A Sermon for Christmas Eve on Luke 2:1-7; Titus 2:11-14, preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church
One of the most poignant images from that first Christmas is the detail from Luke’s Gospel that, when Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son,” she “laid him in a feeding trough, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). Think of every Nativity set you have ever seen. Like the shepherds who were given this very sign by the angel, we recognize that we’re looking at the baby Jesus – at a Nativity scene – because the baby is lying in that most unconventional crib, a manger, an animal’s feeding trough. In hindsight, it was most prophetic that there should be no room for Jesus to be born in a proper house or in the Bethlehem B&B, for it would always be a struggle for us mortal men and women to make room for Jesus to come in, to take on flesh among us, to take on flesh within us.
And so the Son of God is born off in some corner of a stable, quite possibly in the company of the livestock for whom that was a proper home. Now I don’t think that the innkeepers of Bethlehem are much to be blamed. According to Luke, there was a great deal of movement among the population of Israel that month. Heads of households that had moved away from their ancestral towns were traveling back to those towns in droves to be registered there, and the supply of hospitality – no doubt throughout Israel – was simply exhausted by the unusual demand. Imagine that by some terrible scheduling fluke every high school and college in this country held its reunions on exactly the same weekend. A lot of people would find that there was no room for them in the local inns and guest houses.
Indeed, one could say that a particular innkeeper or some other resident did the best that he could for Joseph and his pregnant wife, at least opening up his barn to them and affording them what shelter was available. He had no idea who it was that Mary was carrying. Doing the best he could under the crowded conditions no doubt seemed like enough – perhaps more than enough.
You and I, however? We can hardly excuse ourselves today for not doing better to make room for Jesus. On this side of his marvelous acts that showed how God was with him – his acts of healing, his deliverance of those possessed, his raising even of the recently deceased; on this side of his crucifixion, resurrection from the dead, and ascension into heaven, which announce as with trumpets who this man is in the hierarchy of God’s kingdom, we cannot treat him as did that ancient innkeeper leading Mary and Joseph to the stable down off the road, well behind the guesthouse. The extent to which we do make room for Jesus, clearing out the spaces at the center of our lives for him, and the extent to which we do not make room for Jesus, ushering him out back to the margins of our lives – these are the markers that show God how much or how little we value God’s grace, when it showed up.
In a letter to his junior partner, Titus, the apostle Paul gives us one of the most compact and incisive statements about the significance of Christmas, as well as clear guidance on making room for Jesus.
The grace of God showed up, bringing deliverance for all people, training us so that, by renouncing ungodliness and this-worldly desires, we might live soberly and justly and piously in the present age, while awaiting the blessed hope – even the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself on our behalf in order that he might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify a people for his own special possession, a people who are fanatical about doing good. (Titus 2:11-14, DST)
God’s favor, God’s gift “showed up,” “revealed itself,” “appeared on the scene.” This is at the heart of the miracle of Christmas. The birth of Jesus, God the Son appearing on the scene in human flesh, is the precise moment when “the grace of God showed up” in a way that would forever change how God and human beings related. Human beings had alienated themselves from God – the Gentiles by ignoring their Creator, putting other gods at the center of their lives, distorting and defacing their lives and relationships as a result; the Jews by not honoring God through obeying God’s law, through putting love for God and neighbor above all else. But instead of giving up on human beings and letting loose his anger on us as we deserved, God does something completely unexpected and unbelievably generous: God invests himself in a new and marvelous way in the very human beings who had dishonored him by not making room for him who had created them, who had given them whatever room in this world they themselves enjoyed.
“The grace of God showed up” with a purpose: to bring deliverance – salvation – for all people. This purpose is captured in the very name that the angel commanded the Christ child be given – “you will call his name ‘Jesus’, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). In the first instance, Paul no doubt has in mind deliverance from the final consequences of our sins – God’s wrath, God’s satisfaction of his honor that his creatures had trampled, holding them accountable and punishing them as their shameless affronts merit. But Paul also hints here at deliverance from the immediate consequences of our sins as well – the very disorder into which our lives had fallen, the personal, relational, and systemic dysfunction that becomes its own prison, its own hell, for the sinners who help to create and sustain it.
