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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve 2012

2012-12-24 Christmas Eve
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church

...and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. - Luke 2:7

Everybody who's heard the Christmas story has their own unique vision of how it looked. I'm sure mine came from 1960's claymation TV specials. Or maybe Sunday School flannelgraphs.

If you don't know what a flannelgraph is, I'm so sorry. Imagine PowerPoint, with magic fabric cut-outs.

I always pictured a British inn, made of stone and covered in vines and moss. And a grumpy old innkeeper leaning out an upstairs window, shouting, "Go 'way, 'ew blinkin' 'umbugs!" Because, that's how all British people talk.

However the inn looked, the point is that Mary and Joseph ended up somewhere way less comfortable, in a place not fit for human residence. There was no cradle, so she placed the Baby Jesus in the animals' feeding trough, the manger.

The world had no place for Mary and Joseph and Jesus. So, God found a way.


The Gospel of John says it like this,

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.

Do you ever think about what this and the story from Luke are saying? Because it's really, really shocking. The world had no place for God. The world didn't recognize God. The world refused God.

But God found a way.

A lot of people say the reason the world's so messed up today, the reason our country's in such a fix, is because we've turned away from God. That's what they say.

But the Bible says, God finds a way.

You might be here tonight under duress. You might be here because you want to make your mom happy. And, speaking for all the moms, good. You might not be so sure about all this God and Jesus stuff. You might say you just don't have room for God. That's what you say.

The Bible says, God finds a way.


Have you ever been in a situation where there's no room for you? Maybe a school cafeteria. That's everybody's nightmare. There's the cool table. There's the Hobbit table. There's the Manga-Goth table. You don't need a sorting hat to know where you fit in. Or not. "Sorry, loser. Maybe there's room for you at the "Glee" table."

Same thing when we grow up. Artists go to artist parties. Accountants go to accountant parties. (Woohoo.) Psychologists go to both parties and stand outside making video. ("Here we see the primitive ritual dance of the Copyright Lawyer.") We divide. Is there room? Depends on who you are. That's what society says.

The Bible says... well, let's get to that in a minute.

How do you make room for God?

A lot of people say by setting time each day for prayer and study. Maybe by meditating or yoga. You might make room for God by listening to music. Or exercising. Walking in the woods by yourself. And those are all good. They're great practices. You need to practice making room for God. That's why God sent John the Baptist. That's why the church has Advent. To tell everybody to get ready, to practice up, because Jesus is coming.

But there's a difference between practice and the real thing.

The real game comes and it's time to put the practice aside and get down and dirty. Enough theory; it's time to get down-to-earth. That's what Christmas is, after all. I mean, think about it. Christmas is God getting really, really down-to-earth. And it's an earthy earth. In a stable. In a manger. In a place for people who have no place.

In the Bible, in Matthew 25, Jesus tells a parable about when we really, really make room for God. And in the story, the people of the world were shocked and surprised. Because they thought they were doing something else.

It says,

"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

It says,

"The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'

The Bible says, if you really, really want to make room for God, then make room. Make room. For everybody.

Feed everybody. Care for everybody. Welcome everybody. Clothe everybody. Visit everybody. Even the most down. Even the most filthy. Make room. For everybody.

The Bible says, if you want to make room for God, make room. For everybody.

But even if you don't think you can do that. Even if you don't want to do that. Even if you say, "Sorry, Loser, there's no room at this table," God. Finds. A. Way.


I am so excited about what you're going to do tonight, in giving to the offering for the Volunteer Ministry Center. I think it's moving beyond practicing your faith to actually doing what Jesus tells us.

There are Marys and Josephs on the streets of this city, who have no place to stay tonight. I have no doubt that some of the Marys are great with child. I have no doubt that some of the Josephs are wondering, "What in the world have I gotten myself into?" I have no doubt that there are children who are shivering, whose tummies are rumbling because it's cold, and they're hungry.

As much as we give to the least of them, we're giving to Jesus. We're moving beyond getting ready for Jesus, and we're making room for him.

When that plate comes around tonight, I hope Lake Hills... I hope the lake will flood in generosity, and the hills will unleash an avalanche of hope.

Now, the skeptic among you might say, but even so, it's such a small thing. We can't solve all the problems.

That's what you say.

But God finds a way.


And one more thing, and this is important, too. Really important.

There's a table here tonight. It's not your table. It's Christ's table. We're going to share a piece of bread and a drink from a cup.

It's Jesus' table, and you know what? Jesus says, "Everyone's invited." Every one. Everyone. It doesn't matter who you are, how high society or how low brow you are. It doesn't even matter if you're a saint, or if you're not sure why you're here in the first place. There's room for you. There's room for your faith. There's room for your doubt. There's room for your parts in-between. There's room.

