The Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord, 24 December 2017

A Sermon on Luke 2:7 by Samuel Zumwalt

Luke 2:7  King James Version

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.


 Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Most of us schedule ourselves half to death. If you’re like me, the blank spaces in your calendar are never really blank. There’s always a to-do list. Most days the alarm on my phone goes off the first time at 5:30 a.m., and some days there are four more alarms set to allow myself to get from one place to the next on time. Except I’m often late, because there is just one more thing to do or one more conversation to finish before going on to what’s next. So 20 years ago, I learned from Stephen Covey you have to put the big rocks into your schedule in advance.

The big rocks? That means you always put what is most important into the schedule each day. If your child has a performance or an activity, that goes into the schedule in advance. If your spouse has a birthday or it’s your anniversary, that goes into the schedule in advance. Events that require your presence always go into the schedule in advance. You can map out the week on Sunday night, but you always look ahead to what’s coming later this month or next or later this year. If you don’t keep a schedule, you are going to miss a lot of important events. People get their feelings hurt when you do that. The more people depending on you, the more you have to schedule in advance all those big events that matter to them. Most of us are way too busy.

And here’s the crazy part. Everyone has exactly the same amount of time in every week, and we all make choices about what to do with that time. And we say things like, “I’d really like to but I don’t have the time.” But, of course, we do have the time to do exactly what we want to do. And, for some us, we have to stay busy, because it’s the busyness that defines us. “He’s a really busy guy. She has a schedule like you wouldn’t believe.”

Have you ever noticed how life has a way of intruding into your busy schedule? If you’re sick or someone you love is sick, you suddenly find there’s time to deal with that…if you choose. Have a crisis in your family or a friend’s family? You suddenly discover there are things in the schedule that aren’t that important. If someone you love gets deathly ill or dies, you have all the time you need, because this is one of those big rocks that you just have to fit into your schedule. I discovered after caring for my father when he was dying, that I didn’t like the life I had been living. I wanted something deeper, something more, and, at 21, I began to be a very different person on the inside. Eventually the inside worked its way to the outside. Dad dying changed me.

When I was a young pastor some 35 years ago, I became good friends with a recovering alcoholic. He had been a pastor and then lost the ministry because of some bad choices. He went more than 18 years without seeing his biological son but was reunited with the young man when  the son left home for college in another town. My old friend came to town to take the son out to eat, but he was back much sooner than I expected. I said, “How did it go with you son?” He replied, “Well, it was great, until he needed to go be with his best friend.” I asked about that, and my friend said: “Alcohol is his best friend. Just like it was for his Dad. He cut the visit short to go drinking with some buddies.” It was like the old song, “Cat’s in the Cradle.” The Dad chose alcohol over his son when the kid was still in his mother’s womb. Now the son chose alcohol over his Dad just when they were starting to reconnect. We make room for what matters most.

That’s the bridge from 21st century Wilmington to 1st century Bethlehem. There was no room for Joseph, no room for Mary, and there was no room for Jesus. Everyone from the tribe of Judah had the little town of Bethlehem as his ancestral home. It was the birthplace of King David, the place from which the Messiah must come. Even with tribal loyalty and wonderful middle eastern hospitality, Bethlehem simply had no more rooms due to the census. They didn’t know Jesus. They had no room for Jesus. So…the only place available was a space where domestic animals were kept at night with a feeding trough built into the wall. The King of kings and Lord of lords was not born in a palace or even in a lavish guest room. God’s Son and Mary’s Son Jesus was born in the humblest place imaginable. He came not to be served but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many!

Now, speaking honestly, there lurks a critic inside us that begins to emerge for most of us somewhere around puberty. The critic thinks him- or herself quite rational and quite the cool observer. If there has been a great loss or some large disappointment, the critic can wall him- or herself off from the world of emotions. That kind of detachment can be quite smug and cynical. Never having developed spiritually beyond the level of a small child, the critic, as if he or she were clad in Velcro, selectively gathers information from daily life that always casts God in the most negative. Prayer doesn’t work because God didn’t give me what I asked for or because God allowed terrible things to happen to someone vulnerable. Pastors are after your money, or you can never trust a priest around a child.You see, when the critic inside is in full discovery mode, the unoriginal and not particularly winsome arguments of the so-called new atheists can catch on rather easily. The problem with that is the critic inside is rarely self-critical. How many critics actually lead with, “I could be and am often quite wrong?” Dear ones, cynicism is a cancer of the soul. There is no beauty there. There is no hope there. But there is a deep fear of being known.

