And the Word became flesh…

Nativity of Our Lord
(three choices)
December 24/25, 2009

Set I
Isaiah 9:2-7 – The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. For unto us a child is born, a son is given.

Psalm 96 – Sing to the Lord a new song, all the earth.

Titus 2:11-14 – He gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify a people of his own

Luke 2:1-14, (15-20) – In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus… Shepherds watching their flocks by night… And angel of the Lord appeared, then a host: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace…”

Set II
Isaiah 62:6-12 – Say to Zion, “Behold, your salvation comes; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.”

Psalm 97 – The Lord is king! Let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad!

Titus 3:4-7 – When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of our works, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.

Luke 2:(1-7), 8-20 – Shepherds watching their flocks by night… And angel of the Lord appeared, then a host: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace…”

Set III
Isaiah 52:7-10 – How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

Psalm 98 – Sing to the Lord a new song… Let the earth sing, for he is coming to judge the world with justice.

Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12) – Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son

John 1:1-14 – In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

December 27, 2015 is Christmas 1C
1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26 – Elkanah and Hannah give birth to Samuel, who grows is stature and favor of the Lord.

Psalm 148 – Everyone and everything praise the Lord just about everywhere.

Colossians 3:12-17 – Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, and above all else: love.

Luke 2:41-52 – The boy Jesus in the Temple increases in stature and divine favor.

OR

December 27 is St. John Apostle and Evangelist
(This rarely falls on a Sunday. A great day to lift up John’s vision and Christology.)

Genesis 1:1-5, 26-31 – In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

Psalm 116 – What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits? I will lift the cup of salvation…

1 John 1:1–2:2 – This is the message we have heard and proclaim, that God is light and in his is no darkness.

John 21:20-25 – The last verses of John. Peter’s jealousy of the disciple Jesus loved. This text appears nowhere else in the three-year lectionary but here.

In this post I am going to comment on both the Christmas texts for December 24 and 25 and for the texts on the Sunday after Christmas, December 27.

Hospitality

There are a lot of options here from which to choose. Three sets of Christmas texts provide options for different readings on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Sets I and II use Luke as the gospel reading. Set III uses John 1, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

The preacher is always looking for connections in daily life to which the gospel might be speaking. With all the talk of Syrian refugees recently and with the talk of unaccompanied minors coming across our southern border earlier this year and last year, the most obvious connection is the part of the story that speaks to welcoming strangers. To gloss over this would be a mistake. This is the common thread on the minds of many people. What does it mean to be a stranger? A traveler? An immigrant? A refugee? What does it feel like to be at the mercy of the kindness of strangers?

If you are observing Epiphany on January 3, just nine days after Christmas (instead of Wednesday, January 6, 12 days after Christmas), you will hit upon another Christmas text (the Magi). You may have to decide how to weigh your message on each of these days, but consider this: you will likely have twice as many people on Christmas Eve as you do on January 3. Many of those folks will be visitors. Some will be travelers, others will be local visitors who might return. What message of hope do you want to share with these folks? What might encourage the locals to come back and be a part of what you are doing in the world? How might you touch their soul and spark their interest? What exciting plans do you have for the year that can be shared? What compelling message are you going to have next Sunday and the weeks ahead that they won’t want to miss? Consider making Christmas a fun first in a compelling series.

Here’s how it looks:

Epiphany at-a-glance
Epiphany reaches from the Magi on January 6 to the Transfiguration on February 7, 2016.

  • December 27 – Christmas 2C (Samuel in the temple, the boy Jesus in the temple).
    OR
    St. John the Evangelist (These things were written that you might believe)
  • January 6 – Epiphany (Eastern Magi pay homage to Jesus) – Celebrated on January 3?
  • January 10 – Epiphany 1C (Baptism of our Lord)
  • January 17 – Epiphany 2C (Water into Wine)
  • January 24 – Epiphany 3C (Jesus in his home synagogue: The Spirit has anointed me…)
  • January 31 – Epiphany 4C (Jeremiah’s call. Jesus in his hometown: No prophet is without honor, except in his own country.)
  • February 7 – Transfiguration (Moses’ veiled face shines when he comes down from Mt. Sinai with the 10 Commandments. Paul contrasts the glory of Moses with the glory of Christ. When one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.The Transfiguration foreshadows the resurrection. God affirms Jesus’ identity again, as at Jesus’ baptism.)
    OR
    Epiphany 5C (Isaiah’s call. Jesus teaches from a boat. The great catch.)

How about a series on what it means to follow Christ? Hospitality (December 27, you could use the Christmas 1A texts that talk about Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt instead of 1C). Pagans worship Jesus (January 3). What does Baptism signify (January 10)? Jesus turns the water of the law into the wine of the gospel (January 17). Good news to the poor, freedom to the oppressed (January 24). A new member class could be announced that parallels the series and culminates in baptisms of the new members on Transfiguration Sunday. Whatever you’re doing in January, set the hook on Christmas Eve.

As I mentioned above, I am going to suggest that you use the texts for Christmas 2A on December 27, instead of 2C, which has the boy Jesus in the Temple. 2A has the flight into Egypt because of Herod’s persecution. With 4 million Syrian refugees fleeing persecution from DAESH (ISIS), it just seems Matthew 2:13ff is a timely text.

