Do We Stop At Symbols? – 12.24.2020
Here’s an old story you may have heard before. Once upon a time a husband and wife were in their kitchen. The husband was sitting at the kitchen table reading the newspaper while his wife was preparing a ham for Christmas dinner. The husband watched as his wife cut off a couple inches from both ends of the ham. He asked her, “Why did you cut the end off? Seems like a waste of perfectly good ham.” The wife paused for a moment and shrugged, “that’s the way my mother always prepared the ham. The husband asked “why did your mom cut the ends off?” But she didn’t know. So later that afternoon, the wife called up her mom to find out – why do we cut off the ends of the ham? And her mother said, “because that was the way my mom always prepared the ham.” Now the wife’s grandmother was very elderly, so she went to see her in person to ask her question. Grandma, why do we always cut the ends off of our ham?” Grandma was silent for a long time, staring off into space thinking hard, then she finally responded “oh, we just did that so the ham could fit in the baking pan.”
Tonight is Christmas Eve, and it seems like everything we do in the holiday season is saturated with meaning. This is the time of year when all those old traditions come out of the woodwork. For those who don’t know, on Sundays for the last few weeks we’ve been looking at the symbols around us and the stories they tell. And what I have found is that a lot of us are like the wife from that story. We do things, because they are tradition – because we’ve always done them, without actually understanding. Tonight I want us to take a moment to reclaim meaning, to reclaim the deeper level, in the story of Christmas. What we will see tonight is that there is power is telling the stories. We will see that these symbols are not just lovely decorations, no – these symbols represent beautiful truths that speak into each of our lives right here today.
Luke chapter two, the most famous and well known of the Christmas stories begins, [read v.1-5]. These opening verse set the stage a little bit. We are in the nation of Israel, but at this time it is the Roman world. The entire population of Israel is living under Roman occupation. Now here’s what we need to understand. The jewish book, called the Hebrew Bible, (what we know as the Old Testament) ends with some prophetic texts. What I mean by that is the last thing that the Jewish people put in their holy book is a promise of a coming savior. Things are rough for Israel, but they have these prophets who say, “someday, a savior is coming. Someday, we will be set free by someone called the Messiah.” The Jewish religion ends with a note of hopeful waiting. The Jewish people are waiting for good news. And then four hundred years go by. Can you imagine waiting four hundred years for ANYTHING? I get annoyed when my amazon package is delayed by a day and a half! The people of Israel wait four hundred years for the messiah to show up. For the savior to come and set them free. Basically they wait four centuries for some good news. And I know that nine months of pandemic is not a fair comparison – but this year, I have really resonated with the story of a people who are desperate for good news. I feel like 2020 has been the year of desperately searching for good news. The pandemic shut things down, and ever since then we have been on the hunt for good news. Some folks were hoping for justice and racial equality in the black lives matter movement. Some folks were hoping for political victory in an election season. Some folks were hoping for a miracle cure to be found in a vaccine. And yet – all these things that have happened, all these places we put our hope – none of them satisfied us. Black lives matter, blue lives matters – protests came and went, and yet we did not solve the problem of racism and inequality in the world. The election season came and went, we even swapped out who was in office and yet – still the world has problems. Which, if you remember, is not what those political ads promised. I thought all our problems were supposed to disappear. The vaccine is coming, the stimulus package is moving through the process and yet – it’s just not enough to lift our spirits. Do you see what I’m trying to say? This year has created a deep yearning in our hearts for some good news, and even if we like a lot of the stuff that’s happening: it’s just not good enough. We are searching for good news, and no matter what victories or losses the world hands us – the world cannot seem to satisfy. Israel has been waiting for good news for 400 years, which I think if we measure in emotional years is roughly the length of one COVID-19 pandemic, and that sets the stage a little bit.
[read v.6-7] – now what we’re witnessing here is the origin story of a symbol. Mary placed the baby in the manger, which just happened to be there as a result of circumstance. No big deal, needed to put the kid down – and her choices were the floor or the food trough. So she puts him in the manger. Fast forward a little bit. We’ve moved out into the fields where there were some shepherds, watching over their flocks by night. And an angel shows up to tell them about the baby. [read v.10-12]. Here’s some incredible good news, and we’re going to pair it with a sign. You’ll find the baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. The common food trough has now become a symbol, a sign for the shepherds that you have found the son of God. The purpose of the manger as a symbol is to help the shepherds on their search for God.
And then they find the baby and it’s this amazing moment. [read v.16-20]. The shepherds take the story, and tell everyone about it. Angels told us to look for a baby in a manger, which is crazy – but it worked! There really was a kid, there really was a baby born and wrapped in cloth and laid in the manger. The story the shepherd’s told was that the messiah is here. Confirmed by the manger. And I guess what I want you to realize here is that the symbol NEEDS the story. Without knowing why the manger is important, without telling the story – we forget it’s purpose. We forget the point of the manger, and it just becomes another prop in the annual Christmas play. It’s amazing to me, the song could not be more clear. “away in the manger, NO crib for a bed.” It’s not a crib, and yet I still meet lots of people who think that the word “manger” is like ancient Greek for baby crib. But the whole point of it being a nasty manger was to identify the baby Jesus. To bring the shepherds closer to their lord and savior. The messiah they’d been waiting for for four hundred years. ] The purpose of a symbol is to help you on your search for God, and what we’re going to find is that the power of a symbol – like with the shepherds, the power of a symbol comes from telling the story. The symbols need the story.
