What’s In A Name: Your Name?
Isaiah 62:1-5; Revelation 2:17
Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
For each, God has a different response. With every man He has a secret – the secret of a new name. In every man there is a loneliness, an inner chamber of peculiar life into which God only can enter. George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons, First Series – The New Nam
What’s In A Name: Your Name
In our Hymnal there are sixty songs that are focused on Advent or Christmas. We know and sing about half of them. In those songs there are at least thirty different names – Jesus, Christ, Messiah, Redeemer, Son of God, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Light of lights, Prince of peace, The Lamb, Emmanuel, Dayspring, Desire of nations, Savior. There are lots of names for Jesus.
Most of us think of names as a word that identifies something. There is no real meaning behind a name – it is just what we call a thing. In the Biblical world a name not only identifies something. It also gives meaning to the item you are talking about, especially when you are talking about people. Our names give meaning to us. This morning, what I want to do is to think about how Jesus makes a difference in your name.
In the book of Revelation Jesus appears to John and gives him a message to give to seven different churches. At the end of one of those messages Jesus says this:
“Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it” (Revelation 2:17 NRSV).
In other words, Jesus changes our name. He gives us a new name and a new identity.
He was born grasping the heel of his twin brother, Esau. His parents named him Jacob, which means “to grasp.” Because of how he lived his life his name came to mean “a deceiver.” As a young man he traded with his brother a pot of stew for the birthright, which meant that he would be the head of the family and receive twice as much of his father’s inheritance. It was a legal transaction, but certainly not loving or moral. He simply took advantage of his brother. A few years later Jacob deceived his father and stole the blessing that Isaac had intended to give to Esau. Jacob ran away to save his life, married two sisters and had twelve sons. About twenty years later he went back home to meet his brother.
The night before Jacob and Esau got back together Jacob got into a wrestling match with God. He actually held his own against God. At the end of the night, after wrestling for hours, God changed Jacob’s name.
“The man asked, ‘What is your name?’ ‘Jacob,’ he answered. The man said, ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob. You have wrestled with God and with men, and you have won. That’s why your name will be Israel’” (Genesis 32:27-28 CEV).
His new name, Israel, means one who wrestles with God. Israel became the father of all God’s people.
Years later God’s people were in exile. It was their own fault. They had sinned and turned away from God. Yet they felt like God had abandoned them. Everything that gave meaning to their lives was gone. The king, who was God’s representative, was dead, along with many of their own loved ones. The Temple was destroyed. They had been taken away from the Promised Land. They lived in despair.
Finally, through the prophet Isaiah, God spoke a word of hope. God was going to save them. He was going to bring them back to the Promised Land. He was going to give them a new name.
“You’ll get a brand-new name straight from the mouth of God… No more will anyone call you Rejected, and your country will no more be called Ruined. You’ll be called Hephzibah, which means “My Delight,” and your land will be called Beulah, which means “Married,” because God delights in you” (Isaiah 62:2,4 The Message).
Because God delighted in them, the people of Israel were brought back from the exile, and given a second chance and a new name.
His name was Simon, which actually means to hear, or to listen. Simon heard the call of Jesus to follow, and he obeyed. He was one of the twelve disciples, in fact he was their leader and Jesus closest friend. He was the first one ever to say, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” He promised that he would follow Jesus wherever he went, no matter what happened. And then three times he denied that he even knew Jesus.
Yet Jesus did not give up on Simon. He forgave him and changed his name. Instead of Simon he would be Peter, the Rock. Jesus said about Simon Peter, “On this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18 NRSV).
Everyone called him Bear. I don’t remember his real name but Bear was a good name for him. He was about 5’10” and 250 lbs., with a big shaggy afro. However, he was not a teddy bear. He was more like a grizzly bear, a mad grizzly bear, a hungry grizzly bear.
It was the summer of 1978 at Woodleaf, a Young Life camp in gold country of northern California. Bear was one of the campers and he caused all sorts of problems. He disrupted games. He was rude to people. At the club meetings, when they were trying to sing and give the message, Bear was loud and obnoxious. The speaker that week was Pete Cantou, one of the best speakers I’ve ever heard. For the most part he was able to ignore Bear, and gave a wonderful message.
