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Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Christmas Day Sermon, Dec 25, 2016

Welcome to our Home (Luke 2:4-7)

            I hope your Christmas morning is full of joy and smiles and warmth.  I am grateful to God for each of you and that you chose to be with us in worship on Christmas morning. 
It is a beautiful, special time, and a happy time, I hope.  With that said, I do hope that my discovery that for centuries we in the church have been reading the Bible incorrectly won’t diminish the holiday glow.  We know the story.  Joseph and Mary just barely make it into Bethlehem, discover their best shelter will be in a barn, and then baby Jesus comes, welcomed into the world by goats, chickens, and cows.  Our nativity scenes depict this narrative, one the church has rehearsed for centuries.
            However, we haven’t read Luke 2 very carefully and thus history has besmirched the reputation of innkeepers and homeowners in Bethlehem for 2 millennia.  Hospitality is a cherished value in the Middle East now and it was when Jesus was born.  Any self-respecting Bethlehem family would have gone out of its way to welcome Joseph and pregnant Mary.  And that is probably what actually happened. 
            The importance of hospitality in that part of the world is startling sometimes even to people from there. 
            Consider the Orthodox Initiative, a ministry of the Greek Orthodox Church in the Mediterranean region.  It is a ministry meant to serve Christians in the Middle East.  The Orthodox Initiative, which began in 2011, was established to encourage unity and to support Christians who are a persecuted minority in Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and the rest of the region.   The history of conflict in the past half-decade, especially in Iraq and Syria has been tragic.  Entire communities have been displaced. 
Iraqi and Syrian Christians have been especially hard hit.  Prior to the civil war in Syria, that country had one of the largest Christian populations in the Middle East.  Perhaps when you think of the Middle East, dangerous Islamic extremism comes to mind.  But, there are in fact millions of peaceful Muslims who are as much victims of terrorism as anyone else.  There, of course, millions of Jews.  And of course there are millions of Christians. 
Many have had to flee for their lives, leaving home behind.  Listen to what happened among a group of Syrian Christian refugees who had to spend Christmas in a refugee situation in Amman, Jordan.  This account comes one of the team members of the Orthodox Initiative who had traveled to the St. Ephraim’s Syrian Orthodox Church in Jordan.  She was there to serve the poor, displaced refugees.  She couldn’t believe what happened.
She writes,
When we arrived at the church families milled about the premises. Some were gathered in the narthex of the church, others were sitting on chairs nearby. It wasn’t until later that we realized that almost all of these families were living at the church. The coffee we were served, again and again, was an expression of hospitality. These refugee families, many of whom have one or two sets of clothes, were serving us their own coffee.

There in the church facilities were approximately 50 Syrian families sharing communal eating, sleeping, and bathing quarters. The Pastor and the congregation have converted the Church facilities into a complete hostel for the Syrian refugees. What was once a fellowship hall now sleeps 20. The meeting room houses 10 more. There is a shared kitchen, where church ladies once arranged coffee & sweets for fellowship hour following services.

Next we went upstairs, around the side of the church, and into a building that sits on top of the sanctuary & fellowship hall.. Mattresses covered the floors and old classrooms have been converted into shared bedrooms. The hallways serve as kitchens, laundry rooms, and storage spaces.

The Feeding of the 5000, a miracle that illustrates the abundance found in community, is a beloved story that the Orthodox Initiative director thought of when she reflected on Christmas dinner at St Ephraim’s Syriac Orthodox Church. What began as a humble desire to get to know the Syrian refugee families became a joyful Christmas dinner.

True to Middle Eastern hospitality standards, the Syrian families welcomed their guests, the staff and volunteers of the Orthodox Initiative, into their temporary living space inside the Orthodox Church. Preparation did not merely include getting out a table cloth and sweeping the floor. The Syrian families, who have fled from their homes and resettled in the St Ephraim’s Church’s Fellowship Hall, accommodated their guests by clearing out their living spaces and setting up tables and chairs to seat 100 people.