You see, the good news this evening is that the messiah was born in Bethlehem tonight. The one who will set us free from sin has finally come. Good news, and I’m talking real good news – not that fake good news that the world keeps trying to sell us, but real good news is finally here. For those of us who have been dwelling in darkness – the good news is that the light has come. There is sin in your life, things you have done that keep you far away from God. But I’m here to tell you that Jesus came so you could be reunited with God. Jesus came all those years ago so he could wipe away your sin. He knows everything you’ve ever done, the darkness deeds done in the dirtiest corners of shame. He sees you for what you really are, and he still loves you. Jesus loves you so much, he wants you to give up your sin and live a life in his glory. He gave up heaven, for you. He gave up equality with God, to step into this world. His love for you, brought him into that cold night in Bethlehem all those years ago. He was willing to lie in the manger for you. His love for you, would lead him to give up his life, to give up everything as a perfect sacrifice to pay for your sins. He died so that you could live. Jesus Christ was born so that with his sacrifice he could bring you back home to God. The baby in the manger is for you. Jesus came to save you. That’s the good news tonight.
And so my deepest prayer for everyone listening to this broadcast is that you would give up your sins and follow Jesus. The messiah is here. The savior has come. All you have to do is call on his name, and he will forgive your sins and let you walk in his light. Give up your sins and follow Jesus.
You know, something happened a couple of weeks ago. I met a new friend, a visitor who came into this church a couple weeks back. She came to one of our services at the beginning of this sermon series – which has been all about symbols. She reached out a week later and told me a story I wanted to share with you tonight. She told me, “I haven’t been to church in over 9 years. I’m not sure why I came back.” She stopped at three churches on her way that morning, she sat in the parking lot of one of them and cried because she was too scared to go inside. She was afraid the walls would catch fire or the building would collapse if someone like her walked inside. But something felt right about our building, and she just happened to park in front of the cross on the outside of the building. She told me, “I always feel stronger and more brave when I look at it. Might sound crazy, but I feel a stronger connection to Jesus when I do” (Which by the way, does NOT sound crazy). She looked at the cross on the outside of our building and felt confident enough to enter our church, sit in the back row and worship with us. A little scared, and a little excited. But then she got into worship, she noticed the Christmas Tree was covering up the cross. In my efforts to make a symmetrical shot for the camera angle for our fancy livestream whatever – I covered up the cross. She said, “although the Christmas tree is quite a wonderful symbol, it isn’t exactly a cross. It was hard for me to sit in the back of the church and not see it. It was hard being around strangers and not see it. It was hard feeling not worthy enough to even sit in his house and it was even harder not being able to see the cross.” So if you wondered why the Christmas tree randomly moved in the middle of our sermon series – that’s why. I love the symbols of Christmas, but they should always lead us TO Jesus, not cover him up.
And so that leads me to really, my only piece of application. I want you to take the stories of the symbols of Christmas, and tell them to other people. I want you to tell the stories to other people, for your own sake. You see here’s the thing – if we don’t tell the stories to others, eventually we stop telling the stories altogether. And then our worship is full of pretty things without any meaning. Our Christmas trees look darn good, but they start to cover up the cross. And I think that’s what happened is so many churches in our world. We’re like that woman in the story from the beginning of the sermon. We don’t even know why we cut the ends off the ham – we just do it. Our worship has become full of traditions and symbols that we don’t even understand. At first it was fun – aw man, isn’t it cool that this thing has meaning – I never knew why we did that! But as the series went on, I realized – we’ve been living with empty religion. Rituals where we just go through the motions. But 2020 has been too hard for meaningless religion. Empty rituals are not good enough. Tonight we need something real. We need purpose. We need meaning. And it’s right there – if we can only tell the stories.
If we tell the stories to others, we keep the stories alive in ourselves. When we remember the meaning of the symbols around us – in our everyday lives we find that we are surrounded by meaning and purpose. Tonight, I want you to reclaim the meaning of the symbols by the telling the stories. So tell your kids, tell your grand-kids. Tell people why we use a manger. Tell them about the shepherds searching for the baby. Why do Christians get super excited about Saturn and Jupiter making a really bright Bethlehem star in the night sky? Tell them about the wise men who came. Why does the cross give us courage and strength for broken people like you and me to step into the presence of God? Tell the story of the savior who came to set us free. Tell the stories to other people, to keep them alive in your own heart.
The people of Israel waited four hundred years for the good news of the messiah to come. Tonight, we celebrate the baby born in Bethlehem all those years ago. We tell the story, to keep it alive in our hearts. To give purpose and power to the symbols around us. We tell the story of the messiah who came, the humble baby in a manger. Do we stop at symbols? No, symbols are where we start. Amen.