The visit of the magi, outwitting Herod, his murderous response, and the Holy Family’s narrow escape. It’s a story of spiritual pursuit, political intrigue, deceit, murder, and running for your life! God is the Hero! (and he went to a lot of trouble to save you).
Christmas Eve, 2018
Pastor Joe Wittwer
Introduction and offering:
Merry Christmas! “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” That’s what we’re celebrating! God’s great gift to us! God gave His Son so that we could live—really live! Jesus didn’t come to make you more religious; He came to make you more alive!
Before I start this talk, we are going to celebrate God’s great gift of Jesus by giving back to Him. If you brought your tithe or an offering, thank you for your generosity. Your offering will be used to help people find and follow Jesus. If you are a guest, please don’t feel obligated to give.
I love Christmas! I love the music, the food, the festivities, the Carol Sing, the food, the lights and decorations, the food, the gifts and time with family, and did I mention the food. I even love Christmas movies:
- White Christmas: “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…” “Sisters, sisters”
- It’s a Wonderful Life: “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.”
- Miracle on 34th Street: “I believe, I believe…stop the car, Uncle Fred!”
- Elf: “We elves try to stick to the four main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corns and syrup.”
- A Christmas Story: “You’ll shoot your eye out, Ralphie!”
- And of course, that heart-warming Christmas classic, Die Hard: “Now I have a machine gun. Ho ho ho!”
I love Christmas movies. Ok…true confession: I even watch Hallmark Christmas movies. You too? Friends, we’re not alone. Last year, 85 million people watched Hallmark Christmas movies, and they are on a pace to surpass that this year. Hallmark has a winning recipe: snow, romance and a happy ending—and they’re cashing in on it. In 2010, they made 6 original Christmas movies, and it’s increased every year since. So guess how many new Hallmark Christmas movies there are this year: 38. Yes—38 new movies! You can watch new Hallmark Christmas movies uninterrupted for 3 days straight—the ultimate binge watching!
I love Christmas! But I’ve got to tell you that the Christmas story could never be a Hallmark movie. It’s far too raw and messy. It’s more like an R-rated edge-of-your-seat adventure than a warm and fuzzy romance. It’s closer to Die Hard than Miracle on 34th Street! It’s a story that begins with a small town sexual scandal and ends with a young couple fleeing a murderous king, barely escaping with their lives to a foreign country where they lived as refugees. It’s a story that makes you wonder how Rudolph or Frosty (or even Hallmark) could hold our interest when the real story is so compelling!
So I want to tell you the story with help from some friends, and then finish with one big takeaway.
- The Christmas Story raw and messy!
The real story begins in Nazareth with a young man named Joseph…
Set Panel 1—Joseph dreams of Mary.
The story starts in Nazareth—not in Rome or Athens or even Jerusalem. It starts in Nazareth, a tiny backwater village in Galilee. Nazareth was in the sticks, and the people there were hicks from the sticks! 30 years later, when Nathaniel heard that Jesus was from Nazareth, he snorted, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” That’s where our story starts.
Joseph is a young carpenter in Nazareth engaged to a local girl named Mary. Then Mary turns up pregnant, and Joseph knows that he is not the father. It is scandalous. Everyone in the village is talking. Please don’t gloss over this—the story starts with a small town sexual scandal. Sadly, today we hardly blink when someone gets pregnant out of wedlock; but the Bible treats sex as something holy, to be saved for marriage, so this was scandalous. Joseph insisted he was not the father—no one was buying that. And Mary told an outrageous story about an angel and a virgin birth—how do you think that was selling? Mary was ostracized, her parents were ashamed, her neighbors scandalized, and her fiancé humiliated. And that’s just the opening scene!
If God is trying to save the world, it’s hardly an auspicious start!