My comments here will focus on hospitality. If you go with this theme, I’ll leave it to you to decide what is useful on Christmas Eve and what is useful on December 27.

Prime the pump. Ask a question to get people thinking: When was a time you were shown great hospitality? Think of a time when you were in trouble and needed help from strangers? How did your ancestors come to this land?

Be prepared to share your own story. David Rinehart came here as an indentured servant from Mannheim, Germany. He spoke German. He worked for a Quaker family.

Now imagine living in a world where there are no Motel 6’s, no Holiday Inns, La Quintas, or Marriotts. When you travel you will have to sleep in the field or find a guest room with someone in a local town. If they don’t like the color of your skin or the way you talk, they may not welcome you.

They turned aside there, to go in and spend the night at Gibeah. He went in and sat down in the open square of the city, but no one took them in to spend the night.
— Judges 19:15

NoRoomAtTheInnEven if someone does give you lodging, a lynch mob may form and show up at your room. This happens. See Genesis 19 and Judges 19 to witness the fear of strangers.

Now imagine that you are in your third trimester of pregnancy. You have been traveling for a long time with your fiancée and are exhausted. Is your baby at risk? Are you safe? What if you go into labor? You will have to find someone who has a spare room and is willing to loan it out. An inn? Luke’s word is “kataluma,” which really means a spare (upper) room. But the town is full of travelers, so there is no place to stay. Few of us have found ourselves in this kind of situation.

Never refuse hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.
— Hebrews 13:2

Theoxany: Antiquity is filled with stories of divine visitors (theos) who come in disguise as strangers (xenos) to see how they will be treated. For example, Zeus and Hermes tested a village’s practice of hospitality. Those who received them were rewarded. Those who did not were punished. Genesis 19 and Judges 19 are of this genre. Theoxany came to mean treating all strangers as divine, just in case they were. It was a mythological way of expressing the importance of hospitality.

This is precisely what is happening in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats on Matthew 25. On Judgement Day, the righteous are rewarded for proving food, clothing, welcome to strangers, and visits to the sick and imprisoned. The goats are punished for not doing so.

There are also many stories of kings who dressed up as peasants just to see people’s true side. Tolstoy has such a story. See also Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper.

There is some of this going on in the infancy narrative of Luke 2 as well. Luke’s Jesus is the divine Son of God, who is coming to earth dressed as a human being. Jesus is the Son of God 11 times in Luke’s gospel. Even Satan seems to understand this: “The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’” (Luke 4:3) The Son of God comes disguised as a human. How will he be treated? Even Jesus tells stories of landowners sending servants and even their own sons, only to find them mistreated.

Occasionally I hear a story about a pastor who shows up at his church the first Sunday dressed as a homeless person, just to see how he will be treated. I have shown up for events before not wearing a collar, and therefore, not recognized as the bishop. It is interesting to see the difference of how I am treated as a nameless visitor and then as bishop.

In the Old Testament, immigrants are to be treated with great respect, “because you were once sojourners in the land of Egypt,” YHWH says. Farmers are to leave fruit on the vine for orphans, widows, and aliens. The resident alien is to be treated as a citizen.

Some of this imperative of hospitality, in which the Old and New Testament are bathed, feels like it has been lost in Western Civilization. In antiquity, and still in some places in the East today, one has a sacred duty to take care of strangers in one’s midst. When we read these many, many passages in the Bible today, we miss the importance.

On to Christmas 2A, if you will, and the Flight into Egypt. If you are wedded to 1C, The Boy Jesus in the Temple, check out this post by Don Carlson.

Here’s The Flight to Egypt text, Matthew 2:13-23:

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

FleeingEgyptWhen Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

When people see the picture of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus on the move, it doesn’t always click with this story. We’re stuck in Bethlehem. But this picture is almost always the Flight into Egypt. I don’t think this story looms large in people’s minds. A couple of times, when I have mentioned that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were refugees, people have said to me, “No, they just couldn’t find a place to stay in their hometown.” In this passage, the holy family has to flee their country of origin because it is not safe. They escape the ensuing massacre of children, by fleeing to a foreign country for refuge. Any port in a storm.

Migration is the story of history. Today there are over 100 million migrants in the world: people who can no longer live where they want to live. What do we do with these folks? Do we turn them away? Can we?

The preacher might consider who are the listeners in the story? Do we identify with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph? With Herod? With the Egyptians who receive those fleeing persecution?

The massacre of children is not unfamiliar to us. Just google a map of all the school shootings in the US. Consider the abduction of children by Boko Haram in Nigeria. Or, if you really want to meddle, consider how many children have been killed by American bombs in the last 20 years in the name of national security. Our various military interventions, justified or not, have created millions of refugees. How much more must we recognize our responsibility to welcome refugees?

Perhaps consider doing a Refugee Sunday on December 27. Invite a former refugee to speak or be present. We can help you with this. Take a collection for refugees or for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. Consider sponsoring a refugee, as a congregation. There is something sacred in doing this. It is soulful, touching work. Jump in. Who knows, you might even see the face of God.

Know this. Jesus is not born into an antiseptic world. He is no stranger to hatred and violence; this one who died on the cross. He entered a world where children are slaughtered and has something to say about it. He calls us to be a part of his work in the world, binding up the broken hearted. He invites us to find life, by giving ours away.