Christmas Eve Service
(Snuff out all the Advent candles except the Christ Candle)
The Nativity—the story of the birth of Jesus—is not a kids story. It's an adult story painted in the colors of powerful emotion on the canvas of complex moral decisions. All this was lived out by people who never expected they would have to face such pathos. We lose all that by dressing up kids to play the parts in cutesy pageants. Maybe we do that on purpose so we don't have to feel, full force, the anguish that formed the back drop and scenery of this drama.
Each candle we light on the Advent Wreath we assign with positive attributes such as love, peace, hope, or joy. But if we pay attention to the story, we have to work hard to squeeze those positive features out of what's happening. We look back through thousands of years and we see how everything turned out all right. There is this unbelievably happy ending. But how quickly we gloss over, race through, or just plain refuse to see the heart-wrenching drama of the birth of the Savior. Love, joy, peace, hope is only part of the story. At the heart of this epic there is disgrace, inhospitality, rabble, and deceit. These are the other names by which the four candles of Advent go by.
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and his name shall be called Emman′u-el” (which means, God with us).
When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.
(Light the first candle.)
In one short paragraph, we are introduced to Joseph. In two lines he is described as being betrothed. But because of that engagement he faces probably the toughest moral decision of his life. The woman he is betrothed to has become pregnant, not by him. Before he has "consummated" their marriage, Mary, apparently has had sex with another man.
We don't know much about Joseph. We don't know what he looks like, where he comes from, what his work was, or what he was like as a kid. We know nothing. Only that he has found himself in the most disgracing of situations.
Joseph is described as "…being a just man…" Joseph had a sense of right and wrong. Joseph new the difference between justice and injustice—and what he was facing was definitely injustice. He knew what his rights were. He could have Mary stoned. Why? Because Mary had brought the full power of humiliation and social embarrassment down upon Joseph. She had brought shame on his family. On her family. Such powerful disgrace must be met with the equal power of justice in the community.
From Joseph’s side of things, Mary’s disgrace doesn’t just effect Mary alone. And because the circles of this circumstance were far reaching into the community, the social customs of dealing with it were equally far reaching—death by stoning.
Joseph didn’t buy any stories from Mary about having the baby by the Holy Spirit. The only thing that we do know, as you read between the few lines of this part of the story is that he loved Mary very much. He was a just man, but he was also just a man. And one has to wonder why, when he had the full weight of the justice system behind him, poised and ready to flatten Mary—one has to wonder why he didn’t do it. Why was he planning a softer, more tender and caring release of Mary, even before his angelic visit in a dream?
I think I know why.
Joseph was disgraced, but he loved Mary. His love overruled his sense of justice. His love smoothed over the roughest edges of his disgrace. His thoughts were of her, not of his rights.
That’s why this candle goes by two names: disgrace and love.
Hymn: “Mary Did You Know?”
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered, will soon deliver you..
Mary did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
And when you kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God.
The blind will see, the deaf will hear and the dead will live again
The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the lamb.
Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven's perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you're holding is the great I AM!
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirin′i-us was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city 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 enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
(Light the second candle.)
It is hard to imagine that no one would have a place for a young couple like Mary and Joseph. I think it’s even worse than it appears. Our sense of the time lapsed between Joseph and Mary’s arrival and the birth of Jesus seems like only a matter of hours. We have been conditioned, again, by watching so many pageants where the couple comes trudging into Bethlehem, going from place to place, and, on the night of arrival, having their baby.
If we hurry over the words in the scripture story, again we miss something very important. Luke writes, “...and while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered.” What does that sound like to you? To me it sounds like they had been in Bethlehem for some time—at least a week or so before the birth took place.
Could it be that out of Joseph’s lingering sense of disgrace, he kept himself and Mary out of town, camping in the valley below Bethlehem? Or back off the road that lay between Jerusalem and Bethlehem? Could it be that they were a poor young couple who had no financial means for lodging and didn’t come into Bethlehem to look for a place to stay until it was time for the birth?
Or, could it be that all of Joseph’s kinfolk, of which he would have had many in Bethlehem, knew the story of Mary’s odd pregnancy. They also refused to believe any story of a miraculous conception. And so, because of their sense of family shame, refused to let Mary and Joseph stay in any of their homes?
Because Joseph had refused to carry out the sentence of death that justice demanded, and instead allied himself with Mary, he may have thus allied himself to her disgrace, and therefore caused himself to also be spurned. When the time for the birth came, and Joseph went frantically from place to place, relative to relative, he was only greeted with inhospitality and shunning. Family pride and saving family face was deemed more important than basic human needs that accompany child birth.