Everyone's. Invited. Everyone.


Oh, and one more thing. (Never believe a preacher who says, "And one more thing." )

Have a very - merry - and blessed Christmas.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Journey: The Manger

2012-12-23 The Journey - The Manger
Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 2:8-20
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)
James McTyre (loosely based upon Adam Hamilton's The Journey)

Micah 5:2-5a
The Ruler from Bethlehem

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
 who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
 one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
 from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
 when she who is in labour has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
 to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
 in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
 to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace.

Luke 2:8-20
The Shepherds and the Angels
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.' And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
'Glory to God in the highest heaven,
 and on earth peace among those whom he favours!'
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, 'Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.' So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Today's the last message in a 4-part series called, "The Journey." It's loosely based on Adam Hamilton's very good book by the same name. If this is your first Sunday to hear anything from the series, sorry. Your "journey" is going to end almost as soon as it begins.

Which can be pretty nice. Today is Christmas Eve Eve. Some of you have made journeys to get here. You came from the East, or one of the other directions, to come back home for Christmas. (Good to see you. You know, you could call more often.) Or you may be getting ready to take a journey. This is your sweet hour of prayer before you leave.

People say, "The journey's more important than the destination." Not if you have small children. Not 48 hours before Christmas. Not when you're heading to the airport. You want the journey to be over, before it begins. You want out of the car. You want off the plane. You want to be at the destination.

Last week we talked about how Joseph and Mary made the 10-day walking-slash-luxury-model-donkey journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem when she was 9 months pregnant. I hope no one told her, "The journey's more important than the destination." Because even a Blessed Virgin has a breaking point. Safe to say, no one wanted the journey to be over before it began more than Mary.

Those people who say, "The journey's more important than the destination." (?) You know why they say that? They booked their reservations online.

"I'm sorry, honey. It looked so much better on the website."


So Mary takes a journey she couldn't have wanted to a destination no one would choose. She gives birth, and watches as the midwife lays the child in... the feeding trough. That's what a manger is. A feeding trough. This child angels told her about. This child Joseph dreamed about. This child Israel has prayed about. Gets to spend his first night, in a feeding trough? You know what they put in those things? You know who eats out of those? The child born of the Holy Spirit, the Son of God, the Lord of Lords - his first destination is, the feeding trough? Seriously?

A very dear friend, who has a few years on me gave me this gem of wisdom. "Life," he says, "Life is a series of adjustments." That is so true. You have to adjust. You have to improvise. That's real life. Because in real life, the journey, even the journey of your dreams, so often leads you to a destination that's never quite like the one in the brochures.

Mary and Joseph got sent on a journey by God. By GOD.

And not only did they have no room at the inn, they had no respectable place to lay their newborn son. God gives them this miracle, but then leaves them to improvise where they're going to lay his sweet head.

And so it begins. Jesus Christ, Messiah, God Emmanuel's first destination: the manger.


Friends of ours collect Nativity sets. One of their favorites has seen the years. There are only two Wise Men. Because one of them - got lost. Somewhere Wise Man #3's still on the journey. Unless he was eaten by the Basset Hound.

You can have a Nativity without all the pieces. But you've gotta have a Baby Jesus. Otherwise, it's just a farm scene. And you've gotta have a manger. All Nativity sets have a manger. A little wooden manger with the legs crossed in "X"s at each end.

But that's probably not right. When he was writing his book, Hamilton consulted some manger experts. Mangers in Bethlehem weren't hand-crafted wood, like we see them. Why not? Because farm animals have hideous table manners. A quaint little wooden manger? The first supper would be its last supper. A flimsy wooden manger's going to get knocked over, smashed up, and gnawed on. Eaten, if you have goats.

We talked a couple of weeks ago how most of the homes in Nazareth were carved out of limestone caves. Mangers, like many homes, were carved out of large pieces of stone. A stone manger stays put. A stone manger can't be pushed around. It may not have been stylish, but Baby Jesus was probably in the most rock-solid safe place in the house.

Stone is strong. Stone protects. The Israelites called God the "rock" of their salvation. "Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee." Rocks are safety. Israelites used rocks to mark their places of worship, to set boundaries, to preserve their wells of life-giving water. Rocks don't need operating instructions. Rocks are simple. Rocks are practical.

Like the manger.


Animals seem to understand when people need extra care. We have dogs. And while our dogs can be slightly demanding - especially Bear, the Yorkie - who knows the universe revolves around him - animals have a special sense for when people are vulnerable and need care. Even cats. Anyone who's ever sat on a couch with a cat on one side and a box of Kleenex on the other knows even cats sense when somebody needs a hug.