The atmosphere of the dinner was full of joy and peace, affording a welcome respite to the families from the trauma of fleeing violence in their home country only to arrive in Jordan with few possessions and resources. Relaxation permeated the hall with families sharing stories and memories. Upon arriving at the dinner, the Orthodox Initiative director felt a sense of nostalgia while she, “watched as families switched off lights in their homes and rooms and walked to the church to join the gathering. It was as if watching a classic Christmas movie.”[i]

            That spirit of hospitality that transformed a refugee ministry in Jordan in 2013 into a Christmas day filled with grace, joy, laughter, and love – that same hospitality was in Bethlehem when Joseph and Mary arrived and Jesus, God the Son, entered human flesh through birth, the same way we all come into life on this planet.  Luke hints at this in verse 6. 
            In the previous verse, Luke writes that Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem, registering because of the Roman tax.  Then in verse 6, “while they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.”  Jesus birth was but one of a series of events in Bethlehem at that time.
            I read a research paper[ii] that describes the typical home in first century Bethlehem.  Most people, whatever else they did, also did farming.  The blacksmith, the carpenter, the tanner – whatever the trade, the family also grew crops and had a few farm animals.  Most families were poor, so they only had a few animals. 
            Most families lived in one-rooms and brought their animals into the home at night.  The manger would be a space on the floor where animals ate while inside on cold nights.  The entire family was in very close proximity to the animals.  That they would give this space to Joseph and Mary, and then to Baby Jesus, was an example of giving the very best that they had. 
            Furthermore, the hospitality was a harbinger of the life Jesus would lead and call his followers to lead.  Besides Joseph and Mary and the host family, unknown to history, who were the first people to welcome Jesus into the world? Shepherds!  They fell very low on the social ladder.  Their work in keeping the flocks, so essential in society, rendered them “unclean.”  Many homes would not even welcome them in.  However, they would be very comfortable in the presence of animal’s feed trough.  Even as baby, Jesus welcomed the lowest of society and set the standard that all associated with him would gladly welcome all people.  The refugees, centuries later, welcoming the ministry that had come to care for them were simply Jesus followers following the lead of their master – our Lord. 
            A poor peasant family says to Joseph and Mary, welcome to our home.  This clears for the new born Jesus to find himself, not in a castle or palace, but in a stable.  Because he’s in a stable, shepherds, unwelcomed in so-called respectable places are able to come and worship the Son of God the angels told them about.  Thus in the birth of Jesus we a tone of welcome set, a standard he will demonstrate in his ministry and one his church will maintain.  His church continues to live up this standard even up to our day, when Christians who have been robbed of everything by war end up hosting the ministry that thought it was going to serve them. 
            Of course all of this leads to the conclusion I am sure you are suspecting.  We Christians in North America must maintain extravagant generosity in our own lives.  We extend ourselves in hospitality in our homes, in our relationships, and in our church.  This is absolutely so and we are called to this ministry, and I extremely every time I see how well our church does in giving hospitality.  However, that is actually not my conclusion this Christmas morning.
            My conclusion is instead an invitation to you.  The Christ who lay in a manger and welcomed shepherds and whose Holy Spirit inspired Syrian refugees in Jordan to welcome the Orthodox Initiative is the one who went to the cross to die for the sins of the world.  And we all need him.  We are all sinners.  You are a sinner.  I am.  Our sins wreck our lives, hurt us and others, and cut us off from God.  But, Jesus has covered our sins with his blood and forgiven us.  Our sins are no more.  We are made new.
He is the one who rose from the grave to conquer death and invite us to join him in resurrection.  So Jesus has utterly done away with the two things that destroy life – sin and death.  He cleans us, makes us new, and gives us eternal life.
The final word on hospitality is not that we should all practice it.  We should.  But the final word to you this Christmas morning is that Jesus is inviting you to come to Him and be welcomed into his family.  To you, Jesus says, “Welcome to my home.”  His home is the Kingdom of God.  You and I – we can be at home there. 
I began this morning by saying that I hoped your Christmas morning has been full of joy and smiles and warmth.  In reality, I don’t know what your Christmas has been like.  I know when people are in pain or going through a rough time, the holiday might magnify that hurt.  If that is you or if you have never given your life to Jesus, he is here.  His Holy Spirit is here beckoning your heart.  He wants to show divine hospitality to your spirit. 
Come to him.  That’s the final word.  God entered human flesh, died on the cross and rose because God loves you and me.  Today, Christmas Day, come, give your heart to Him and receive the welcome and the salvation He has for you.


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