I would guess that many of us have already opened at least one Christmas present even though Christmas is still over a week away. Our church has been opening Christmas presents together during this Season of Advent.
We started this two weeks ago when we first opened the gift of expectation. Advent is a season of expectation. It’s a season for us to expect and anticipate the new thing that God is going to do through us. Mary, the mother of Jesus is the symbol for this gift of expectation.
What is the new way that God is going to help us experience the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ this year? What is the new way that God is going to help us share God’s love with the people around us?
Last Sunday, Pastor Cheryl helped us open the gift of acceptance. Joseph from the crèche scene is a symbol of this Christmas gift. Joseph was presented with an unbelievable situation to accept or not accept the news that Mary was with child by the Holy Spirit. He could have walked away from the situation since it didn’t make sense, but he chose to accept this new way that God was breaking into the world to be our Savior. We too, have a choice this Christmas to accept or not accept this surprising and life changing news.
So let’s see what early Christmas present God wants us to receive on this third Sunday of Advent. Let’s have 9:00 am-Ryan Black representing one of our elementary Sunday School classes 10:30 am-Sarah Mikesell representing one of our elementary Sunday School classes to open the Christmas box. Today, we open up the gift of the shepherds! The shepherds symbolize the gift of family.
To help illustrate what I mean by the gift of family. I want to share with you a picture of the McDowell family one year when we were all able to be together for Christmas. At this family Christmas, my mom, my brother, my two sisters, a brother-in-law, nieces, a nephew, Penny, me, a friend of the family are all together for this Christmas family photo. This is a fairly typical Christmas family photo, right?
Now, in contrast, take a look at this family Christmas photo from 2,000 years ago. There’s Mary, Joseph, and their newborn, Jesus. That makes sense. But who are these other guys? They have no connection with the Mary and Joseph family. Before that holy night of Jesus’ birth, they had never even met. What are they doing in this Christmas photo album?
Well, we know them as the shepherds who on the night of Jesus’ birth were watching the flocks at night. And while they were out shepherding, some angels came and told them about the birth of a Savior in the town of Bethlehem. With great haste, they hurried to Bethlehem and found the holy family and baby Jesus lying in a manger.
I wonder what that must have been like for Mary and Joseph. Wile they were trying to have a special moment with their newborn, these shepherds barge in and just kind of make themselves at home.
This reminds me of a time this past summer when I went to visit some of our church members in the hospital. The hospital has a really good system to help you know who from your church is in the hospital. You give them your church code, and they will tell you if anyone from your church is in the hospital. When you’re admitted as a patient, you have the option of including the name of your church, if you want your church and your pastor to know.
So anyway, the person at the desk gave me some names and I didn’t recognize one of the names at all. She was a patient in one of the maternity rooms. So I knock and come into the room and I meet the proud new father. And I ask how everybody is doing. He says, “We’re doing fine.” His wife was not in the room at the time so just the two of us spoke.
He was so excited to tell me about their little baby boy that was born earlier that morning. He told me the first and middle names and how big he is. And in the middle of our conversation, a look of confusion came to this father’s face and he asked me, “Now, who are you?”
I had shared my name at the door before coming in but I don’t think he had heard me. So I said, “Pastor Robert McDowell at First United Methodist Church here in town.” And now, he looked even more confused. I asked him if he was connected to our church and he said, “No.” It was that awkward moment, you know, when you realize that you’ve invaded someone’s space.
So I told him that the people down at the desk had their name connected with our church which was why I was visiting. I asked him if they had a church home and he said that they didn’t. And so I invited them to visit our church sometime and that we were running a special on baptisms if they were interested. At least I didn’t hand him a box of offering envelopes!
But this new father was so nice. Even though there were those few seconds of awkwardness, he thanked me for stopping by. And that made me feel so much better. So, I offered to say a prayer for the gift of his baby son and he was very grateful.
For a moment there, I felt like one of the shepherds, uninvited, but present with this new father on the occasion of the birth of their first child. I left there with a smile on my face as this was yet another example of how God brings people together to celebrate holy moments in surprising ways.
What makes the holy family Christmas photo amazing to me is that not only that there are strangers in this picture, but that these strangers are shepherds. In Jesus’ day, the shepherds were the equivalent of transient drifters and street people. How incredible to think that these are the folks who appeared at that first Christmas scene!
This is why the shepherds represent the gift of family during this Christmas season. God’s idea of family includes more people than we can ever imagine. God has a way of breaking down the artificial barriers that we so often create in our world.
Notice that the shepherds were invited guests to the manger scene. God sent angels who appeared to them and invited them to be part of this holy moment in Bethlehem.
Have you ever noticed that God is always inviting people who are on the outside to come in and be family? God has a special concern for the dispossessed, the marginalized, the poor, and the forgotten.
At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he gave us his mission statement in which he quoted from the prophet, Isaiah, our Old Testament reading, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” Jesus’ ministry was one of including more and more people in the family of God.
Who in our families, in our church, in our schools, and in our neighborhoods are forgotten people? Who has been pushed aside to the edges of society? How do we respond?
Doylestown United Methodist Church here in Ohio has a ministry that helps more and more people feel included in God’s family. Let’s watch.
When we open up the Christmas gift of family, we leave behind the comfortable and the familiar so that we can venture to places that are new to us. God calls us individually and as a congregation to reach out to more and more people with the love of Jesus Christ.
We reach out with God’s love, compassion, and concern. We reach out and witness to the birth of Christ again, again, and again.
I look around and I see so many examples of where we are inviting more and more people to be part of the manger scene. I see greeters on Sunday mornings, welcoming people into this place. I see people serving hot lunches to folks in our fellowship hall throughout the week and listening to their stories. I see people who are new to our church family because you invited them to worship.
This season, let’s remember the shepherds, the forgotten ones, the people who are often on the fringe. All are welcome to the manger scene. We are all God’s special and honored guests. God cares for all people. Nobody is left out.
Open the Christmas gift of family.