The Motel Marion on Main Street sits abandoned and derelict. The doors to the rooms are wide open, and there is nothing inside. As I understand things, it is slated to be demolished. Most people in Marion probably consider that to be a good thing. A run down and ugly property, it was an eye sore.
Of course, the Motel Marion wasn’t a motel where people stayed overnight as they were traveling. Even though it was a motel setting, it was place where people actually lived. When it was announced at the beginning of September that the motel would be closed at the end of the month and all residents would have to leave, there were almost sixty family groups living there.
During my time as pastor at Good Shepherd I had interaction with people living at the Motel Marion on a number of occasions. The reality was that the people staying there were living a life that was a step up from homelessness. By some means they had enough money to pay the monthly rent. They had a roof over their ahead and a place to stay – and that was far better than the alternative. But this run down old motel was not a place where most people would choose to live. Circumstances of life – sometimes related to their own choices and behaviors – had made it the best they could do.
The people who lived at the Motel Marion were not the people who mattered to society. They weren’t going to receive any special attention. They lived near the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, and all through history, those kinds of people have passed by largely unnoticed.
I mention this because most of tonight’s Gospel lesson for the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord deals with shepherds, and they held a very similar place in the ancient world. We learn in the first seven verses of our text that Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem because of a registration ordered by Caesar Augustus. In most parts of the Roman empire a registration related to taxation took place where a person lived. But the Romans were sometimes willing to adopt long established local practices, and that is what we find here. The Jews thought in terms of tribe and place of family origin, so Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David.
As we know from Luke chapter one, Mary was a pregnant virgin. Just as the angel Gabriel had announced to her, the Holy Spirit conceived a baby in her womb. She was near the end of her pregnancy when they made the ninety mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Bethlehem was filled with people who had come for the registration. Nothing about the circumstances was ideal. Then, in incredibly understated terms, Luke tells us: “And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
After narrating this, Luke tells us, “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” Were it not for what he goes on to tell us, the ancient reader’s reaction would have been: “So what?” This is what shepherds did. This was not camping for recreation. These were men who took care of sheep and lived with sheep. They were living out in the field at night because that is where the sheep were. Like those who were at the Motel Marion, the shepherds were not people who mattered in the ancient world. They had no importance. They passed through life, unnoticed.
Yet in spite of this we then learn: “And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.” God sent an angel to these nobodies, as suddenly the glory of the Lord – the perceptible presence of God – shone around them.
The Greek text makes it quite clear that they were terrified. However, the angel had not come to frighten them. Instead he said, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
The angel told them not to be afraid. Instead of fear, he had come to bring good news that would bring great joy for all people. And the new was this: That day a Savior had been born for them in the city of David – a Savior who was Christ the Lord.
The angel announced that God had sent a Savior. This Savior was the Christ – the Messiah descended from David. This was the child mentioned in our Old Testament lesson about whom Isaiah said: “Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.”
But there was more – much more. The angel also said that this One born in Bethlehem was the Lord, and that was word used to refer to Yahweh in the Old Testament. This was the same mysterious language that Isaiah uses when he says in our Old Testament lesson: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
And as if that wasn’t enough, suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” This angelic multitude gave glory to God in the highest heavens. But they also announced that on earth there was peace for those toward whom God showed his favor.
God sends his Son into the world. His Spirit causes a child to be conceived in the virgin Mary who is true God and true man at the same time. Taken by Joseph as his own, the baby born in Bethlehem is descended from King David and is the Messiah. As the Son of God, the baby is the Lord – he is Yahweh himself. God sends this baby to be the Savior who brings peace. And the first people he tells – the only people he tells that night – are shepherds.
God does this because Jesus the Savior was born to save the lowly. And I don’t just mean those who appear lowly to the world. Jesus was born to save the lowly because that word describes all of us due to our sin. The evaluations of the world mean nothing. All that matters is how God sees us. Left to ourselves what he sees are sinners who never stop sinning. In pride, we look down on others. In anger, we speak to others. In lust, we look upon others.
The word that was spoken to the shepherds continues to address us: A Savior has been born for you in the city of David. The angel provided the shepherd with a very odd sign of how they would recognize this Savior. They would find him lying in a manger – a feeding trough for animals. This is not where you expect to find a Savior who is the Messiah – who is the Lord.
But the sign of the manger reveals that this Savior Jesus had come to save us in a very humble and unexpected way. The apostle Paul told the Philippians about Jesus, that “being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Jesus was born so that he could grow up and die on the cross as the sacrifice for our sin.
But a Savior who died and stayed dead, could never be the One to save us from death. And so on third day, God raised Jesus from the dead. Just as angels were there to announce his birth, so they were present to announce the new life of the resurrection. They said to the women who came to the tomb on the morning of Easter, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.”
The angels announced the word of God to the shepherds. We learn in out text, “When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’” The good news set them into action.
They went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. They went to the place where God had promised that the Savior was present for them.
Our reaction to the good news of the Savior is no different. We go to the place where God has promised that the Savior is present for us, for God has identified it just as clearly. This no longer means going to a city and looking for a baby in a manger. Instead, it means going to God’s Means of Grace where Christ is present for us. In his Word, in Holy Baptism and in Holy Absolution we encounter Jesus Christ who gives us forgiveness.
And tonight, we come to this altar, because the incarnate Son of God whose birth we celebrate continues to be present here for us. Judged by appearances, the humility of a new born baby lying in a feeding trough surely did not appear to be the Savior, Christ the Lord. So also bread and wine at the altar does not appear to be anything impressive. But just as the shepherds believed God’s word delivered by the angel, so also we continue to trust the words of the risen Lord. For he has promised that here he is present in his true body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. And as the One who is true God and true man, he works this miracle in our midst.
We learn that when the shepherds had seen Jesus, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.
And then they returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. Like the shepherds, the good news of Christmas that we hear tonight prompts two responses. First, it is good news that needs to be shared. The Son of God entered into our world to be the Savior as he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He came to die and rise on the third day to give forgiveness and eternal life to all who believe in him. As the angels said, this is good news of great joy that is for all people. And so all people need to hear about, beginning with he people you know.
And we too leave tonight glorifying and praising God for all that we have heard and seen. The Son of God entered into our world to save us. God the Father sent him to be the Savior. We glorify God in the highest, and praise him for the peace he has given to us through his Son.