In the middle of the week, Pete was talking about the cross. In the Young Life week the cross talk is the most important message. Bear was being extremely rude that night. Pete did not respond in the way that youth speakers usually do. He exploded in anger. “Get him out of here. He may not want to listen but there are others here who need to hear this message.” Then he turned his back on all the kids for several minutes and calmed down. I’ve never figured out how Pete got away with that, or how he got back to his message, but he did, and a number of kids committed their lives to Jesus that night.
At the end of the week Young Life camps often have a time when kids get up and share their stories. About thirty kids got up and said that they had accepted Jesus. The last one to stand up was Bear. As he stood you could have heard a pin drop. Bear said, “I know that I’ve been a jerk this week. I have come to know that I need to be forgiven and have accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior.” The whole place exploded with cheering. Pete stood up front leading the cheering. Then he did something I’ll never forget. He looked at Bear and said, “Your name is no longer Bear. Now you are Aslan, the lion of God.” He changed Bear’s name.
The next summer I worked up at Woodleaf on the Summer Staff. One of the high school students who was on the Work Crew was Aslan. We didn’t call him that, but neither did we call him Bear. I don’t remember what his name was. I do remember that he was a completely different person, one of the best workers and a gentle, loving young man. Jesus came into his life, changed his name and changed him.
There is actually a website that will give you a new name. If you don’t like the name you have now you type in your current name and personality type. Then you push a button and it gives you a new name. I thought I’d try it. The first name it gave me was Daemyn Janus Marshall. I wasn’t thrilled with that so I tried again – Ugor Melker Marshall. I tried a third time and got Mr. Potatohead Cleavon Marshall. I don’t think that the internet is the best place to get a new name. Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if it were that easy to get a new name and a new identity.
Everyone has a secret name, a name that you won’t tell anyone, a name that you don’t want anyone to know. Some of you have the secret name Ashamed. At some point in your life you did something unspeakable, maybe even to someone you love. And so you live in shame, pretending you’re okay, hiding the reality of your sin, from other people and maybe even from yourself. But deep down, in the quiet moments, in the times of honest self-reflection, you know your name, Ashamed. Friends, Jesus died for your sins and he wants to give you a new name. Through Jesus your name is Forgiven and Loved.
Maybe your name is Bored. You’re going through the motions of life but nothing really excites you. You get up, go to work, come home and eat dinner, watch some TV, go to bed and start over again the next day. You’re bored with life, bored with church, and bored with God, probably even bored with yourself. You need to meet the real Jesus, the wild and wonderful Jesus, the astonishing, awe-inspiring and adventurous Jesus. This Jesus goes to parties and weddings, laughs and tells jokes, he walks on water and invites us to join in the grand adventure. You need to meet the Jesus who said “I have come so that everyone would have life, and have it in the fullest” (John 10:10 CEV). You need to hear Jesus say to you “You’re name is no longer Bored. Follow me for your name is Adventure and Joy.”
Maybe your name is Afraid. You live in fear; fear of being known, fear of living and fear of dying, fear of trying something new or fear of opening yourself up to a new relationship. Someone has hurt you and now you spend all your time and energy trying to keep that from happening again, trying to be safe. Maybe you were abused or attacked. Maybe you were rejected or abandoned. For whatever reason your name is Afraid, and you need to hear Jesus say to you, “I give you peace, the kind of peace that only I can give. Don’t be afraid, for I love you, I am with you and will protect you. Your name is no longer Afraid but Faith and Trust.
There are lots of other potential names – Discouraged, Lonely, Failure, Bitter. I don’t know your secret name, or the story that goes with it. But God knows your name and your story, and the pain that it brings you. The good news is that God delights in you. God wants to give you a new name. God loves you so much that he sent Jesus to save you and give you a new name. Through Jesus’ birth and life, through his death and resurrection, through his ascension and continued presence in our lives we have been given a new name.
Thanks be to God! In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Christmas Pageant Surprises
Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation
Some people have never understood what the Christian faith is all about. These two festive holidays are like the theater previews of coming attractions: they are interesting, they whet the appetite, but they are not the movie. Christmas and Easter are not designed as an end in themselves, but to encourage a person to a fulltime, 365 day-a-year commitment of one’s life to Jesus Christ. John Huffman
Christmas Pageant Surprise
How many of you, at some point in your life, were in a Christmas pageant? Most of us have been in one, or at least seen one. One of the wonderful things about Christmas pageants is that you never know what is going to happen.
One Christmas pageant had a surprise because of a boy who was very disappointed. He wanted to be Joseph, but was given the role of the innkeeper instead. During the pageant Joseph and Mary walked up to the inn. Joseph knocked on the door and said to the innkeeper, “My wife is pregnant. Please may we have a place to stay?” He stepped back, waiting to be turned away.