Joseph was humiliated, but was a kind man and decided to end the engagement quietly. The story is headed off the rails right out of the gates! But God visits Joseph in a dream and informs him that Mary is telling the truth—the baby in her womb is from the Holy Spirit. It’s a boy (how is this for a gender reveal) and Joseph was to name the baby “Jesus” (meaning, the Lord saves, or God to the rescue) because this baby will save people from their sins. When Joseph woke up, he did what God instructed in the dream.
Do you think Joseph ever had second thoughts? “Did I really dream that? Was that really God speaking to me, or just bad pizza?” He knew that most people would assume that his marriage to Mary was an implicit acknowledgement that he was the baby’s father. He would live the rest of his life with this scandal hanging over him, unfairly accused. But Joseph’s devotion to God was greater than his concern for his reputation, so he and Mary were quietly married.
A few months later, when Mary was near full term, word came that the Roman government expected everyone to register in the census. Why the census? It was for taxation—follow the money! The Jews hated the Roman occupation, but paying for it with their taxes was even more odious. But it wasn’t just the money; it was the disruption. Each family was required to return to their ancestral home to register, and for Joseph, that meant a trip to Bethlehem with his very pregnant wife—70 miles of walking or riding a donkey. Moms—how does that sound to you? Uncomfortable would be a nice way to put it! Oppression by a foreign government. Taxation without representation—it’s a messy story. And it gets worse.
When Joseph and Mary finally get to Bethlehem, the village is crowded with others just like them, folks who had been uprooted for the census. Many families had a guest room, but all of these were full and the young couple was forced to take shelter in a stable. And there, Mary gave birth to a son, and laid him in a manger. It sounds romantic—it wasn’t. It was messy. Imagine being a young mother, far from home and family, having your first baby in a barn, alone. It must have been terrifying. Mary wrapped her newborn son in a long winding cloth she had brought for this moment—she swaddled her son and laid him in a feeding trough. Not a beautiful crib in a custom nursery. Our nativity scenes are mostly out of Hallmark movies and mask the glaring poverty and political oppression of this holy night. The King of Kings was born in a barn and cradled in a feeding trough, far from home, in the middle of nowhere. Very messy. Then…it gets weird.
Panel Set 2: Magi visit Jesus.
I said it gets weird, and I know you’re wondering, “What’s weird about the Magi? We three kings, and all that jazz?” Once again, we have a romanticized view of this. Who were the Magi? They were Persian or Babylonian priests of a pagan religion; they were experts in astrology (reading the signs in the stars), fortune telling and other occult practices—all outlawed by the Jewish law. When Joseph and Mary heard the knock on the door, this is not who they were expecting! They knew that their son was the Jewish Messiah—so who would you expect to come pay homage? Jewish priests and elders and leaders—people who knew the Scriptures and the promises. But these people never came—instead it was these foreigners with their outlawed religious practices. Weird. Messy.
And why were they here? God had shown them a star and told them it would lead them to a king, and they had come to worship. The only ones worshipping were these outsiders, who had come a great distance—a journey that took months. It might have been God’s way to indicate from the very beginning that Jesus wasn’t just the Jewish Messiah, but the Savior of the world—Jesus is for everyone! Can you imagine Joseph and Mary’s confusion as these foreigners, these strangers to the Jewish faith, bowed to worship their son? “What is going on?”
And the gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh—treasures the likes of which this young couple had never seen or even imagined. So expensive! What were they to do with treasures like this? We’ll see in a moment.
The Magi had started their search for the new king in Jerusalem, where you’d expect to find him, at the palace. There, they asked King Herod where the new king might be. Herod was disturbed by the news of a new king—he was insanely insecure and brooked no rivals to his throne. Herod asked the Jewish religious experts where the Messiah was to be born (Bethlehem), and then grilled the Magi about when they had first seen the star. He sent the Magi to Bethlehem, commanding them to find the new king and then report back to him so he too could worship the infant king. But he never intended to worship Jesus—he intended to murder Jesus.
