Where the Simple Meets the Complex

Luke 2:1-7

1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.

4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

Dear Friends in Christ,

A couple of years ago when my granddaughter Maliyah was in the 7th grade, through her homework I was introduced to a new way of doing math called the Common Core Curriculum.  Now I remember back when I was in grade school a new way of doing math was introduced and I remember my mom struggling to help me with it because it was different from the way she had learned to do it.  But at least that type of new math made sense and it didn’t take very long to catch on to it.  This whole Common Core Math, however, is a different story.  Do any of you parents know what I’m talking about?  If you don’t, just google it sometime on the Internet and you will see with your very own eyes the absolutely insane roundabout way they use to arrive at an answer to a simple math problem.

Here’s a letter I found on the Internet that expresses one parent’s frustration of having to do math the Common Core way…Common Core Math is an example of what I’ve stated in my sermon title this evening where the simple meets the complex.  And the whole Christmas event that we celebrate tonight and tomorrow is no different.  Let me explain.

To begin with, the simple meets the complex because that’s God in that manger.  That’s the Creator and Ruler of the universe humbling himself on our behalf.  The scene on that 1stChristmas night could not have been more simple.  It begins with a couple.  Not a king and a queen, not a prince and a princess, but a simple peasant couple from a simple nondescript town called Nazareth about which it was commonly said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  And this simple humble couple arrives in a simple small village called Bethlehem to register for the census that the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus had ordered.  There’s a problem though.  The young lady whose name is Mary is pregnant – not in her 1st trimester or even her 2nd, but she is teetering on the end of her 3rd trimester.  And sure enough, the unthinkable happens.  She goes into labor.  “Now what am I to do?” her husband Joseph begins to wonder.  Joseph was a carpenter, not an obstetrician.  He was accustomed to cutting wood, not umbilical cords.  So he begins knocking on doors – doors of inns, perhaps doors of homes – but every door that opens has the same response: “Sorry, but there’s no room here.”  Finally one compassionate innkeeper recognizes their dire straits and suggests they spend the night out in the barn.  With no other options available, that’s what they do.  And there, amid the smell of straw and manure, the baby is born.  So simple, yet so complex.  For again, that’s God in that manger, that feed box.  The almighty, eternal, infinite God who is present everywhere in the universe and who has all power in heaven and on earth at his disposal has somehow squeezed his limitless form into the body of a tiny helpless infant.

It’s amazing, isn’t it? But it’s also somewhat amusing, especially when we consider how we puny, measly human beings love to puff ourselves up with pride and make ourselves appear bigger and greater than we are. But God, who is the source of everything in this universe and who fills the universe, did the opposite.  He humbled himself.  And he did that out of a love for you and me that knows no limits or bounds.  In the Babe of Bethlehem, then, the complex becomes simple.  The King of kings becomes a lowly servant.

I came across a story recently about Charles Seymour, the sixth Duke of Somerset in England. Seymour lived at the turn of the 18th century. He was such a snob that he refused to even converse with his servants. He communicated with them only by sign language. He also had a number of houses built along the route that led from his country estate to London so that whenever he traveled he would not have to mingle with the lower classes in public inns.

Contrast Charles Seymour’s approach to life with that of God’s. See God not just in the manger of Bethlehem but also in the person of the adult Jesus, ministering to the downtrodden and the most miserable of sinners. See him reach out to little children, to the blind, the deaf, the physically challenged. See him touch the untouchable lepers of his day.  Human beings can be snobs, but not God. God’s love would not allow him to stand off at a distance from us. So he came into our world and humbled himself, all so that he could do for us what we could have never done for ourselves, and that was to rescue us from the damning and eternal consequences of our sins.

But there’s more we can glean from this simple yet complex story.  For in it we see a simple couple having to work through some very complex problems.  Theirs started out as a fairy tale romance.  They fell in love.  They got engaged.  And all was looking bright and rosy as far as their future was concerned.  But then things got very complex as Mary found out that though she was a virgin she had been chosen by God to be the human vehicle through which he would deliver his Son to the world. And when news of her pregnancy reached the ears of Joseph, he was devastated.  He was heartbroken because he knew the baby she was carrying was not his.  Little did he know that the baby was actually God’s.  And when an angel made that very clear to him in a dream and that he was to serve as the earthly father for God’s Son, Joseph willingly accepted that responsibility and they became a family.

So from the very beginning Christmas has been a family celebration. Did you know that the most popular American song ever written was Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”?  It’s a simple tune that most of you know by heart.  Berlin wrote the song in 1941 while WW 2 was going on, and in many ways it became the theme song for American soldiers who found themselves on foreign soil, separated from their families at Christmas time.

