NOTE TO READER: Today was our annual Christmas Cantata, which becomes the "sermon" for Sunday worship. I subscribe to the belief that God's word can be sung as well as spoken. My plan was to provide a link here to our church website where you could listen to the service and cantata (the link is actually at the top of this page to the far right - you can click it any time)
Alas, my plans were thwarted when computer hiccups prevented us from recording the service. Bah humbug.
Instead, I've decided to post an Advent sermon from last year. Hope this will suffice. Thanks for reading!
Luke 2: 1-7
December 2, 2007
It happened a little over three years ago, somewhere around the video aisle at Wal-Mart. I remember her grabbing her abdomen and a twinge of discomfort across her face. You okay? I asked. She responded that she was. But in the silence that followed we both frantically wondered to ourselves – was this it? Was our second son about to be born?
Maybe we just didn’t want to admit it to ourselves. Last thing we wanted was to unnecessarily set into motion “The Plan:” my parents getting the phone call to hightail it to Mount Airy, her parents meeting us at the hospital in Winston, and a good friend of ours dropping whatever they were doing at the moment to come watch Connor. Maybe it was that, and admitting to ourselves that our life was on the cusp of dramatically changing once again.
We temporarily parted company so we could do some Christmas shopping for the other. She didn’t say anything else about it until long after we left Wal-Mart; probably while unloading bags in the kitchen. By then the contractions had gotten stronger and more frequent; and it was only a matter of time. Finally, around 9:00, phone calls were made to grandparents and our good friend came to stay with Connor. We packed our bags and made the long drive to Winston-Salem; my wife actually encouraging me to go well over the posted speed limit. Which I did. We arrived at the hospital a little after 11; and two hours later Hunter Logan came to be with us.
It has been said that the average person has a life expectancy of around 80 years, which works out to be a little under 710,000 hours. Some of these hours come and go leaving hardly a trace in our memory banks. But three years after the fact – Hunter celebrated his birthday this past week – three years later I can still recall every minute of what happened that Sunday evening – engrained in my psyche forever. Zooming down 52, coming home in the morning to tell Connor about his new brother.
And Wal-Mart – I’ll never forget Wal-Mart, because it was there where the crazy journey of the day began. I have what I like to call a “strained fascination” with Wal-Mart. On one hand I’m not crazy about some of their business practices and how they treat their employees with wages and health insurance. But on the other hand I gotta admit – it’s got everything you need! And I also see this store as a microcosm of our society – our consumer mentality, our desire to have “the latest thing” at the cheapest price. You find all kinds of people at Wal-Mart – the wealthy and prosperous, right alongside the working poor. All races and lifestyles, all family histories – they’re there under the same roof, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And I think that’s why when I look back on Hunter’s birth, part of me will always think of Wal-Mart.
Sometimes the journeys of our lives begin in the strangest of places; places you and I least expect them to. It certainly was that way for Jesus, don’t you think? I mean, it was bad enough for Mary and Joseph that she was pregnant. Keep in mind, we’re talking about two teenagers. Two unmarried teenagers. It was as scandalous back in the day as it would be now. No one believed her explanation that the child inside her was from God; a gift of the Holy Spirit. And can we blame them? Would we have believed her?
Then to make matters worse, a census was decreed by the high emperor and each man had to return to his homeland to be registered – he and all members of his family. Joseph was from Bethlehem, which was a hundred miles away. Mary was eight months pregnant. Talk about lousy timing!
So this was the scene: a scandalous pregnancy that had everyone talking, and a long hard trip they absolutely had to make. There’s a great scene in the movie that came out a year ago, The Nativity Story, about the events leading up to the birth of Jesus. The scene begins just as Mary and Joseph are heading out of town to Bethlehem – Mary on the donkey’s back and Joseph leading the way. We see some of Mary and Joseph’s friends in the mix; “former friends” they should be called, because they couldn’t handle the fact that Mary got pregnant and Joseph continues to love her anyway. They’re staring at Mary and Joseph with disgust and scorn. The young couple is aware of this; and as they make their way through town Joseph turns to Mary and, with a wry smile, says, I think they’re going to miss us.
