We all love a good story, don’t we? You hear the first familiar words, and immediately you settle in to listen, because you know what is coming. Let me show you what I mean: I’ll say the first few words that begin a story, and we’ll see if you can complete the sentence.
- Let’s start with the most obvious: When I say: “Once upon…a time.” Right. How about this one?
- “A long time ago, in a galaxy…far, far away.” Ok…and this?
- “Here’s the story, of a lovely lady. Who was bringing up three very lovely girls…”. Or, maybe
- “It was the best of times…it was the worst of times” It’s good to have a Dickens classical reference tossed in here. And let’s end with:
- “Twas the night before Christmas, and…all through the house.”
Familiar words. And when you hear those words, you know what’s coming, don’t you? Right away it sets you up for the story.
It is no different tonight. This evening we gather to listen to, and to celebrate a simple story. It’s not a long story…it’s not complicated…but it is powerful.
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” You hear those words, and in your mind, you immediately visualize the stars, the images of the stable and the manger; your emotions and are off to the races and you remember past Christmases when you’ve heard this story before.
Because this is a powerful story. So powerful in fact, that tonight over 2.3 billion people gather all over the globe to celebrate the story of Jesus’ birth, 2000 years ago.
In my family, when I was growing up, we would exchange gifts on Christmas Eve. My parents had a rule: Nothing involving presents could happen until after dinner was over and the dishes were washed. For me…as a six or seven year old…this was torture. But then, after dinner, after the dishes, there still was no opening of presents until after my we’d all sat down in the living room, and my father had read for us this familiar story: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered…” and so on.
I would love to report that at age seven, I listened to this story with rapt attention, enmeshing myself in the grace of God lived out in the story of the birth of the Christ-child. But that would be a lie. I was impatient. I was anxious. I was curious. I wanted to know what was in the packages. “Read faster, Dad!”
One year, when I was a little older, probably around 11 or 12, the dishes were all clean and we sat down in the Living Room; I was already visually scanning the closest present to see if it might be big enough to hold an Atari game console (it wasn’t, by the way…but I wasn’t bitter!) when my Dad said “Todd, why don’t you read the story? I was kind of startled as he placed in my hand a Bible. This, children’s Bible right here. He’d already opened it to the right page. He’d even put a mark…a dot…in green ink at the spot I should stop reading.
And so, I read the story out loud. In fact, I read it every year after that. This was kind of a big deal to me. It felt like I was being entrusted with something important. I was being entrusted with the telling of the story.
You see, not only is there is power in hearing this story…I discovered that day that there is power in telling it.
The story of Jesus’ birth is an epic story. It begins with a wide-angle lens, backing far enough out to set the historical context by naming the Emperor and Governor, only to zoom in on something that no Emperor or Governor would ever have noticed: an unwed, teenage mother, homeless for the evening, getting by in a make-shift shelter in a barn, giving birth to her first child, attended only by her husband-to-be and local shepherds.
I always got a little bit stuck on the shepherds. Shepherds? Why shepherds? Why were shepherds there that night? Why not a midwife, or the innkeeper…or maybe the innkeeper’s wife? Or maybe someone who could be…I don’t know…helpful? Shepherds? Really?
We tend to romanticize the shepherds. Our Christmas cards show them standing guard over their flocks…silhouetted against the night sky, or standing inside the stable, looking adoringly at the Christ child.
But in the first century, there was nothing romantic about shepherds. Shepherds sat at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder; dirty and smelly from their work, uneducated, with no social standing to speak of, shepherds were just a rung above outcasts. Yet the angels appeared to the shepherds… the last people anyone would have expected. Why Shepherds?
There is a purpose to what God is up to in this story. These shepherds, they aren’t just there as spectators.
They were the first people to hear the story of the Good News from the angel. And this Good News was so significant that they dropped what they were doing, left their flocks, and hiked, following a star, to find this miracle birth.
And after they’d seen the baby Jesus, scripture tells us that the shepherds made known what had been told them about this child; And they, glorified and praised God for what they had seen. And all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.
The shepherds heard…and they saw…and they told. The shepherds you see, were the first preachers.
God brought them to the manger to see and then sent them out…to tell the story. Their job was to bear witness…that means to literally carry what they had seen…to bear witness to the wonder of the nativity, the love of God and the gift of the child. The shepherds are the storytellers. And 2000 years later, we still gather to hear this powerful story.
But that was just the beginning of God’s plan. Like the shepherds, you too are the story tellers. And like the shepherds, you too are drawn here this night, and you hear the story, and you see the love of Christ in each other, and you taste of God’s goodness in the bread and the wine, and you are sent out to tell the story.
Telling the story sounds challenging…when I talk about how God calls us to share our faith, people often tell me “Pastor Todd, that’s just too hard…it’s too scary…I don’t want to be “that guy…” the one who pushes my beliefs on anyone…I mean…I’m Lutheran polite!”
I know. And don’t get me wrong. I like Lutheran polite. And I’m not talking about pushiness. But God does call you to be the storytellers…to bear witness. To carry what you have seen.
Ok… we’re going to try an experiment. We’re going to have a little audience participation in our sermon tonight. And I promise that it’s all going to be ok. I want you to get out your cell phones. Go ahead. Reach into your pockets or your purses and take them out. Go ahead and if they are turned off, turn them on. I’ll wait. I know…it goes against conventional wisdom. But the pastor is telling you to do it, so it’s got to be ok.
Ok, everyone got your phones out? Excellent. Here’s what I want you to do. I want you to think about someone that you care about who is not here with you tonight. It could be a relative that lives a distance away. Or it might be a good friend who you haven’t seen in a while. Or perhaps it’s someone that you were close to, but your relationship has grown more distant. I am picking Chris, my old roommate from college.
And you’re going to send them a text message. We’re going to all do this. We’re going to do it right now. Here’s what I want you to text them. Ready? Type this in. Just say: “Merry Christmas! Jesus is born, and you are loved.” “Merry Christmas! Jesus is born, and you are loved.” That’s it. Just “Merry Christmas! Jesus is born, and you are loved.” And now, push send.
Simple. And now…put your phones away.
You’ve just told the story. A simple story. A powerful story. A story that changes lives. In fact, there will be somewhere around 2,000 people worshipping here this evening, so the story is being told around 2000 times. You all have borne witness to the love of Jesus in the lives of someone else. And it wasn’t hard. Like the shepherds, you saw, and you told. And the ones who receive these texts may wonder…and they may ask you about it…and that’s ok. Just tell them: “Telling the story is what we do.” And if they really push, you can say “my pastor made me do it.”
This is, I believe, what we are called to do. For many of us, we have heard this story so often that we take it for granted. As a seven-year-old, I looked at it as a roadblock on my way to opening the presents. But now, 40-50 years after those days…I love to hear this story. It is precious to me. It’s a part of my identity. It invokes God’s promises, and it invokes powerful memories. The story is a link between God, and the people who tell it. Truth be told, in my mind, when I hear this story, I still hear it in my Dad’s voice. And I’m reminded that I’d give just about anything I have to hear my father read me this story again.
The words are so familiar. Let the story wash over you and experience the wonder of the moment: “…to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord…And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’”
Bear witness to this Good News. Hear, see and then tell the story. Because we know that the story…it has power.
Thanks be to God!