One Lutheran minister by the name of John Vannorsdall remembers as a young Navy seaman riding a long train through a long night from Boston to Cleveland in a packed passenger car thick with cigarette haze and the grit and smoke and soot that came from the coal-fired engine. They were all, he said, going “home for Christmas”–maybe the most beautiful words imaginable to a soldier back then – “home for Christmas . . .” He says, “We were bound together by an overwhelming hunger” for home.  Indeed, the heart does yearn for home at Christmas and memories of Christmases past in homes that we have lived in come flooding back to us.

So in the Christmas event we have the complex God in a simple manger and a young simple couple devoted to one another in spite of some very complex circumstances. Then lastly, we have the lowly shepherds. What would Christmas be without the shepherds? Probably thousands of men’s bathrobes over the centuries have been used to dramatize the presence of these unusual and unexpected guests on that first Christmas night.

The shepherds represent the least and the lowest in society. They occupied one of the lowest, if not the lowest, rung on the Jewish social ladder. Yet God honored them by allowing them to be the first human beings besides Mary and Joseph to behold the newborn Savior.  And that’s important for us to note because it reminds us of our responsibilities to the least and lowest in our own society.

Some of you may have seen the story that has circulated on the Internet about a family who went to a restaurant one evening and encountered a very awkward situation. It’s such a beautiful and touching story that ties in so well with our final point this evening that I’d like to read it to you.  It’s written by a mother.  She says:

We were the only family with children in the restaurant. I sat my toddler son Erik in a high chair and noticed everyone was quietly eating and talking.  Suddenly Erik squealed with glee and said, “Hi there.” He pounded his fat baby hands on the highchair tray. His eyes were wide with excitement and his mouth was bared in a toothless grin. He wriggled and giggled with merriment. I looked around and saw the source of his merriment. It was a man with a tattered rag of a coat: dirty, greasy and worn. His pants were baggy with a zipper at half-mast and his toes poked out of would-be shoes. His shirt was dirty and his hair was uncombed and unwashed. His whiskers were too short to be called a beard and his nose was so varicose it looked like a road map.  We were too far from him to smell, but I was sure he smelled. His hands waved and flapped on loose wrists. “Hi there, baby; hi there, big boy. I see ya, buster,” the man said to Erik. My husband and I exchanged looks, “What do we do?” Erik continued to laugh and answer, “Hi, hi there.”  Everyone in the restaurant noticed and looked at us and then at the man. The old geezer was creating a nuisance with my beautiful baby. Our meal came and the man began shouting from across the room, “Do ya know patty cake? Do ya know peek-a-boo? Hey, look, he knows peek-a-boo.” Nobody thought the old man was cute. He was obviously drunk. My husband and I were embarrassed.

   We ate in silence; all except for Erik, who was running through his repertoire for the admiring skid-row bum, who in turn, reciprocated with his supposedly cute comments. We finally got through the meal and headed for the door. My husband went to pay the check and told me to meet him in the parking lot. The old man sat poised between me and the door. “Lord, just let me out of here before he speaks to me or Erik,” I prayed. As I drew closer to the man, I turned my back trying to shield Erik, but Erik leaned over my arm, reaching with both arms in a baby’s “pick-me-up” position.  Before I could stop him, Erik had propelled himself from my arms to the man’s. Suddenly a very old smelly man and a very young baby met in a beautiful relationship. Erik, in an act of total trust, love, and submission laid his tiny head upon the man’s ragged shoulder. The man’s eyes closed, and I saw tears hover beneath his lashes. His aged hands full of grime, pain, and hard labor–gently, so gently, cradled my baby’s bottom and stroked his back. No two beings have ever loved so deeply for so short a time. I stood awestruck.

   The old man rocked and cradled Erik in his arms for a moment, and then his eyes opened and set squarely on mine. He said in a firm commanding voice, “You take care of this baby.” Somehow I managed, “I will,” from a throat that contained a stone. He pried Erik from his chest – unwillingly, longingly, as though he were in pain. I received my baby, and the man said, “God bless you, ma’am, you’ve given me my Christmas gift.” I said nothing more than a muttered thanks. With Erik in my arms, I ran for the car.

   My husband was wondering why I was crying and holding Erik so tightly, and why I was saying, “God, oh God, please forgive me.” I had just witnessed complete and unconditional love shown through the innocence of a tiny child who saw no sin, who made no judgment; a child who saw a soul, and a mother who saw a cast-off of society who wasn’t worthy of her son’s touch.  I was a Christian who was blind, holding a child who was not. I felt as if God himself had asked me — “Are you willing to share your son for a moment?”– when He shared His for all eternity. The ragged old man, unwittingly, unknowingly had reminded me, “To enter the Kingdom of Heaven, we must become as little children.”

So, the simple meeting the complex.  God in a manger; a young couple devoted to one another in spite of some very complex circumstances, and lastly, a motley group of lowly shepherds. All of which remind us that in the shallowness and materialism and glitter that the secular world has attached to Christmas, the things that really matter most in life are God, family, and our responsibility for others.

Amen