However, during the rehearsals the innkeeper had plotted his revenge. He opened the door wide and said, “Sure, come on in. You can have the best room in the house.” Everyone gasped. What do you do at that point? Fortunately, Joseph was a fast thinker. He told Mary to wait there while he looked inside. He stepped through the door and looked around. After a few moments he stepped back out and said “I’m not taking my wife into a place like that. Come on, Mary. We’re going to stay in the stable.”
Beatrice Stevenson tells the story of one of the most unusual Christmas pageants. She was the wife of a Presbyterian medical missionary. One year she and her husband were in India at a Christian hospital. Beatrice was having a difficult time getting into the Christmas spirit. For one thing, she was sick. The climate and the food didn’t agree with her. She was also away from her home and from her own children. She was in a hot and dirty town. She didn’t feel at all the joy and excitement of Christmas.
The hospital staff were putting on a Christmas pageant for the community. It was on Christmas Eve. As the sun set the carpenters and electricians were finishing the outdoor stage. It was right next to the hospital. One wall of the hospital was the back of the stage. The courtyard, where the audience would sit, was rapidly filling with curious people from the community. Most of them had never seen a Christmas pageant. Most of them were not Christians and didn’t even know the story. They were excited and alive with energy.
As the lights dimmed a hush fell over the crowd. There was a clatter of hooves as a donkey entered the courtyard. A pregnant lady, Mary, was sitting on top of the donkey. Joseph was walking behind the donkey, hitting it with a stick to get it to move. Eventually they got up to the stage and went up to the inn. They were told that there wasn’t any room but that they could stay in the stable. Off in one corner was a stable, with real goats and goat herders. Suddenly there was a burst of music. The lights shined on one side of the second floor balcony. There were angels up there. They sang Christmas carols and told the story of the birth of Christ. The lights came up on the manger scene. Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus were there, along with the goats, the goat herders and the Wiseman. It was your typical pageant, beautiful and touching, yet the story was just beginning.
The angels began to scream in terror. The shadow of a cross appeared on the wall above the manger. The angels cried out “What is this? Will this be the fate of this little child? Who would do such a terrible thing to the Lord of Heaven? Who will help?”
A band of soldiers came across the stage. There were in full uniform, with their guns and everything. They paused at the manger. The leader looked up with contempt. “What can this helpless little baby do? The only true power in this world is that of a gun.” Then he led the soldiers off the stage. A beggar hobbled across the stage with a crutch. He had bandages on his feet and a begging bowl. He looked at Jesus and said, “What can I do? I’m just a beggar filled with pain and faint with hunger. I can’t help you little child, any more than you can help me.” A young mother came next. She had an infant on her hip and several small children clinging to her dress. “I don’t have time right now, little child. My children take everything I’ve got. Maybe in a few years, when my children grow up, I will come back to you.” Finally a bearded guru walked over to the manger. He had many books in his arms. “I worship many gods. You can be one of them if you want. I’m very open minded. But don’t expect me to worship you alone. That would be ridiculous. I need a different god for every occasion.”
The angels shook and covered their ears with shame at this sacrilege. They cried out to the audience, “Is there anyone who will give their allegiance to the King of Heaven? God has come into your world. Will anyone follow him?” The questions made the crowd very uneasy. They started to feel restless. This was a country where Hinduism and Islam are the most common religions.
Next, a young nurse came out onto the stage. She said to Jesus, “I will worship you and serve you gladly, for you have made all the difference in my life.” Then she turned to the crowd. “I was born in the southern part of India. My parents were both Christians and I was raised as a Christian. That has made all the difference in my life. I was not forced to marry at a young age. I was allowed to go to school and to choose my own career. Because of Jesus I have the freedom to work with you here at this hospital.”
The gardener for the hospital came out onto the stage. He looked at Jesus. “I will follow you, for you have brought meaning to my life.” Then he turned to the crowd. “As a young man I had leprosy and could not participate in society. I was all alone until I was healed by the doctors at this hospital, who work in the name of Christ. Because of their love I am able to be a useful part of society.”