Think about it. Joseph was related to the family not only of Bethlehem, but in all Israel—the family line of King David. He would have had relatives through that small village. In fact, maybe the whole village. It wasn’t just a lone innkeeper, then who was closing doors to Joseph and Mary. It was, in all likelihood, the entirety of his own family.
On one basic level, it shouldn’t matter what family you’re related to, as long as you are related. Isn’t there a basic family code of hospitality that a place be found? There just seems to be something deep with in, maybe born into us, that you don’t turn family away. The fact that it happened is bad enough; but to turn a woman in labor away seems inhumane.
All Mary and Joseph have is each other. With the rejecting inhospitality at their heals, they duck into a stable to have their baby.
Hymn: “Away In A Manger”
Away in a manger
No crib for His bed
The little Lord Jesus
Lay down His sweet head
The stars in the sky
Look down where He lay
The little Lord Jesus
Asleep on the hay.
The cattle are lowing
The poor Baby wakes
But little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes
I love Thee, Lord Jesus
Look down from the sky
And stay by my side
'Til morning is nigh.
Be near me, Lord Jesus
I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever
And love me, I pray
Bless all the dear children
In Thy tender care
And take us to Heaven
To live with Thee there.
And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!”
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child; and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
(Light the third Advent candle.)
Usually, in Middle Eastern Culture, when a baby was born, a group of minstrels would come to the home and herald the birth. It was a beautiful way that a community noticed and celebrated the coming of a new life into the world.
Mary and Joseph must have laid there in that stall, exhausted, but wondering either out loud or silently, “Will anybody notice this birth? Will anyone come and celebrate this new life? Would Mary and Joseph hear the music of the flute and the lyre, and the singing? Based on their experience that brought them to the stable, they had no reason to expect to hear anything more than their own tired breathing and the nuzzling sounds of their newborn son.
But then a head peaks in. The young face is dirty. Mary and Joseph see him. Joseph gets up to have a look. The head pulls back behind the edge of the cave. Joseph turns the corner only to run into not one, but about a dozen shepherd boys. He could tell they were shepherds by the way they smelled, and by the poor way they were dressed.
“We’ve come to see your baby,” one of the older boys says, finally.
“We were sent,” ventured another.
Thinking the townspeople were finally warming up, Joseph invites them in.
“Who is it?” Mary asks.
“Ah, it’s only sheep keepers,” Joseph replies.
“Why would they want to see our baby?” she asks.
“They said someone from town sent them,” Joseph replies.
“No we didn’t, mister,” one of the younger shepherds says.
“No one in this town sends us anywhere except away,” an older one adds.
“Well, then,” Joseph asks, “who did?”
“Uh, well, it was kinda bright. We couldn’t see real good. But we think it was...uh...”
“Angels!” the young one blurts out, impatiently. “We seen angels! A whole sky load of ‘em fluttering around in the air singing!”
“Right,” Joseph exhales, in a tone that says he wasn’t born yesterday. The reason Joseph was having a hard time with it was not because he didn’t believe in angels. He did. He’d seen one himself, in a dream. What he had a hard time believing was why angels would have anything to do with the likes of sheep keepers.
An older shepherd, who had heard Joseph’s tone many times before, seemed to read Joseph’s mind. He takes a look up and down at Joseph and Mary and says, “Yeah, well you two ain’t no prizes neither.” Then he turns to the other shepherds and says, “C’mon boys; let’s get back to the sheep.”
“No! Wait,” Mary calls out. “Please come in. Tell us more about what you saw.”
“I don’t know, Mary,” Joseph says. “Look at them. They smell like they look.”
“It can’t be any worse than what it smells like in here,” Mary replies.
“Wait here,” Joseph instructs the young rabble. Going over to where Mary and Jesus lay, Joseph whispers, “But how can we trust them? By the time they’re ready to leave, I’ll guarantee you our donkey will be gone along with everything else we own.”
“Oh, Joseph; give them a chance. They’re the only friends we have right now in this town.” Then looking toward the cave entrance, Mary beckons them in. The youngest comes running and falls to his knees, babbling out the story of the angels. The others slowly follow, while Joseph edges over toward the donkey and their possessions to keep guard.
So it was a rabble of irreligious shepherd toughs who came to herald the birth of Mary and Joseph’s baby. No choir boys by a long shot. No relatives. No family. No friends. Only a rabble—rag tag shepherd boys—who ended up being a minstrel choir of off-key voices singing praises to God for what they had been allowed to see.
The third candle we have lit is for them.
Hymn: “Angels We Have Heard On High”
Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o'er the plains
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains.
Gloria, in excelsis Deo
Gloria, in excelsis Deo.
Shepherds, why this jubilee?
Why your joyous strains prolong?
