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Beyond The Manger

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What is the real honest to goodness message of Christmas?  What does it all mean?

It was a significant enough occurrence for God to highlight it in many different ways.  It can be anything that you want it to be and I’m not sure that it really matters in one way.  What you believe about Christmas isn’t really important – what you believe about Christ is a matter of eternal life or eternal death.  Forever living or forever dying.  To be stuck in the throes of death neither getting well nor finding relief.

·         Signs in the heavens.

·         Angelic encounters

·         Prophecy fulfilled

·         Personal Visions

·         Resistance

Much about Christmas remains veiled and puzzling.  It harbors a mystery of faith and has a rather checkered history.

For more than 300 years after Jesus' time, Christians celebrated his resurrection but not his birth.  The later Christmas festival was even banned in 17th century England and in early America.

The observance first begin in fourth-century Rome, timed to coincide with a midwinter pagan festival honoring the imperial army's sun god, Mithra.  The December date was taken over to celebrate Jesus' birthday.

But on what day he was born is unknown.  Even the precise year is uncertain. However, it was not in the year 1 A.D., as the calendar's Anno Domini (Year of the Lord) suggests.

Its dating system derived from an error about the year of Christ's birth by a sixth-century monk in Rome, Dionysius Exigus, in working out the starting point of the Christian era.

Scholars since have calculated that Jesus' birth came in about 6 or 7 B.C., meaning paradoxically "Before Christ".  The revised time was determined partly by the fact that Herod the Great ruled Judea when Jesus was born and history records that Herod died in 4 B.C.

In what month the birth occurred, or on what day, has been a matter of speculation for centuries.  Possible dates include:  January 6, February 2, March 25, April 19, May 20, October 4, November 17.

A British physicist and astronomer, David Hughes, has calculated that the date was September 17, 7 B.C., based on various scientific evidence, including that of a conjunction of two planets, Jupiter and Saturn, in the constellation Pisces on that date.

He concludes in a book that this extraordinary celestial display was the "star" seen by the distant wise men.

The 17th century German astronomer, Johannes Kepler, similarly had calculated a three-planet conjunction, including Venus as well as Jupiter and Saturn, in the same constellation in 7 B.C.

In any case, a variety of months and days have been used over the centuries in different parts of the world to celebrate the occasion. Some Eastern Orthodox churches still do it on January 6.

Christmas was banned in 17th century England when Oliver Cromwell and his puritan followers gained temporary rule, forbidding what was called the "heathen celebration of Christmas."

The holiday similarly was banned in colonial New England. Christmas wasn't made a legal holiday in Massachusetts until 1856.

For all of the clouded chronology and legal background of Christmas, however, the biggest mystery is in its message -- that God has entered the human race in love for it, on with it, and one of it.

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God... and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth," the Bible says.

That is the mystifying core of Christmas, an awesome concept that has challenged hearts and minds since.  It  holds that Jesus was truly human, sharing the nature of all people, yet also truly God. "Emmanuel -- God with us," Scripture says.  "The light of the world."

See:  Matt 1:22-23; John 1:1, 14

The Fulfillment of a Promise

God’s entrance into human history.

KARL - I found this fellow in the church this morning when I arrived.  I knew that some of our kids knew who he was and I asked him if he could give us a hand with the sermon today since the children would be in with us for the entire service.

What’s your name

 

MARC - Gives puppet’s name

KARL - In the sermon today, I’m talking about the . . .

MARC - The meaning of Christmas – now there’s a surprise.  You guys talk about that every year, don’t they ever give you any new material?

KARL - Well do you think that we have learned what Christmas is all about?

MARC - Learned, we’ve got it down to a science.  It’s the time of the year when we tell each other what we would like and then we go head over heels in debt to get it.  The very thought stresses us out and we go shopping with other people who are just as troubled as we are, - none of us are fit to be around.  We risk our lives driving to the malls and then stand in long lines in the stores.  We wrap things up in paper and then pretend it’s a surprise when we open the presents.

KARL - Why do we go through all that?

MARC - It’s Jesus birthday.

KARL - So we buy presents for each other?

MARC - Well  yeah . . . .

KARL - Does that make sense?

MARC - Ok here it comes.

KARL - What?

MARC - You’re going to break into a sermon aren’t you?

KARL - In a minute.  I was just going to ask where this idea all comes from?

MARC - I don’t know – the Bible I guess.  You know the wise men brought gifts.

KARL - To each other?

MARC - No they brought them to Jesus.  Look I know the Bible.