Then a surgeon came onto the stage. He was known by everyone in the audience. He had treated most of them at some time. He talked to the crowd. “I was born as an untouchable.” He was at the bottom of the caste system in India, not even considered a real person. “I was a nobody. The only job my family could get when I was growing up was cleaning the latrines. We scrounged on the garbage heap for food, often competing with the dogs. I was not allowed in school, yet I wanted to be someone. I wanted to be a doctor. I heard of some Christian missionaries who would educate me, so I left home, went to school and became a doctor. I have served as your doctor for 20 years. I have sewed up your wounds. I have fixed your broken bones. I have healed your families. Because of Jesus I was able to become a doctor and help you.” Then he turned to Jesus, bowed and said, “Thank you, Lord Jesus.”
At that point the angels sang Silent Night, after which the audience silently went home. I have to admit, that type of Christmas pageant would have been a surprise. I can’t say that I have ever seen a Christmas pageant with a cross in it.
The fact that Christmas pageants are filled with surprises is the way it ought to be. Christmas is a surprise. It is the story of God’s surprise gift of love. The birth of Jesus is a surprise. Who would have expected Immanuel, God with us, to be born in our midst as a helpless little baby? The surprise is that the Lord of the universe emptied himself, he took on the form of a slave, and he humbled himself and became obedient, even to death on the cross. The surprise is that even though we are sinners, God loves us enough to send his son into our world to save us.
The question we need to ask is the same one that the angels asked the crowed in India. “Is there anyone who will give allegiance to the King of Heaven? Who will follow him?”
One last story of a pageant. Wally was 9 years old and disabled. He should have been in fourth grade, but was only in second. He was big and clumsy, but he had a heart of gold and the kids liked Wally. In this particular pageant Wally was given the role of the innkeeper. On the night of the play Wally was so caught up in the performance that the director had to stand behind him to make sure he didn’t wander onto the stage.
Finally, Joseph and Mary appeared. Joseph knocked on the door. Wally, the innkeeper, opened the door. “What do you want?” he asked gruffly. “We need a place to stay.” Wally looked straight ahead at the audience. “There is not room here. You’ll have to find a room somewhere else.” Joseph said, “Please, good innkeeper, this is my wife, Mary. She is great with child and needs a place to rest.” At that point Wally made a mistake. Instead of continuing to stare at the audience he looked at Mary and froze. There was a long pause. “No! Begone!” came the cue from the side.” “No! Begone!” Wally repeated automatically. Joseph sadly put his arm around Mary. She laid her head on his shoulder and they started to move away. Wally watched the forlorn couple. He face was filled with compassion and his eyes filled with tears. “Don’t go, Joseph. Bring Mary back! You can have MY room!”
I have no idea how that pageant was resolved, but my prayer is that we would all have the same attitude as Wally. I pray that we would make room for Jesus in our lives and invite him in. Jesus is the surprise gift of God. God is waiting for us to receive His gift.
Trusting In Turmoil
Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
When tragedy strikes, when trouble comes, when life disappoints us, we stand at the crossroads between hope and despair, torn and hurting, despair cements us in the present; hope sends us dancing around dark corners trusting in a tomorrow we cannot see. Joan Chittister
Trusting In Turmoil
I love the energy that the kids bring to worship, especially at Christmas. At one church, during the Children’s Message, the pastor was telling the kids about Bethlehem. “It’s a small town,” He said. “It’s so small they probably didn’t even have a Pizza Hut.” One boy was familiar with the story and responded very quickly “I wonder if they had a Little Caesar’s?”
At some point during the Christmas season I usually read or hear a comment something like this:
Christmas is all about children laughing and having a good time. It’s about family and love. It’s about the joy that God wants us to experience.
I love the energy and joy that kids bring. It is contagious, but I wonder – is that what Christmas is all about, seeing kids have fun? Our world tends to mix together Advent and Christmas, turning the whole month of December into what one author described as “one long, warm fuzzy occasion. It’s a season of light and joy, of presents and good cheer” (12/4/15 Advent Devotional by Trinity School for Ministry). Then we hear stories of shootings and terrorism, and we get offended, as if someone is trying to ruin our wonderful Christmas.
In some Christian traditions they try to keep Christmas and Advent separate. The biblical readings for Advent are typically dark and challenging. I’m not a big fan of that and I don’t think you need to keep Christmas and Advent separate to realize that the Christmas story itself has some very dark overtones.