How does God bring about this deliverance? Paul may surprise us here, because he doesn’t jump at once to a phrase like “by dying for our sins” or some such thing that Christ did on our behalf. Instead, he talks about this deliverance coming about as God changes us through God’s training (or, perhaps better, re-training) us. God’s grace manifests itself here first and foremost by educating us in how to live so as to give God our Redeemer at last the room that God our Creator has always deserved in our lives. Jesus, who was above all else a teacher, provided and continues to provide this training in the instructions that he gave and that have been preserved for us in the Gospels. His apostles provided further training as they sought to shape communities of disciples that would shape each individual disciple into a reflection of the mind and heart that was in Jesus, leaving us a record of this in the Acts, Epistles, and Revelation. The Holy Spirit, our personal trainer in righteousness and God-centered living, continues to provide this training to all who make room to hear and follow his promptings.
There is indeed a lot to clear out of our lives if we are to make room for Christ, if we are to give now to Christ the space he merits in our lives. Paul speaks of God’s grace training us to “renounce ungodliness and this-worldly desires.” When you hear the word “ungodliness,” don’t think immediately only of the most salacious self-indulgent or self-destructive activities. The word simply names the absence in a person’s life of giving God the concern and attention that God merits. It is as much a lack of living reverently as it is living irreverently. And, as such, it catches quite a few more of us in the mirror it holds up. Similarly, “this-worldly desires” aren’t all about excessive drinking, recreational drugs, and illicit sex. Paul is again naming a much broader slice of what occupies us, what pushes God out, what takes up so much room in our lives that there isn’t room for him. We spend a lot of our limited time going after what this world offers, enjoying it, distracting ourselves with it, passing the time with it, and getting entangled in it, such that there’s hardly any room left for God. If we were to be honest with ourselves, many of us would probably have to admit to fitting him in to the margins of our weeks – a Sunday morning here, maybe an evening there. And so Christ is back in the feeding trough, the manger, because there’s no room for him in the house where we live most of our lives.
God’s grace seeks to train us to renounce our lack of concern for the God who showed us such great concern. God’s grace seeks to train us to renounce our attachments to, and investments in, the things that push God out of the room, to stop saying to God, when we give hours of our attention to distractions that will not leave us any better for having engaged them, “No, I want this more; I am drawn to that more; I need this more; I value that more; I expect, from this, more.”
Keep the miracle of Christmas before your eyes, ruminate upon the love that God showed you here, by taking on our flesh and blood so as to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to himself, and grace will “train” you by awakening gratitude and teaching you how to live out that gratitude in living for God. This child was born, Paul goes on to say, to redeem us from “every lawless act” so that we might be pure, so that we might be fully Christ’s own. By purifying us from our past sins, he made room in us and in our lives to possess us fully, to make us fully his. Let gratitude train you to return the favor, to make more room for Christ indeed to be born in you, to grow in you, to raise you to the full stature that Christ attained (Gal 2:19-21).
If we allow God’s grace thus to train us, we will find ourselves living “soberly and justly and piously in the present age, while awaiting the blessed hope – even the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”
- Soberly, because we are living as people who are waking up to what’s most valuable, most important;
- Justly, because we are living in such a way as does what is right in God’s sight, making room again and again for God-pleasing service because we are “fanatics for doing good”;
- Piously, because we are living in such a way as gives God, and what God merits, due attention, making appropriate room in our lives, in our selves, in our affections, desires, and commitments, for God;
- Soberly, again, because we know what is coming, and for what we must continually prepare – our “blessed hope – even the appearing,” the next “showing up, of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Christ was content to be born in a stable and placed in a manger once, before we knew who he was. No longer. How will you clear out the very best place for him, the most central, the most honoring place for him in your hearts, in your homes, in that complex of activities from morning to night to the next morning that make up our lives? This Christmas, indeed, let every heart prepare him room. Amen.