Mark Twain said, "The more I know about people, the more I like my dog." It's kind of interesting, then, that the first bed of God in human form is the manger. It's also deeply and poetically symbolic that Jesus is placed where even the lowliest creatures of God can be fed.

Throughout the Bible, God calls humanity to feed their hearts and souls, and Jesus becomes the final, spiritual nourishment.

In Deuteronomy 8:3, Moses tells the people, "One does not live by bread alone."

In Isaiah 55:2, the prophet asks, "Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?"

In John 6:36, Jesus says, 'I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.'

And then, at the Last Supper, in Luke 22:19, Jesus breaks bread and says to his disciples, "This is my body, broken for you. Do this, in remembrance of me."

Jesus is spiritual food for even the lowliest, most beat-up souls. God cares for all creatures. Even people. Not only did the animals come to the manger, so did the lowliest, most beat-up, smelliest souls: Shepherds.


Nativity sets always have kings, magi, or wise men - whatever your translation calls them. But according to the Bible, that's not quite right. The PhD's didn't get there until way after Christmas. Now, we have PhD's here today, so, no comment.

The first visitors who saw the Baby Jesus weren't wise men; they were shepherds. In Luke 2:12, the angel announces to the shepherds, "This will be a sign unto you: you shall find the child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger."

The shepherds thought, "Really? A manger? This is our kind of king."

But that shouldn't be too surprising. If you look way back in the Old Testament, when God was looking for a king, God chose the shepherd boy, David. David the littlest in his family, who tended sheep and sang with his harp.

When Jesus grows up, he never calls himself a king, never calls himself wise. Jesus describes himself as "the good shepherd," who lays down his life for the sheep.

The Bible is filled with shepherds. It's obviously very important. But I was still curious to see if you could be both a wise man and a shepherd. So, I Googled shepherd and PhD. First place to pop up? Shepherd University, in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. I'm thinking, yes! Their football team? The Rams. Paydirt!

According to their website, quote, "The University offers... degrees in a wide range of fields, encompassing the liberal arts, business administration, teacher education, the social and natural sciences, and other career-oriented areas."

But if you search Shepherd University in Shepherdstown's catalog? Not one single class in shepherding. I think that's false advertising.

Next, I found the Shepherd School of Music. I'm thinking, this sounds like where King David would have gone. It's part of Rice University. Shepherds, music, rice. They even have an Associate Professor of Harp. But noooo, says their rather rude receptionist. The Shepherd School has no classes in shepherding.

Apparently, you can't get a fancy shepherd diploma, even if you want one. You don't need to be a wise man. Shepherds will let anybody in. You can be the lowliest, lowest of society's low. You can be an outcast. Just one step above the animals. These were the people ranked #1 among those who got to see and worship Baby Jesus. Apparently, if you want to worship Jesus, the line forms right behind where it usually ends.

The journey's ending and its beginning get swapped.

In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus speaks for angels as he speaks to each one of us.

28 "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

Take a deep breath.
Look into your heart.
If you feel a bit sheepish, good news!
You're journey's about to start.


Jesus is simple, spiritual food for people who are simply spiritual. If you want a peek inside the manger, you don't have to be wise. You don't have to be big and strong. You don't have to follow all Ten Commandments every day of the week. Nobody does, so stop pretending like you are and like you do. Stop pretending to be more cool and together than you are. Stop looking down on people who aren't close to your status. Because you know what? They're already long strides ahead of you.

If you want a peek inside the manger, you've gotta be a shepherd. If you want a peek inside the manger, put down your defenses and confess what you really are.
And what are you? You're hungry. You're thirsty. You're hungering and thirsting for righteousness. You're searching for the living water. You're hunting for the bread of life that fills you up and takes the emptiness away.

If you want a peek inside the manger, confess that you're broken. We all are. We're all broken. That's why God came to earth - to heal us, to care for us, to feed our souls through the vulnerable, innocent little child, away in a manger, asleep on the hay. Not some brilliant, wise king. An infant holy, an infant lowly.

If you really, really, really want to start a journey with Jesus, you have to end the journeys that are getting you nowhere. Break the infinite loop of bingeing on that which does not satisfy. Make the frantic, empty searching end before it begins.

Peek inside that manger. Start your journey there.

"Be near me, Lord Jesus
I ask thee to stay,
Close by me forever,
and love me, I pray."

Wherever I go, wherever we go, Lord Jesus, be our journeys' end, before we begin.