You and I know this story; we’ve had it seared into our brains for as long as we can remember, thanks in part to children’s pageants, Luke readings, manger scenes, and a certain hymn we are prone to sing this time of year:
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
Awww! It is a scene we have successfully romanticized over the years. But is it a realistic romanticism? For if we stop to think about it – I mean, really think about it – it doesn’t make a lick of sense. Jesus – born in an animal stable! Last time I got near one of those, I had to hold my nose because of the stench. How is it that we have become so comfortable with the idea of God’s son being born in a place like that? And what would it look like, I wonder, if we brought the manger scene into the 21st century – if Jesus was born in our “Wal-Mart” world? What would that look like?
They’re heading back to his hometown of Mount Airy for a number of reasons. One is simply because they need to get away from where they had been. Their teachers and friends had not been too thrilled when they began dating, but when she started showing it was like the end of the world had arrived. Plus, a few months prior he picked up a traffic ticket in Surry County and had to have his day in court. It didn’t help matters that Mary was about due, but the law’s the law, so they say.
So they pile into Joe’s 1987 Ford Mustang and make the 100-mile trip to Dobson, and he can tell she’s not comfortable. Things get worse after his court appearance, although he did get improper equipment. But the baby’s arrival is imminent, and making the trip back home is out of the question. They don’t know what to do – they are young, lonely and confused. They cruise down Highway 601, stopping at every hotel, but unbeknownst to them it is Mayberry Days and there’s not a vacant hotel room in sight. Frantic, they pull into the Wal-Mart parking lot, because they need to pick up a few things, and because they have no idea what else to do.
She doesn’t want to be left alone in the car, so despite how much it hurts they walk into the store together. People pass them by and know something’s wrong, but no one stops to help. They grab the few items they need, but as they stand in the checkout line Mary doubles over in pain. Joe shouts out for help – anyone, please! The store manager comes over. It’s obvious that it’s too late to get to the hospital now. He doesn’t have much to offer, but there is the staff lounge in the back, and there’s a somewhat decent couch there, along with some tables and chairs. They’re welcome to it, he says.
Mary and Joe stumble into the window-less room. And later that night, but not much later, their baby son is born. Born not among barnyard animals but amidst the Coke and snack machines. Born not in the presence of wayward shepherds, but beside the “Employee of the Month” display (last month it was “Corinne.”) Born not underneath the shining light of a celestial star, but from the light of the room’s harsh fluorescent lights. “And Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
Can you imagine this scene – it’s almost comical, isn’t it? It’s not almost comical. It is comical. It is side-splitting, jaw-dropping, laugh-until-you-drop hilarious! This story would make front page of half the newspapers across this country. CNN would add it to their daily feed, and Cameron Kent and company would interrupt their regular newscast with “Breaking News! Baby born in Wal-Mart!” And you and I would hear about this story, tell a few friends, shake our head in amazement, and then get on with our life. And years later, when folks realized just who that Wal-Mart baby really was, somebody would surely wonder: how could God’s son ever have been born into the world like that?
You know what I think, though? I think it’s the only way God’s son could’ve been born. I think Jesus had to enter our world right where we are – not in some sweet, peaceful serene scene we conjure up in our minds, as if an animal stable is the next best thing to a nice condo on the beach. No, Jesus had to come into the world in all of its messiness; the very human, very radical, very raw reality we call our home. Jesus – breaking into our world amidst all the good and all the bad; all the consumerism that takes over this time of year; all races and classes of people that sometimes get along and often don’t; all the many stories that define who we are and how we live our lives. Jesus, born in a manger! Born in Wal-Mart! Born into our world!
Which begs the obvious question, of course: if Jesus actually came into the world this way today, would we recognize him? Would we praise him as the Messiah and follow him with our lives? That, my friends, is why we have four weeks of Advent: to prepare for what we know is coming, and to remind us that God often comes to us in the most mysterious of ways, when we least expect it. We need four weeks to make sure we see him coming into our lives, for we dare not miss him. We want to see the baby Jesus, wherever he is. Thanks be to God. AMEN.