Think of the Christmas story from Joseph’s perspective. His life didn’t turn out quite the way he had planned. I imagine that when Joseph was a young man he dreamed about marrying a nice, respectable young lady. They would have 4 or 5 sons. Joseph would teach them to be carpenters and they would all work together in the family business. Joseph would retire early and let the sons run the business. He would take in the profits. They would have 2 or 3 daughters who would marry rich farmers. His family would take vacations every year. Maybe they would buy a cabin in the mountains or a condo down at the beach. Maybe they would just go visit his family back in Bethlehem. After he retired Joseph and his wife would play with the grandkids and go on cruises, or buy a motor home and travel around the country. Joseph would be a respected member of the local synagogue.
Of course, it didn’t happen quite that way, did it? It all started when Mary came up to Joseph one afternoon. “Hey Joe, I went to Walgreens today and bought a pregnancy tester. Guess what?!” Joseph figured he would break the engagement with Mary. He would keep it quiet, but there was no way he could go on. He would start over again and maybe he would still reach his dreams. Then he went to bed and had a really strange dream. An angel spoke to him, telling him to take Mary as his wife and that her son would be Emmanuel and the savior. We’ve heard that story so many times, I wonder if we can begin to imagine the shock that Joseph must have felt. God had not spoken to any of the Israelites for more than 400 years. Now he was speaking, not to a prophet or a priest, but to Joseph. And this was not an easy message to comprehend. What does it mean that the child is conceived from the Holy Spirit? Joseph was just a humble carpenter. How could he be father to the Son of God? Then came the census that forced Joseph and Mary to leave their home, and his business, and go to Bethlehem. Joseph’s world was never the same.
We don’t know what happened to Joseph. In Luke’s gospel, he disappears after the birth stories, before Jesus starts his ministry. In Matthew, after the story of the Wise Men, Joseph and Mary run away to Egypt to save their lives, and Jesus’ life. Then he drops out of the story. I’m convinced that Joseph’s life was filled with turmoil, not only because his dreams were disrupted. The turmoil went deeper. He wondered what in the world God was doing. He wondered why God was doing what he was doing. He probably even wondered if God was doing anything in his life, or if God had abandoned him. The first Christmas was anything but a warm fuzzy occasion. My guess is that as Joseph prepared for the birth of Jesus his life was not filled with peace and joy, but with turmoil.
The same thing is true for many of us. We know what it’s like to have our lives be filled with turmoil. When did this time of year get to be such a chaotic rush? I’m not sure who put together the Flyer about the Advent Dinner and Children’s Program tonight. I love it. In big bold letters – ADVENT: PREPARE. Then behind that:
Baking… Shopping… Christmas Card List… Ornaments… Decorate… Christmas Tree… Outside Decorations… Give Cards… Secret Santa… Clean the House… Prepare Guest Room… Shop for Food… Polish Silver… Coworker Gifts… Wrapping Paper… Gift for the Boss… Arrange Babysitter… Teacher Gifts… Mail Carrier Gift… Family Picture… Dog Grooming… Guest Towels… Christmas Dinner… Elf on the Shelf…
The list goes on and on, and that is just the normal chaos. For many people the problem is much deeper. Maybe it’s anxiety about your children or your parents. Maybe it’s worries about your job or money. Maybe you’re dealing with health issues or struggling with a relationship or dealing with the death of a loved one. It may be an inner turmoil that you don’t understand and can’t explain, but is very real. For whatever reason, most of us have times when our lives are filled with turmoil.
First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton, California had a program that helped children of divorce as they worked through their emotions and the struggles of the divorce. Brandy was one of the first kids in the program. She was eight years old, and had a younger brother named Stephen. The two of them met with one of the persons who worked with the program. Gary, the volunteer, said, “It's really hard to go through a divorce, isn't it, kids?” Stephen responded right away. “Man, it's the pits! I hated it!” Brandy looked up, with a bored expression on her face. “Oh, I didn't think it was so bad. You just get more moms and dads. No big deal.” Stephen wouldn't let her get away with that. “You're lying, Brandy! And we are in a church!” She glared back at Stephen, “I know, but I don't like to talk about it... I just take the sad thoughts to my secret place and then I lock them up.” This is an 8-year-old kid. Gary looked at Brandy and asked her, “Is your secret place getting full?” She began to cry and shook her head yes. “What happens when you can't fit anything else into your secret place?” “I don't know.” she said.
Brandy's life was filled with turmoil. She hid it, but it didn't go away. It never does. Unfortunately, many of us do the same thing with the struggles of our lives. We put on a happy face, pretend there is nothing wrong. And our secret place gets full.
