Sermon Christmas Eve
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from the God who comes as one of us to save us. Amen.
This time of year you will see nativity scenes all over the place. In front of churches, in people’s yards, in your homes. We brought the baby Jesus and placed him in the manger during our processional hymn so you can see the nativity scene right here.
There is a nativity scene on the table as you enter the church. There is a soft, beautifully embroidered fabric one for the Sunday School children. I have several at my house. I bet you have one someplace, too.
Nativity scenes have become a popular item to collect. St. Francis of Assisi is given credit for the first nativity scene. He organized a live one with animals and people in costumes. Francis wanted people to focus on the Biblical story of the birth of Jesus rather than all the secular festivities of the day.
Small, decorative nativity scenes are popular all over the world. In France, the traditional nativity scenes are a bit different. They include more than the just the Holy Family, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus; the angels, shepherds, animals, and wise men.
These scenes began in medieval times and they also include what the French call “ordinary saints.” The ordinary saints are figures of regular people in their daily work. They are characters from village life holding the tools of their trade.
They have figures of people repairing shoes, selling fish or meat, sewing clothes, selling flowers, baking a cake, or whatever. All the professions were represented.
The first time I saw one of these elaborate nativity scenes, I wasn’t sure what to think. It seemed unrealistic to see figures of medieval peasants at the manger in Bethlehem.
But the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. I like the idea that everyone was invited to see the baby. And we are all ordinary saints. After all, wouldn’t you have wanted to be there with the shepherds?
As Luther said:
What else is the manger than the gathering of the Christian people in church to listen to the sermon? We are the animals that go with this manger. There Christ is placed before us….. — Martin Luther (LW 53:22)
We had our children’s program a week ago, Sunday. So when I think of shepherds, I picture the 5 little guys from Sunday School in their adorable costumes with their big scary wooden shepherd’s crooks singing “Away in a Manger.”
The shepherds of the Bible weren’t cute little kids though. Shepherding was one job you got when you couldn’t get anything else. It was dirty and dangerous. You lived at your job and always worked the night shift. You were outdoors in all kinds of weather. You had to fight wild animals and find the dumb sheep who wandered away.
The Pharisees, the religious leaders of the day, were very pious observant Jews and they wouldn’t have anything to do with the shepherds. They considered shepherds to be in the same social class as tax collectors and prostitutes.
You see part of the problem was that shepherds had to work on the Sabbath. They couldn’t leave the sheep to fend for themselves one day a week. It was too dangerous for the sheep. Since the shepherds could not worship weekly, the Pharisees considered them to be unclean. They were outcasts from society, shunned by the nice religious people.
If you can’t get another job and you can’t make it to worship you don’t have many options. The religious leaders of the day didn’t care though. They just gave up on the shepherds and called them unclean.
Not just unclean because they were dirty and smelled like sheep – which they were, but unclean religiously. They were not allowed to participate in any religious activities because they did not regularly attend worship at the synagogue.
Since the religious leaders had given up on them, and they were social outcasts, I imagine many of them felt that God had given up on them, too. And when you believe that God has given up on you, you tend to give up on God.
We may all know people who think that God has given up on them. They may have been hurt by religious leaders or other church people. Maybe they had some tragedy in their lives. They may have done something they think is unforgivable.
Maybe they are overwhelmed by grief or angry with God. They have given up trying to be a part of a faith community. I bet you know someone like that – someone who has given up on God.
Tonight, this holy night, there is good news for everyone – even for those who have given up on God. Even for those who believe God has forgotten them. You see, God sends angels to people who have given up on God. That is what the shepherds learned on Christmas Eve.
They learned that Jesus was born for the outsiders as well as for the religious people. Remember the thief on the cross who repented? Jesus told him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
Remember the other thief? The one who harassed Jesus and bullied him? Jesus hung with him and died with him and for him, too.
Jesus was born for you if you are one of the religious people. Jesus was born for you is you just came to church to please your family this evening.
Jesus was born for you even if you have given up on God. Jesus died for you religious people and even he died for you even if you have given up on God. And Jesus rose from the dead and lives for you even if you have given up on God.
Just as God sent the angels to the shepherds – God sends the message of the birth of a Savior to everyone tonight. You are here. You have heard it. There is a place for every one at the manger.
No matter who you are or what you do – we are all part of the scene at Christ’s nativity.
Let us go with the shepherds and proclaim the good news to all the world.
Alleluia! Christ is born today! Amen.