KARL - What part of the Bible do you like best?

MARC - I like the New Testament best.

KARL - What book in the New Testament is your favorite?

MARC - The Book of the Parables, Sir.

KARL - Can you tell me one of the parables?

MARC - Once upon a time a man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves; and the thorns grew up and choked the man. And he went on and met the Queen of Sheba, and she gave that man, Sir, a thousand talents of silver, and a hundred changes of raiment.

And he got in his chariot and drove furiously, and as he was driving along under a big tree, his hair got caught in a limb and left him hanging there! And he hung there many days and many nights. The ravens brought him food to eat and water to drink.

And one night while he was hanging there asleep, his wife Delilah came along and cut off his hair, and he dropped and fell fell on stony ground. And it began to rain, and rained forty days and forty nights. And he went and hid himself in a cave.

Later he went on and met a man who said, "Come in and take supper with me." But he said, "I can’t come in, for I have married a wife and cannot come."

And the man went out into the highways and hedges and compelled him to come in!

He then came to Jerusalem, and saw Queen Jezebel sitting high and lifted up in a window of the wall. When she saw him she laughed, and he said, "Throw her down out of there," and they threw her down. And he said, "Throw her down some more,’ and they threw her down some more, seventy times-seven.  And of the fragments they picked up filled twelve baskets full!

Now, whose wife do you think she will she be in the day of Judgment?

KARL - Well listen, thanks for your help.  It’s obvious that you know the Bible – I’m just going to try it on my own for a few minutes here.  Merry Christmas.

I watched a movie the other day and this guy was talking about people walking in circles when they are lost.  Depending on whether or not a person is right or left side dominant, the strong side of the body strides marginally farther than than the weaker side so that , without direction we just keep running in circles.  My Dad taught me that when we used to rabbit hunt together.  He’d send me to the top of a brush pile and have me jump up and down.  The rabbit would scatter and then he would shoot them.  Or if we would spook one he’d have me give short chase and then return to his side.  Sooner or later the rabbit would run right by us again.  A good dog would make the process shorter by chasing the rabbit more quickly in that circle, which ultimately spelled their doom.

We are like that as well.  Some of us run in 365 day circles.  We come to Christmas time and we remind ourselves what the holiday means.  Then we run by and forget about it.

" So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have. I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body, because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things. We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit." (2 Peter 1:12-21, NIV)

[1]

Others run in 7 day circles, hearing an all too familiar gospel once a week and living between Sundays as if it were unknown.

When it comes to Christmas, we have an Event Orientation – we look forward to things and then they come and go and often we are no different.  This personally is one of the greatest difficulties that I have in the church at large and at times locally. 

If we are no different for what we believe then what we believe makes no difference.  As a matter of fact, if I am no different for my belief system then I should never waste another person’s time propagating what I say I believe, an impotent faith.  It has no meaning.

I wonder what the long term effect of the birth of Christ was.  As far as I can tell there was no long term impact in his birth.  Things settled down and it would seem that the incident was largely forgotten.  It was recorded in only two of the gospels.

I don’t care how well thought out your perspective may be.  I don’t care how well documented your position may be.  I don’t care how passionate you are about what you believe – if it makes no difference in you then it makes no difference through you – it just doesn’t matter.

So although it is all too familiar to us, it is a necessary thing to re-focus, to remind ourselves what Christmas means.  I am so thankful today for all those who helped with our Christmas dinner yesterday.  It was a family event.  We had whole families come to the church to serve others.  My prayer is that these children grow up to understand what the season is really all about.  For myself personally, I would have to say that I have never found the holiday more meaningful than I have in the last couple of years that I have spent with this faith family, serving others.

So the meaning of the season is largely determined by what you add to it.  And if you are just looking to a manger to discover the meaning, you may miss it.  It’s a story that we have made pretty that may not be as pretty as we see it to be.

Here was a young woman with child before she was married.  Either Joseph claimed the child as his own and therefore disgraced himself and his family or he could have put her away.

"Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.” When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus." (Matthew 1:19-25, NIV) [2]

He chose, after God spoke to him to accept responsibility for the child as his father.

How could you ever possibly tell someone else that the child was conceived by the Spirit of God and that an angel had specifically directed you to adopt the heavenly being?  Do you hear how crazy that story sounds?

