The Seemingly Unlikely Circumstances of Christmas

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Title: The Seemingly Unlikely Circumstances of Christmas

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Time: December 2, 2007

We are now into December, the month of Christmas. Continuing our Christmas sermon series, today I’ll be talking about the unlikely events surrounding Christmas, that first Christmas. Think about the persons, places and things that we associate with Christmas. How unlikely they are, how unpredictable, how impossible to imagine them before they actually happened. This is part of the mystery of Christmas, how God brought together a group of people, places, and things to create the first Christmas. Now today, we are so familiar with Christmas that these things don’t seem so strange to us, but when you look at them from the eyes of someone who isn’t familiar with them, they seem odd and unusual, even incredible. So let me try to point out how unusual that first Christmas truly was, how unlikely it all was in the beginning, yet how everything beautifully comes together to make what we now know as the nativity scene. But isn’t that just how God is, the God we worship and adore? God, like the Christmas story, is mysterious and remarkable, in no way common or predictable. That fact has always caused problems for some people, for many people, because they expect God to conform to their very human thinking. They expect God to follow the laws of human logic in being and acting towards men and women of the earth. But God has always departed from the typical understanding of him by humans. Christmas is a great example of God breaking out of all human expectations because in it God becomes man in Jesus Christ – the most unlikely and unpredictable event of all. In fact, the incarnation as it’s called by theologians, God becoming man, was so unimaginable that the Jews never did accept it and still continue to refuse to believe it. Christians have always accepted it, but have never been able to understand it or explain it very well. But it certainly continues to represent God departing from typical human logic and it continues to challenge us as humans to not get too comfortable in our understanding of God. We aren’t supposed to understand God fully. We aren’t to feel we’ve fully explained him to ourselves or to others. We are to always feel that God is greater than our understanding of him, because he really is greater than our thoughts and ideas about him. Christmas helps remind us of this every year. So this Sunday I’d like to point out three areas where God does the unlikely and the unusual at the first Christmas. All these persons, places and things are not what we would expect.

First, God uses the unlikely persons of Mary and Joseph at the first Christmas. Matthew 1:18, “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” Now when we think of Mary and Joseph we are totally familiar with them. The Christmas story wouldn’t be the same without them, but that’s only because we’ve read and heard the story so often before. But stop and think about it, how unlikely these two figures are in being a part of Christmas. To begin with, Joseph is a good Jew — which isn’t so unusual for the apparent father of the Messiah, but his trade of a carpenter is somewhat strange. We’d think, perhaps, that the father of the Messiah might have been a priest, or maybe a religious scribe, or perhaps a Jewish religious scholar, or at least somebody important in the Jewish community, especially the Jewish religious community. But no, Joseph was a simple carpenter. Is there any significance to the fact that Joseph as the father of the Messiah is a carpenter? I’ve never heard anybody explain why it’s important that the Messiah’s father be a carpenter. I’ve never heard any prophecy that predicted that the Messiah’s father would be a carpenter, or any trade worker for that matter. So it’s a mystery. And then there’s Mary, who is probably the most unlikely of all the person’s involved in that first Christmas. Mary was a virgin. She was also a poor, humble peasant girl. She wasn’t the daughter of any famous person in Israel. She didn’t have any family connections or social connections to any important persons among the Jews. All these are significant, but by far the strangest thing about her was that she was a virgin, yet she was the mother of the Messiah. I don’t have to tell you how unlikely it is for a virgin to be with child. In fact, biologically speaking, it’s impossible for a virgin to bear a child. Yet here is Mary, a virgin and a mother, the only such woman in all of human history. So when we think of Mary and Joseph let’s not forget because we are so familiar with them, that they are most unusual and highly unlikely people to be a part of Christmas.