So, what do you do? How should we respond to the turmoil of our lives? Let’s look at what Joseph did. How did he respond to this mess?
At first he set out to take care of the problem himself. He wanted to do the right thing but he didn’t want to make a big deal of it. He didn’t want to humiliate Mary. He could have dragged her out in front of the elders and had her stoned, but he wanted to keep the whole thing quiet.
Then an angel appeared to Joseph and told him what was happening and what he was supposed to do. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from the sins” (Matthew 1:20b-21). Notice how Joseph responded. “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him” (Matthew 1:24). It sounds so easy but it was probably one of the most difficult things he had ever done. Joseph trusted that this absurd message from the angel was God’s word. He trusted that God’s outrageous promise was true. He trusted that God was somehow involved in this mess. Then Joseph obeyed God’s command; he did what the angel told him to do.
Here is the message for us. In the midst of the turmoil of our lives you and I are called to trust and obey. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t had an angel come to me and say, “Here is what you are supposed to do.” It would be nice to have a message that clear. However, we do have the Scriptures which tell us what we are supposed to do.
We are also called to trust. The Bible not only has commands that we are called to obey. It also has some wonderful promises. We are called to trust them.
Most of the Christmas carols that we sing focus on the story of the birth of Jesus. They don’t really talk about modern-day life. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear is an exception to that. It was written just before the Civil War, when our country was filled with turmoil and fear. It points to the reality of life, with all its struggles and pain. Verse three focuses on the struggles of life.
O ye beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow;
Yet the song is a favorite, with a wonderful message of hope and joy. Jesus, the Prince of Peace is coming into our world. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. We are called to listen to the angels as they proclaim this good news. We are called to trust and obey God in every way we can, celebrating the birth of Jesus, our Lord, our King, Emmanuel.
Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
Despite our efforts to keep him out, God intrudes. The life of Jesus is bracketed by two impossibilities: a virgin's womb and an empty tomb. Jesus entered our world through a door marked "No Entrance" and left through a door marked "No Exit."
Peter Larson, “Prism” (Jan/Feb 2001)
Dr. Ken Bailey is a Biblical scholar, lives up in New Wilmington, but he spent most of his career in the Middle East. He approaches the Bible from a Middle Eastern perspective. He knows how the people live there which gives him insights about the biblical stories. About thirty years ago he wrote an article that showed how we have many misconceptions about Christmas, simply because we don’t know the culture.
The traditional story, that we all know, is that Joseph and Mary traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Mary was pregnant. On December 24th they saw the sign, "Bethlehem; elevation 59’ and Mary started feeling her first labor pains. They went to the local Motel 6 but it was full. The innkeeper told them that they could stay in the barn, which is where Jesus was born. It was cold out, but the barn gave them some protection from the winter weather. There was no bed in the barn so they put Jesus in the manger. Shepherds came from the fields to see Jesus. The next day three wise men came and brought Jesus gifts. And they lived happily ever after. Unfortunately, that isn't quite the picture we find in the Bible.
For example, tradition says there were three wise men. That story is in Matthew’s gospel, yet it never says there were three wise men. There were three gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh. But there may have been three or twenty three wise men.
Another misconception is about the date of Jesus birth. We usually think of it happening on a cold winter’s night at the end of December. Yet Luke tells us that the shepherds were in the field. In the winter the shepherds always brought their sheep back into the village and stayed in their own homes. It was only in the summer months that shepherds stayed in the fields. Early Christians didn’t even celebrate Christmas. It wasn’t until the 4th century that Christmas was celebrated in December. Since we have celebrated Christmas in December for 1600 years we assume that Jesus was born in the winter.
We usually think that Jesus was born the night they arrived, but the wording Luke uses seems to imply that they may have been there several days, maybe even weeks or months, before Jesus was born. If Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem for a couple of days and if they couldn’t find a better place to stay than in a barn, Luke was trying to show us that Joseph was an incompetent husband and the people of Bethlehem are cold-hearted. Hospitality is part of the Middle-Eastern culture. Everyone is expected to welcome strangers and people in need. Bethlehem was Joseph’s home town. He had family there. That is why he had to go back for the census. As a son of the village everyone would have opened their home to him, especially since Mary was pregnant.
Probably the biggest misconception we have has to do with the idea that Jesus was “laid in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). To understand that we need to know what a typical Palestinian home was like. Most of them were one room homes. At one end was a small lower level. This was the area where the animals stayed at night. The cattle, the sheep, the chickens and any other animals would probably sleep in this area. During the day they would be taken outside into a courtyard, or into the field.