So he chose to let people talk and to keep his story to himself, spectacular as it was.  And in so doing, he disgraced his family.  Some have suggested that the reason that Christ was born in a manger was that he was forsaken by his family.  Remember that Joseph was returning to his own town, the place that his family came from.  Others of his relatives would have been doing the same thing.  They could have been forsaken by Joseph’s family and unable to find a place to stay with relatives who would surely have been in their hometown.  So they looked for an inn and there was no room there not even for a pregnant woman about to give birth.  So she did, in a cold, damp, smelly stall.  When my children were born they were cleaned up and placed in a warm, heated, clean sterile container.  No creature comforts for the King or his earthly mother.  There’s absolutely nothing about that picture that seems as nice as we portray it.  Did you ever look at the Nativity scene and sense a warmth about it.  There may be heavenly warmth but there certainly is no earthly warmth.

So what is it really all about?  There’s really little that is nice or pretty in the story as it stands in scripture, other than the fact that it was otherworldly and Divinely orchestrated.

Where do we discover the meaning?

KARL – And what’s your name?

MIKE – Gives puppet’s name.

KARL – Do you live around here?

MIKE – You might say that.

KARL – You look familiar to me.  Do you come to church here?

MIKE – Sort of.

KARL – That’s pretty vague.

MIKE – OK – I live in the church.

KARL – Are you Pastor Marc’s son?  His family lives here at the church.

MIKE – No I’m not Pastor Marc’s son – I live in a closet upstairs off the youth room and those kids are really noisy.

KARL – Are you enjoying the season?

MIKE – Now there’s an insensitive question, how would you enjoy the season if you lived in a closet off the youth room?

KARL – You’re right – that’s not so great.  Did you get anything for Christmas?  I got to come down here and talk to you and then it’s back . . . .

MIKE – Yeah I know – back to the closet in the youth room.

This Christmas thing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be you know.

KARL – Why do you say that?

MIKE – I’ve told the Christmas story before just like you are trying to tell it this morning . . . to kids in Jr. Church.  I don’t think they get it either.

KARL – I hope they do.

MIKE – They look forward to this holiday all year long.  They have lists of presents that they ask for and today it’s all over.  Some of the toys that were new yesterday are broken today.  Parents are upset that they don’t take care of what they are given – but at least after the service today, they all get to go home.  I really identify with the Jesus story.  You know He came from heaven, the boss’s son.  He had everything.

KARL – You don’t have everything.

MIKE – No I mean I bet he didn’t look forward to his birthday.  The Bible says that He knew about the plan from the beginning of time, even before.  He had to leave all that to be born in a barn.  He had it worse than I do.

KARL – Well what’s the meaning of the season?

MIKE – There’s really little meaning in the manger

KARL – What do you mean?

MIKE – Nothing really profound or difficult to understand.  He loves you enough to give up everything for that reason alone.  But the manger wasn’t the mission.

KARL – So you think that if I want to understand Christmas I have to look beyond the manger?

MIKE – Think about it – if that’s all the story is then it’s just a nice idea.

KARL – You’re talking about the Cross aren’t you?

MIKE – That’s what makes everything else so special.

KARL – You know what, you’ve helped me today.  I’m going to let you go . . .

MIKE – BACK to the closet.

KARL – Well maybe one of the puppeteers will take you home.

MIKE – Don’t hold your breath.

It’s true isn’t it?  The story of God’s love is fleshed out on the Cross.  It has little to do with what we give each other on Christmas Day, but on the other hand it is all about you.  Not on serving yourself or your wants or your interests but on your need.

I remember an old song that went:

As little children we would dream of Christmas morn
And all the gifts and toys
We knew we'd find, but we never realized
A baby boy, one blessed night
Gave us the greatest gift of our life

Chorus:

We are the reason that He gave His life
We are the reason Jesus suffered and died
To a world that was lost
He gave all He could give
To show us the reason to live

As the years went by, we learned more of our gifts
And giving of ourselves and what they mean
On a dark and cloudy day
A man hung dying in the rain
Because of love, because of love
Because of love

Chorus:

We are the reason that He gave His life
We are the reason why the Lord suffered and died
To a world that was lost
He gave all He could give
To show us the reason to live
To live...
To live...

Coda:
Every time I see the cross
I'm reminded that He gave His life
For you and me...

Chorus:
We are the reason that He gave His life
We are the reason Jesus suffered and died
To a world that was lost
He gave all He could give
To show us the reason to live

From our perspective the season is all about God, from God’s perspective it’s all about us.  Can you allow His love to light your season today?


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[1] The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984. Zondervan: Grand Rapids

[2] The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984. Zondervan: Grand Rapids

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