Second, God uses the unlikely persons of the Magi. Matthew 2:1-2, “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.’” Again, we are so used to the Magi that we think nothing of them in our Nativity scenes, our Christmas pageants, our readings of that first Christmas, but if you reflect on them deeply, you’ll realize that they are very unusual and highly unlikely characters to show up in the Bible. To begin with, they aren’t even Jewish, they are foreigners. I’ve heard one scholar say that we shouldn’t assume that they weren’t Jews just because they came from a far country, because after all there were many Jews who lived in many foreign countries in what they called the Diaspora. According to this scholar the Magi just might have been Jews after all. But most scholars don’t believe that. Why not? Because it says they were Magi, and Magi were not Jews but probably Persians or Babylonians. They were star-gazers or astrologers. Yes, Jews did ponder the stars and even charted the stars, but they were expressly forbidden to worship the stars or look to the stars for prophetic revelation the way astrologists did. So we see another unlikely reason for the Magi to be included in the Christmas story, they believed and followed a different religion, a pagan religion, a religion based on astrology and prophecy found in the skies. The Jews were always forbidden to look to the skies for guidance as in astrology. For example, in Jeremiah 10:2 states, “This is what the Lord says, ‘Don’t learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the sky, though the nations are terrified by them.’” This is probably a reference to astrology and reacting to the positions of stars as being important to events on earth. The Jews were to look to God alone for guidance and wisdom, not to anything in heaven or on earth. So it’s very strange, very unusual and unlikely that the Magi would be a part of the Christmas story, but there they are in their important roles. The nativity scene wouldn’t be the same without them. But anyone writing the story of the birth of the Jewish Messiah would never write them in – that’s one of the reasons we know that the gospel accounts are accurate and true – nobody would ever write such a story.

Third, God uses the unlikely persons of the shepherds. Luke 2:8-9, “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” Of all the likely candidates to have angels appear to them on that first Christmas, shepherds would probably be last on the list. Let’s think about it. Who would probably be on the top of the list of candidates that angels would appear to during the birth of the Messiah? You’d think that maybe the angels would announce the birth of the Messiah to the Temple priests in Jerusalem. After all, weren’t the Jews looking for the Messiah? Wouldn’t the priests be pious men who would appreciate the full significance of the Messiah’s birth? Or maybe the religious scribes or scholars in Jerusalem? After all, these men were students of the Bible, they looked for the fulfillment of the prophecies concerning the Messiah. As leaders in the Jewish community, it’s logical to appear to Jewish religious leaders first so that they could lead the entire Jewish community to recognize and accept the Messiah’s birth. But for the angels to appear to the shepherds first is totally illogical. Or as Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame might say, “That’s not logical.” But what isn’t logical to man is very logical to God. We know that God has a good reason for everything he does, including what appears as to be illogical to men. But we must agree that it seems very unlikely that the shepherds would have been the ones the angels visit – but the angels did visit them nevertheless. What might have been the reason why the angels came to the shepherds instead of more important people? Could it have been that God wanted to make a point? Could it have been that God wanted to say that he is no respecter of persons? Just because people think somebody is important doesn’t mean God thinks it, or just because people don’t think somebody is very important doesn’t mean that God doesn’t think they aren’t important. What does the Bible say, “Man looks on the outside, but God looks at the heart.” It must be that God saw humble hearts and faith in those shepherds and so chose them to see angels and hear the message of the birth of Jesus first.

What can we say about all these unlikely people at Christmastime? “My ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts are higher than your thoughts,” God says in the Bible. It’s pretty clear from the Bible that God operates totally independent from human expectations. The Jews at the time of Jesus had become too narrow-minded in their thinking about God and how God operates in the world. The Jewish priests, scribes, scholars and leaders had developed such a rigid understanding of God and the ways of God that they completely missed Jesus the Messiah even as he lived, died, and rose again in their midst. The Jews at the time of Christ saw the Christmas miracle as so unlikely that they completely rejected it. Their understanding of God was so fixed and firm and closed minded that they couldn’t accept that the Messiah could be born of a virgin to a carpenter. They couldn’t believe that Magi from a foreign country could follow a star and present gifts to the Christ-child. They couldn’t believe that God would send angels to lowly shepherds instead of the religious elite in Jerusalem. They couldn’t accept that such unlikely people could be used by God to bring about the Messiah, Savior of the world. It’s scary to think that God’s chosen people could miss such an important event in God’s history of salvation. It’s hard to believe that God’s special people, the very people of the Messiah could miss it so much. But that’s exactly what happened. What does that say to us today? It warns us to not get too narrow minded in our understanding of God and the ways of God. What might God be trying to do in your life, in my life, today? Are we open minded to God working in unusual ways? Or are we like the Jews during the time of Jesus who just couldn’t think beyond what their own expectations were? Is there anything in your life that God wants to do, but can’t do, because you simply aren’t willing for it to happen? Are you missing something from God because of your limited thinking and faith? Don’t let another Christmas season pass you by without opening your mind and heart to all that God wants to be and do in your life. Open up your heart and mind to whatever God wants to do in your life, not just the things that make sense to you or what you’ve always expected God could do. Maybe God wants to do something you never expected Him to do? Maybe God wants to do something new in your life? Will you let Him?

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