“And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Christmas Eve comes from the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ: A decree went out, affecting the entire world. Now, great swaths of our planet did not live and die under the Caesars, North America, South America, much of Africa, much of Asia, and Australia, but for those living around the Mediterranean Sea, the Roman Empire was the world. Decisions made in the gilded halls of Rome could reach out and touch the lives of poor peasants in North Africa, Eastern Europe, or Palestine. That is how a carpenter from Nazareth and his betrothed ended up making the nearly one hundred mile journey from Galilee to Judea. “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.”
No exceptions could be made for hardship cases. Caesar Augustus wanted the world registered, and so you had to go. No matter that you had to walk for several days. No matter that your wife was at the end of her pregnancy. Caesar said it, and you had to obey. As soon as they read the decree, Mary and Joseph had to know that their child would be born in Bethlehem, if they made it that far. That wouldn’t be too bad. The entire house of David was assembling there, so there would be plenty of help and support from Joseph’s extended family. But something went terribly wrong that first Christmas Eve. Luke tells us, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” With just a few words, Luke has given us a detail that has shaped our understanding of Christmas ever since. The first part of the verse goes as expected, but suddenly we encounter the word “manger” and the terrible phrase “there was no place for them in the inn.” ‘Manger’ makes us think of a stable, inspiring Christmas displays for centuries, but perhaps they didn’t even have that much shelter; it may have been just a feed trough under the open sky. ‘No room in the inn’ makes us complain about money-hungry business owners, unable to give a place for a poor woman to have her child.
This is the point where we today like to puff out our chests and say, ‘If I was in Bethlehem that night, I would’ve given them a place to stay!’ That is probably true, because you know exactly who this child is. But what if you didn’t? The word we traditionally have here as ‘inn,’ is probably more accurately ‘guest-room.’ That changes things a bit, doesn’t it? Now we aren’t talking about greedy innkeepers, but instead about all the citizens of Bethlehem. They refused to open up their homes to this young couple that they didn’t know, but instead decided that it was safer to not get involved. Still feeling confident that we would’ve done differently? We have people in need placed all around us, and how often do we simply look the other way, keeping the guest room for ourselves? How often do we decide that it’s better to stay away from those situations? Do we extend a helping hand to strangers in need? Would we have welcomed a pregnant teenager into our home, or simply directed them somewhere else, making them another person’s problem? In Matthew chapter twenty-five, Jesus tells a parable about the Last Day. “The King will say to those on His left… ’I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’” Jesus teaches us that those in need around us are the masks of God in this world, and when we refuse to serve them, we are refusing to serve God Himself.
Jesus’ rejection at Bethlehem was only the symptom of a greater problem, our sin. Our sin is the reason why we fail to help our neighbors, our sin is the reason why Mary, Joseph, and Jesus found no room. Our sin forms a barrier between us and God; because of original sin we have no room for God, not in our homes, not in our hearts, not anywhere. We are born enemies of God, with only a shut door toward Him. But it was precisely for that reason that He came.
Jesus came because there was no room, He came because the doors were shut in Bethlehem, He came because the hearts of sinful men were closed against Him. Jesus came because we fail to help our neighbors in need, He came because we fail to show love to the masks of God in our lives. Jesus made Himself poor and rejected for our sake. He did not come dressed in royal garments, but instead in the rags of a poor virgin mother. He was not born in a palace, but He was born where cattle ate, rejected by all. He did this all because of your sin, because His only desire was to see that sin done away with. It was in love that He came into this world, such deep love for you and me that He was willing to lay aside all of the glory that was rightfully His and taken on our human flesh and blood. The Lord and Creator of the universe became man- for you! And not any man, but a man born in the poorest of circumstances, a man born in humility. Can you imagine what the shepherds thought? The angel appears to them and says, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Wow, a child is born this very day, who is a Savior, but more than that, He is Christ and indeed the Lord, God Himself! After hearing such a pronouncement of who this child was, it must’ve puzzled them to hear about where they would find Him: “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” The Savior and Lord of the universe is in a feed trough? This was not the Messiah we expected, but it was the Messiah we needed.
For our Lord came in humility, He came not to march in triumph, but instead to walk the way of suffering. One day He would trade His manger for a cross. Instead of swaddling cloths He would be wrapped in burial cloths. One day He would exchange the stable for a tomb. That is how He would fulfill the names the angel gave Him on that first Christmas Eve. He is the Savior, the Savior from sin, and He would perform this great work by giving up His life for our sake. The rejection of the holy family in Bethlehem only pointed to a greater rejection. There was no room in Jerusalem for a Messiah, and so He was killed, crucified for the sin of the world. That is why He was born, to die for you and your sins, to bring you salvation. But He did not stay dead! The joy of Christmas is the joy of Easter, that Jesus was born so that man no more may die. The angels brought a message of joy to the shepherds that winter night, and some thirty years later they would bring a message of joy again to some women outside of an empty tomb. Christ was born to die, but He was also born to rise again. He was born to conquer death, to raise us up on the Last Day, forgiven and restored, to stand before the Father forever. He is God’s anointed one, the one appointed to bring salvation. He is the Lord of all the universe in human flesh, here to take on the sins of all men. That is why we have joy this Christmas season: God has provided a solution to our sin, He has removed the barrier between Himself and His beloved creation, He has acted to open closed hearts.
In our sin and rebellion we were unable to make room for Christ, but in His grace He comes to us, breaking down the barrier of sin through the forgiveness that He won for us, creating faith which grasps onto the Christ child. He opens our hearts to see those in need around us as an opportunity to show the love that He first showed to us to others. We don’t serve others in order to gain favor before God, but instead as an overflowing of the love that Christ poured out on us by becoming man and walking the way of the cross for you and me. He went there to fulfill the song the angels sang that first Christmas Eve. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” Because of this child, there is peace on earth, peace between God and man, the peace that the world cannot give. This is the peace of heaven, the peace that will characterize our existence for all eternity. He is pleased with you because He died for you, and because of that you truly have peace on this beautiful night.
The peace that the angels sang of is for the whole world. Caesar Augustus thought that he had the world in the palm of his hand. He simply said the word, and a young family traveled from Nazareth to Judea. But some events are even bigger than the Roman Empire. The birth of this child was a worldwide event, indeed a universal event, an event that brought heaven itself near to this earth. He was born not just for those shepherds in the Judean hills, not just for the Jewish people, not even just for those who lived and died under the Caesars. He was born for all men, Jew and Gentile, Roman, Chinese, African, and all the rest. He was born for you and He was born for me. He was born to bring you salvation, to reconcile you with your God. He was born so that you need not fear death, He was born that you will dwell forever with your God in peace. Thanks be to God for the gift of His Son, our Savior Jesus Christ! Amen.