What the gladsome tidings be
Which inspire your heavenly song?
Gloria, in excelsis Deo
Gloria, in excelsis Deo.
Come to Bethlehem and see
Him whose birth the angels sing,
Come, adore on bended knee,
Christ the Lord, the newborn King.
Gloria, in excelsis Deo
Gloria, in excelsis Deo.
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet:
‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will govern my people Israel.’”
Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
(Light the fourth candle of Advent)
There is, in my mind, no more of a fork-tongued, underhanded, deceitful statement, uttered in all the world than that of King Herod to the wisemen:
Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.
Who could have guessed what destructive evil fertilized that statement. Had Herod pulled the wool over the eyes of the wisemen? Evidently. They had to be warned in a dream to steer clear of Herod and go home by a different road. They must have been planning on going back and reporting as Herod requested, thinking he really wanted to pay homage to the child.
When Herod finally realized that the wisemen were not coming back, his evil fury came to full force. Like a cloud of death, he had his army descend upon and kill the children of Bethlehem—and not just the infants. In order to be as thorough as possible, uncovering his deceit for full view, he ordered all children two years old and younger to be destroyed. What a demented, psychotic plan, cloaked in the reverential words, “...so that I too may go and worship the child.”
When I visited Bethlehem, and went inside the Church of the Nativity, I went down into two caves. One was the cave stable of the place where Jesus was born. It was, in my mind, desecrated by too much finery and icons—a lie of sorts to the humility and loneliness of the actual birth of Jesus.
The other was a rustic place. A crude, but beautiful stone altar table stood on an elevated part of the cave. There was an eternal candle burning above it, the flame kept alive by some faithful believers. There was a deep recessed part of the cave that went way back, off of and below the altar place. It was roped off. The spirit of that place overwhelmed me. It was clear to me it was a holy place, but its holiness was created by a sense of deep sadness.
The group I was with went on ahead of me, and I was left standing there. Another group was coming in behind me and I heard the guide say they were entering the cave of the Shrine of the Innocents. In this cave were buried the bodies of the children whom Herod had killed when he sought to eliminate the Christ child.
Two caves so close to each other—one of birth, one of death. I was overwhelmed in the cave of the Innocents. I found a darkened corner there, off beside and out of sight of the altar. I huddled up and prayed for a long time. It was like feeling the weight of all the loss of those families, caused by one man’s deceit and jealousy. So much loss. So much grief.
Hymn: “What Child Is This?”
What Child is this who, laid to rest
On Mary's lap is sleeping?
Whom Angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and Angels sing;
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
So bring Him incense, gold and myrrh,
Come peasant, king to own Him;
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone Him.
Raise, raise a song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
Love. Joy. Peace. Hope. Not exactly. But what kind of world did we expect the Savior to be born into? Any day, any year in which the Christ child would have been born, it would have been the same. I don't want that to sound negative or fatalistic. It only points out why it is that the Savior came at all. It was because we don't live in a perfect world and we don't live perfect lives.
We aren't good and kind. Instead there are many times we disgrace ourselves and those around us.
We aren't welcoming, gracious people. Instead we let petty issues and situations have a way into our family relationships, dividing parents from children, brothers from sisters. Hospitality is tossed aside.
We don't take people as they are. Instead, we make value judgments about others because of the way they dress, act, or by their occupation. We look down our noses at others, sometimes with an air of religious smugness, and totally miss out on hearing their stories of angel visitations, or close our ears to the off-key praises they sing to the same God.
We are not always honest and upright; not always speaking the truth. There are times we speak out of both sides of our mouths, chattering half-truths and double-talk. None of our motives are pure. We are not beyond deceit.
That's why the Christ candle symbolically stands in the middle of the others. By its presence, we have no choice but to recognize Christ's presence in and over our lives. The other candles, these attributes of disgrace, inhospitality, rabble, and deceit, are out-shined and transformed by the center Christ candle. Once in the presence of Christ there is something new and different in your life and the way you choose to live. That newness grows in you. It transforms you as it grows. That is what the Incarnation of Christ—God in the flesh—in the world and in your personal life is all about.
Christ comes and puts himself deep in the midst of all our corrupted living—puts himself right smack dab in the middle of it all. But by so doing, He doesn't become a corrupted part of it. Instead, he slowly but surely makes us into part of Him and what He is about. And we are never the same. Disgrace becomes peace. Inhospitality becomes love. The rabble is transformed into joy. And deceit is changed into hope.
Thanks be to God that that transformation happens only through, and because of His Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, born this humble night.
Come, one and all; Come to the table, where the brokenness of the Savior, where the poured out blood of the Savior's sacrifice, can change you, can heal you, can make you whole and holy.