Summary: A Christmas sermon for 2009 preached the Sunday following at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, Audubon, Iowa.
In the Christmas gospel, we are given a word picture of that first Nativity Scene in the stable in Bethlehem. It’s a picture that has been burned into the minds of Christians and non-Christians alike. Some of you might even have one set up in your yard or in your home. We have one set up outside of the main entrance of the church. Last year in the Christmas Eve sermon, some of you might remember as an illustration I shared with you the story of German POW’s in a prison camp in Algona, Iowa who created a nativity scene during World War II. No doubt, you have some sort of favorite Nativity Scene you picture in your mind when you hear the Christmas Gospel read each year.
For many, it’s merely a seasonal decoration to be taken down come December 26th. For us as Christians, we recognize there’s something special about that Nativity Scene. What is it? What might those people in that scene be thinking about as they gaze upon the Christ child? What was it really like to be there that first Christmas night? That’s what I want to explore with you this year. So with the eyes of faith, let’s go back in time to the first Nativity Scene.
The first thing that is going to stand out is the environment you’re standing in. Watch where you step, you might get an unpleasant surprise. After all, remember, this is a stable. Not the nice, cleaned up, pristine type you usually see in Nativity Scenes today, but a real stable, a barn, a place used to house animals. So that means, yeah, you have all the smells and everything else a stable usually has. This doesn’t look like the place where you’re going to find anything glorious. Finding glory in this scene is going to be like, well, finding a needle in a haystack. As we make our way through the stable, we see a young couple, and a baby. Let’s go see what they’re up to.
We see the new mother, Mary, laying her newborn Son into his first bed, a manger, a feeding trough for animals. No doubt, this is not how she envisioned giving birth to her first child. And we’re not just talking about her surroundings either. You see, the last nine months have been quite a journey for this young woman. She was going about what up to that point had been a pretty ordinary life for a young woman in Nazareth, and had even become betrothed, or engaged, to Joseph, the local carpenter. Things were going pretty well for her, and it seemed as if she’d just live her life anonymously, until an angel showed up. “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you.” (Luke 1:28) With that announcement, the angel declared to Mary that she would not only become a mother, but she would be the mother of the long promised Savior of the Nations. Being a virgin, Mary asked how this would work, and the angel told her “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, therefore the child to be born will be called holy-the Son of God.” (v. 35) It was clear from that moment that this was not going to be an ordinary pregnancy. Not only that, but she would have to face the ridicule and scorn of the community. And of course, what would Joseph think of all of this?
Speaking of Joseph, there he is, next to his bride and the newborn child. He’s not rich by worldly standards. He’s certainly not a king, or someone with a lot of power and stature in the world, or even in Nazareth for that matter. He’s also been through quite an emotional roller coaster. Things were going along as planned, he had been preparing his home so that he could take Mary fully as his wife, and then, she has some bad news. “Joseph, I’m pregnant.” Joseph knows it can’t be his child. What has Mary done? Why him? Mary tries to tell him what happened, about the angel, about the conception by the Holy Spirit, and that she had done nothing wrong, but he just can’t believe it. He considers what to do about the situation. He could turn Mary in, after all, in those days, adultery was an offense punishable by stoning to death. But he cares too much for Mary to have that happen, so he decided to just simply divorce her quietly and wash his hands of the situation. That is, until he received a visit from an angel himself. In a dream, an angel tells him: “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is convinced in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Indeed, Mary was telling him the truth. The prophecy from Isaiah was true: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14) Joseph is now charged with the task of being the step-father to the long promised Messiah. What an awesome responsibility, knowing that his savior from sin, death, and the devil is entrusted to his care. There’s a lot of joy in that man’s face that night; he, a humble, ordinary carpenter, is among the first to look into the face of his Savior.