Panel Set 3—Magi escape, Herod’s murder spree, Holy Family escapes
God warned the Magi in a dream not to return to Herod, so instead they escaped back to their own country by another route. Herod was a piece of work. Herod the Great was known for his cruelty, instability and jealousy. Anyone whom he perceived as a threat, he had murdered, including members of his own family! He married 10 wives, and had numerous children. Political intrigue among them led to scores of assassinations and executions, including some of his wives, his sisters, and even his three eldest sons. Because Herod was nominally Jewish and known to follow the Jewish food laws and not eat pork, there was a joke that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than to be Herod’s son. (The Greek words for pig and son sound alike.) This dangerous, imbalanced man is who heard from the Magi that a new king had been born. He had no intentions of letting this new rival survive.
So when it became clear that the Magi had outwitted him, Herod was furious. He ordered that all the baby boys in Bethlehem, age 2 and under, be killed—based on the time he had learned from the Magi. Soldiers descended on the unsuspecting village one night and ran their swords through Bethlehem’s baby boys. It’s called “The Massacre of the Innocents” and you won’t find it in any Christmas movie, Hallmark or otherwise. It is the messiest part of a very messy story. And how did Jesus survive?
Once again, God intervened by giving Joseph another dream. God told him to get up that very night and escape to Egypt, for Herod was going to try to kill their child. They were to stay in Egypt until God told them to come home—which would be after Herod died. Imagine Joseph waking his young wife and son, packing in the dark as he explained that they were fleeing the country, seeking asylum in Egypt because Herod wanted to kill their baby. Imagine Mary clutching her newborn, looking over her shoulder as they fled, fearing the armed pursuit of Herod’s troops. Terrifying! They had to literally run for their lives in the middle of the night and it was a narrow escape. Messy.
And what was it like when they reached Egypt? They were exiles, political refugees seeking asylum. I doubt they got a warm welcome, or that they ever felt at home. And how did they manage financially as refugees in Egypt? Gold, frankincense and myrrh. God was at work in the middle of the mess.
Have you ever thought that Jesus started His life as a refugee seeking asylum? Jesus was a Dreamer—a DACA recipient taken as a child to a foreign land to save His life. And then, it was finally time to go home.
Panel Set 4—Dream and trip to Nazareth
God promised to let Joseph know when it safe to return home, and how did God do it? Another dream. So Joseph moves his little family back to Israel, where he learns that Herod’s brother, Archelaus has become king. Not too reassuring. Joseph fears for the safety of his family and once again, in a dream, God gives him direction: time to move back home to Nazareth—back where his reputation is in tatters. Three times Joseph moves his family—each based on a dream from God: to Egypt, to Israel, to Galilee. I wonder what Mary thought. Wives, how many of you would be excited to move because your husband had a dream? Most likely Mary was somewhat tolerant since Joseph married her because of a dream (Matthew 1:20). But what a shaky start! We moved a lot when I was a kid—I went to 11 different schools from K-7th grade—but this was crazy! And no one was trying to kill me!
Surviving Christmas. Who survived that first Christmas? Jesus did. Barely. Joseph and Mary did—barely. It’s a crazy, messy story of political intrigue, deceit, murder, and running for your life! But mostly, it’s a story of spiritual pursuit. God the Hero of the story, quietly working through all the mess and craziness, pursuing you and me. God was at work protecting the Holy Family, directing, providing and sustaining. God is the Hero of the story—God who sends His Son into the world to save it, calls magi from a distant nation to worship and provide for His Son, and protects His Son from a jealous king by giving dreams to a young carpenter. God to the rescue! God went to a lot of trouble to save you!
So why did I tell you the crazy, messy, raw true story of Christmas? Why not the Hallmark version? Because my life isn’t a Hallmark movie, and neither is yours. My life is messy, and I need to know that there is a God who works in the mess! That’s the big idea I want you take home with you.
- The Takeaway: God is at work in the mess!
