
This is the good news of Christmas: Jesus came, the Incarnate Word of God, Emmanuel, God-with-Us to bridge that distance between us and God. It is through the work of Christ on the cross that we are able to cross the divide of our sin and experience forgiveness and redemption. It is the only way we can arrive at the destination which has been promised to us.
The journey to Bethlehem has never been a simple one, but it has taken on new poignancy this year. The actual town of Bethlehem is less than 6 miles from the great city of Jerusalem. Bethlehem is in the Palestinian territory of the West Bank, occupied by Israel. Palestinian Christian churches in Bethlehem have scaled back their decorations and festivities because of the war in Gaza. One congregation has changed their nativity scene — instead of a baby in a manger, they have placed the baby in a pile of rubble, and the other characters are rushing to rescue him. That is the experience of Palestinians and others who are in the middle of war and destruction. Not all of those children are being saved in time. The pastor of that congregation said, “Bethlehem is not a fairy-tale place — it is a real city.” Jesus was born in a town occupied by the Roman Empire; he came into the violence and injustice of 1st Century Palestine. He was a real human being, as breakable as any porcelain in a nativity set.
Most of us will pack up our nativity sets in the next week or two. I don’t know anyone who is so hard-core Christmas that they keep their nativity figures out all year round. But for Jesus to make a difference in our lives and for us to be a witness to a world which does not know Jesus, we have to keep Jesus out of the box. We have to let Jesus show up in unexpected places, in caves and cowsheds and homeless shelters, hanging out with people we may not approve of — people who just might be closer to Bethlehem than we are. Jesus defeats our expectations again and again — in biblical stories of eating with sinners and talking to women (gasp!) and touching people who were unclean. Jesus shows up with the homeless of Elkhart, stopping by for a meal at Susanna’ Kitchen, or with a woman who has been abused and discarded, at SPA Ministries. Jesus is with the children who receive school kits from Mennonite Central Committee, and with those who have access to clean water because of Church World Service. Jesus Christ is here at Creekside; in the voices of children, in the prayers we offer for those who need comfort and healing, or are grieving. Jesus Christ is in the hospitality and welcome of those in this building who call ourselves by his name.
Let’s keep Jesus out of the box; this Christmas and in the year to come.