About four feet up from this lower level was a larger main room. This was the family room. The family would cook, eat, sleep and live in this room. There were steps from the lower level to the upper level.
Between the lower level and the upper level there was a wall. There would be a hole dug in that wall. The hole was used to store hay for the animals. That hole was called the manger. On top of the roof of the home there was a guest room for any company that would come. The Greek word for this guest room is kataluma (kataluma). Do you remember the story of the Last Supper? Jesus told two of the disciples to follow the man carrying a jar of water. When they got to the house they were to ask where the guest room was, the kataluma. That was where Jesus and his disciples were going to celebrate the Passover. The word for inn that Luke uses in verse 7 of our passage is kataluma. The inn was the guest room of a home, not a motel. 2000 years ago they didn’t have Motel 6 or Holiday Inn.
Think of the story this way. Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem and stayed in the home of family members. After several days or weeks, Mary gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in bands of cloth, which was what they did with babies, and then laid him in the manger. Someone listening to the story would think, “The manger! They must be in the family room. Why aren’t they in the guest room?” Luke explains, “There was no place for them in the guest room. It was full.”
This is a different picture than the one most of us are used to. Ken Bailey’s article came out in January of 1988. The editors said that it came out too late to spoil any Christmas sermons, but since then I’ve had a hard time with typical Christmas pageants. Rather than Jesus being born in a barn, in a world that did not welcome him, Luke paints a picture in which Jesus was born in a simple home, surrounded by family and friends. Here is the beauty of this image – Jesus is someone we can relate to. He is like us.
Our world is filled with a variety of people, of all different types. However, if you look at the news, the only people who seem to matter are the celebrities; politicians, entertainers, sports stars. These celebrities are the ones who are important. They are the ones who make a difference in the world. They are the ones we are to try to emulate. I’m not putting any of these celebrities down, but to be honest, I don’t feel connected to them. I have more in common with ordinary, middle-class people. If Jesus had been born into a rich, aristocratic family it would have been difficult for common people to relate to him. We would probably wonder if we were good enough, rich enough, or talented enough to have a relationship with him. We would probably never quite feel worthy enough for him.
In the same way, if Jesus was born into a poor and destitute family it would be hard to relate to him. I know what a barn is, but I’ve never had to sleep in one. I’ve never been homeless. Maybe some of you have experienced poverty but right now most of us are not poor, even by the standards of the United States, much less compared to the rest of the world. It is hard to relate to a Jesus who was so poor and alone in the world.
Luke’s message is that Jesus isn’t part of the elite, upper crust, who are so far above us that we will never be able to connect with him. Neither is Jesus so far below us that we can’t relate to him. Jesus was born into a simple home, surrounded by family and friends. We can be connected to Jesus because he is one of us. Jesus is like us.
The cover article for the December National Geographic is about Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary is said to be “the most powerful woman in the world.” Over the centuries she has had more influence than any other woman. The article made an interesting statement. It said that the reason she is so popular is that she is more accessible than God or even Jesus.
We long to be connected to God, to something bigger than we are. But for many people God is so far out there, transcendent and omnipotent that normal people can’t relate to him. God is distant, unapproachable and unknown. There is no personal relationship with God. The good news of Christmas is that in Jesus Christ we learn that God is like us. He is not so rich and mighty that we can’t reach him. He’s not so poor and lowly that we can’t relate to him. He is one of us.
Jesus is not an outsider whose demands and expectations are unrealistic and unattainable. He is one of us and therefore he has the right to demand perfect obedience and complete surrender. We can’t write off the commands of Jesus as irrelevant because he doesn’t know what our lives are like. Jesus knows the struggles and pain of life. He knows the joy and boredom of life. And he calls us to commit our lives completely to him.
God’s commands are not beyond us, nor below us. Neither is God’s love beyond our reach. Luke’s message to us is that in Jesus Christ our transcendent and all-powerful God is intimately and personally involved in our lives. God, the creator of the universe and the Lord of all creation, has become one of us. God wants a personal relationship with us. That is why God came as a little baby, born in a simple peasant home, surrounded by people who are just like us.
Sometime during this Christmas season, I invite you to reflect on your image of God and your image of Jesus. Realize that in Jesus God has become just like us. Jesus is one of us and wants a personal relationship with you.