There is a God who works in the mess. Would you tell the person next to you, “God is at work in your mess.” Christmas is the celebration of God stepping into our mess! God stepped into our world and became one of us. We call it “the Incarnation”—a word that means “in the flesh.” God came in the flesh. God became one of us; He stepped into our skin and lived as a human being. God became one of us to save all of us. Jesus is God to the rescue, God stepping into our mess to lead us out of it and back to Himself.
But why did God do it? Why become one of us? Why step into our mess? Why go to all this trouble? One simple reason: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son.” God is crazy about you!
ILL: Max Lucado wrote: “There are many reasons God saves you…but one of the sweetest…is because he is fond of you. He likes having you around. If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it. If he had a phone, your photo would be on it. He sends you flowers every spring and a sunrise every morning. Whenever you want to talk, he’ll listen. He can live anywhere in the universe, and he chose your heart. And the Christmas gift he sent you in Bethlehem? Face it, friend. He’s crazy about you!”
God pursued you into the mess because He loves you and wants you. He wants you! He wants a relationship with you and sent Jesus to make it possible. Augustine wrote in the 4th Century: “God became a man so that following a man—something you are able to do—you might reach God, which was formerly impossible to you.” Jesus made the invisible God visible. Jesus is God in the flesh—God who stepped into our mess to rewrite our stories.
ILL: Matt Proctor explained it this way:
My 5-year-old, Carl, and my 3-year-old, Conrad, love it when I dress like them. When they put on jeans and a blue T-shirt, they’ll ask me to wear jeans and a blue T-shirt. When I do, they will look at me and look at themselves and say, “Look, Dad—same, same.” For my birthday, Carl bought me a North Carolina blue mesh shirt because he has a North Carolina blue mesh shirt. We could be “same, same.”
When I play living room football with my boys, Conrad will not let me play standing—I’m so big and scary, towering above him. The theological term for this is “completely Other.” Instead he insists I get on my knees. When I am down at eye-level, Conrad puts his hand on my shoulder and says, “There. See, Dad—same, same.” They like it when I enter their world.
This summer, I scraped my leg working on my house. When Conrad fell down and scraped his leg, he pointed at my scab, then showed me his and said, “Hey, Dad—same, same.”
Here’s the point. God himself has felt what we feel. In the Incarnation, God chose not to stay “completely Other.” He got down at eye-level—same, same—and God experienced what it’s like to be human, to be tired and discouraged. God knows what it’s like to hurt and bleed. God even knows what it’s like to be tempted. Same, same.
In your mess, you may be tempted to say, “God, you have no idea what I’m going through. You have no idea how bad I’m hurting.” But God can respond, “Yes, I do.” He can point to your wounds and then to his own and say, “Look: same, same. Me too. I have entered your world, and I know how you feel. I have been there, I am with you now, I care, and I can help.”
That is what Christmas is all about. God entered our mess and became one of us—same, same—so He can help us. Jesus is God to the rescue, working right in the middle of our mess. Look at these two passages from the NT book of Hebrews.
Hebrews 2:17–18 For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
Jesus was fully human in every way, just like you—same, same. Because He suffered, He is able to help those who are suffering or being tempted. Jesus is here in our mess to help us! God to the rescue!
Hebrews 4:15–16 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Because Jesus has been one of us—same, same—He understands our weakness. He’s been in the mess. So come to God with confidence! You will receive mercy and grace to help you!
Friends, Invite Jesus into your mess. Is your story, like the Christmas story, a little messy? Mine too. Same, same. Invite Jesus in. If your story isn’t messy now, hang on, it will be! Invite Jesus in. This is why He came. He came to save you. He came to bring you life—life to the full. He may not fix all the mess, but He’ll change you! Jesus will make you more alive! Inviting Jesus into my life was the best decision I ever made! I hope you’ll do the same.
 Max Lucado, A Gentle Thunder (Word, 1995)
 St. Augustine, Commentary on Psalm 134, 5; source: www.artsci.villanova.edu
 Matt Proctor, “Carols for Any Season of Suffering,” Christian Standard magazine (12-23-07)