For many of us, this is our favorite night of the year. We stay up later to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Savior of the world, true God and true Man. The church never looks lovelier. The music is joyous, and even the most curmudgeonly among us can still sing most of the words by heart. When the lights are turned down and candlelight fills the room during the singing of “Silent Night,” many of us are transported to other rooms in our memories, even in our distant memories, when we were younger and had some of those we loved and who loved us most still with us. It’s so beautiful in that candlelit moment; the organ softly playing; eyes fill with tears. You can almost glimpse in your peripheral vision that great cloud of witnesses of every time and place surrounding us. You can almost see the multitude of the heavenly host praising God.

So, thank you for making room for Jesus tonight. Oh, perhaps you wouldn’t describe it that way. Maybe you would say, “I knew it would make Mom or Dad or my wife or husband or my dear friend happy if I showed up at church on Christmas Eve.” But, you see, it doesn’t really matter why you told yourself or someone else you were coming to St. Matthew’s tonight. Even if you came under protest, or just to keep the peace, the point is this: You did show up! You are here. You did make room for Jesus. You could have been somewhere else. You could have stayed home watching television and drinking a glass of wine or a mug of tea. And even if your frame of mind isn’t what you would consciously reserve for the very best occasions, the Holy Spirit can work with that. God’s Son was born in a cattle stall among the smell and mess. He is a down-to-earth God. He can handle the smelly messes of our lives. That’s why He was born.

The Good News of Christmass is the God who sees and knows our deepest fears, our greatest hurts, our most painful losses, our strongest doubts, and, yes, our flight from intimacy with Him is not aloof and cynical like the critics outside or in us. He has emptied Himself of glory and majesty in order to be born to a Jewish girl in her early teens. He knows us as we are and where we are because He is God-with-us. This Lord Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, has lived the perfectly obedient life none of us can live and has died on His lonely cross the perfectly innocent death none of us can die that we may be His. In the washing of Holy Baptism, we are joined to His death and resurrection and we bear the indelible mark of His cross on our foreheads and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit to keep us united to Him through Word and Sacraments.

Of course, the Good News that Christ the Savior is born is indeed the death of the critic in us, because there is only room for one at the center of things. Either God is the center, or the critic is. One is eternal. The other is not. One has endless life and love to share. Not the critic! So, is there room for Jesus in your heart and mind and body? If you want to have a conversation about that, you can join me on Saturday morning, January 13, at 9 a.m. in the church library for the New Disciples’ Class. No strings attached. All you have to lose is your cynicism and fear!

When the Solemn High Christ Mass is over tonight at around 12:30 a.m., and the final strains of “Angels We Have Heard On High,” have been sung and the last chord of the postlude has stopped echoing, the baptized will go home filled with the Real Presence of the One for whom there was no room this night in Bethlehem. The baptized having received Him in the Host and Cup, and all of us, baptized or unbaptized, having greeted His birth among us with beloved songs and hymns, and all of us having heard again His promise of forgiveness, life, and salvation, we will find Jesus has made a place for Himself in our hearts and minds and bodies! The memory of tonight’s celebration will be indelible. It cannot be undone. Then, yes, we will go out into the darkness, literal and spiritual, with that peace that the world cannot give, because the Light of the world is shining on us and in us.

So is there room for Jesus in you tonight? Well, yes, you have given Him a couple of hours of the 168 every one of us has each week. And perhaps more. Maybe just maybe tonight the critic in you has disappeared for a time, and your cynicism has lost a bit of its edge. Maybe just maybe tonight you have glimpsed the beauty and the mystery and the endless love that is at the heart of the universe. You are not alone. You are never alone. God loves you dearly, and He wants to hold on to you forever.

So, is there room for Jesus in you? I hope so. I pray that you will never be the same!

In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

©Samuel D. Zumwalt, STS

St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church

Wilmington, North Carolina USA