Category Archives: Christmas

Angels Round About the Manger

(A Meditation for Christmas Eve 2017, based on Luke 2:1-20)

The late Ann Weems, that wonderful Presbyterian poet and worship leader once wrote this little piece that has kept coming to my mind in this Advent and Christmas season:

“Wouldn’t it be grand to be an angel,” she wrote, “and have as your address ‘The Realms of the Glory of God’?  And swing on rainbows, and gather stars in your pockets, winging in and out of earth in a flurry of moondust with the messages of God?  Comforting the distressed, warning the righteous, delivering the just, [and] guarding little children?”

Now there you go!  Now isn’t that the perfect image of a Christmas angel?  Granted, it is a bit childlike in its description; but I don’t know about you, but I’m realizing that so much of how I think about the story of the first Christmas and those who were a part of it comes down to how I envisioned it when I was child!  For instance, I remember when I was very little having a picture book (it might well have been the “Little Golden Book” edition of The Littlest Angel, I’m not sure, because one of the angels in the story had a slingshot sticking out of his robe, which even then I thought was very impressive!); and I remember this one drawing in the book of all the angels in heaven gathering together to sing their alleluias to the newborn king.  And here they were, all the cherubim and seraphim singing and dancing, and holding; jumping and leaping from cloud to cloud and over one another leap frog style!  Basically what it was was the multitude of the heavenly host transformed into an elementary school playground!  Just a childhood fantasy, I know, but the thing is that image has always stuck with me even as an adult.  And by the way, why wouldn’t that wonderful moment of annunciation be filled with such ethereal joy and singing, and might I add, such a whole lot of fun as well?

That’s how I wanted to see it, anyway!

However… when you read the story from scripture,  what’s the first thing the angels say?  It’s “Do not be afraid!”   And understand, they say this not just on the hillside with the shepherds, but also in the moment when the angel comes to tell Mary that God had chosen her to bear the Christ child, and also when the angel appears to Joseph in a dream to tell him that this child of Mary’s was of the Holy Spirit; it’s always the same thing:  “Do not be afraid,” as though the angels’ presence had not inspired joy and celebration as much as fear and dread!

And that’s an interesting thing to think about!  For instance, it’s hard to imagine how these shepherds, who by virtue of their profession and their very nature had to have been quite tough and rough around the edges, could have been afraid of anything; and yet we’re told specifically that they were “terrified,” or in the language of the old King James translation, “sore afraid.” Perhaps the angels’ presence was so mysterious and overpowering that they might well have fled or panicked; maybe the bright radiance that suddenly cut through the night was such that for a time they were both blinded and bewildered by what was happening; or perhaps they sensed that this was a sign of some judgment, and like criminals who fear getting caught in the act, they suddenly felt the need to hide from sight!  Whatever the reason, there was fear in their hearts; for what was immediately clear, to the shepherds, as it had been to Mary and Joseph before them, was that this was no less than an appearance from a messenger of God!

So the first words of the angel needed to be one of assurance, to keep them from running away, something to help them to open their ears and their hearts to what God wanted to tell them; this amazing good news of a great joy which was for all the people, “born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord;” a baby, of all things, wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in the manger!   And then, as if to emphasize the the greatness of this news, there was a multitude of angels singing their praises to God, saying “Glory to God in the highest!” And as that was happening, something even more incredible than the angels’ singing began to take place: the shepherds’ fear was gone, and in its place there was wonder, and joy, and the power of God’s intervening love for his people!

And when it was all over and the angels had returned to heaven, remember that the shepherds did not take the time to think about how scared they had been, nor to reflect on what had happened to them.  No… the shepherds went, and with haste, “to see this thing which [had] happened,” that the Lord had made known to them.  Fear was gone, replaced by need to see the child and tell the good news to everyone, everywhere!

The truth is, of course, that like the shepherds, you and I are scared too.   If we’re honest, then we know that fear is all-too-much a part of our daily lives; fear over a great many things in life and death: the kind of fear that holds us back, the fear that keeps us from giving of ourselves, the fear that keeps us from loving others and offering forgiveness.  Indeed, fear paralyzes us, imprisons us and often haunts us.  But here’s the good news; just as the angels appeared to shepherds on that holy night, we too are given that truly blessed assurance that we do not have to fear.  For you see, that loving, forgiving and redeeming presence of God is always with us in the person of Jesus Christ born in the manger of Bethlehem!  He’s there with us and for us, waiting to erase our guilt, to replace our shame with joy, and to warm our hearts so that we might truly love our neighbors as ourselves and to do our own part bring peace on earth.  The glory of God that is Christmas is  always that God comes, and intervenes, and in the face of fear truly gives us tidings of comfort and joy!

Yes, beloved, the angels who were round about the manger on that holy night long ago are still with us today, telling us the good news of God’s love and urging us on this night to faith; faith in a God who loves us and walks with us in whatever we face in life, giving us the assurance of his peace that the world can neither give nor take away.

So watch the skies tonight, dear friends; keep your eyes cast toward the stars, and listen for the songs of heaven playing even now in your heart.  Have no fear; do not be afraid, for on this holy night divine, Christ is born in Bethlehem and good news is ours!

Thanks be to God for that perfect love that casts out fear . . .

And may God bless you on this Christmas night.


c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry


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Round About the Manger: The Ones Who Said Yes

(a sermon for December 24, 2017, the 4th Sunday of Advent; third in a series, based on  Luke 1:26-38 and Matthew 1:18-25)

In almost every nativity scene you’ll ever see they always look, well… perfect: Mary, all calm and bright, with nary a hair out of place and Joseph, looking properly prayerful and stalwart; dutifully, if quietly, about the business of being an earthly father. And then, of course, there’s the baby, all clean and white and bathed in the glow of a warm light that fairly well seems to shine from his bed of hay in the manger; all this as angels in bright raiment hover overhead, while shepherds and wise men come to call with farm animals quietly milling about.

Now tell the truth; isn’t that the image that always comes to mind when we’re telling this story? It’s a beautiful scene of utter simplicity and serenity; a uniquely holy birth amidst what can only be described as joy expressed in deep and resounding quiet, with a peace – heavenly peace – that could not possibly be contained within the stable, but simply had to overflow out into the dark, shining streets of Bethlehem and outward to all of the world.

At least that’s how I like to think of it!

Actually, I’ve always loved how Barbara Robinson, in her marvelous children’s story of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, describes a Mary who is “just right” in our imagination: she’s “all pink and white and pure-looking, as if she never washed the dishes or cooked supper or did anything else except have Jesus on Christmas Eve.”  Any and all gender stereotypes aside (!), that does kind of express how we’ve come to view what happens “round about the manger,” as we gaze intently at this truly “Holy Family” – Mary and Joseph and their precious newborn – kneeling in the wonder, the splendor and the hay!

Of course, anyone who’s ever been involved in or present at the process of giving birth knows that most times it’s not like that at all!  Now, there’s no doubt that having a child is a beautiful and natural thing; but often it’s also a painful and exhausting thing; and hard work, most especially for the mother, but also in very real ways for the father and everybody else involved in the delivery (as the saying goes, they don’t call it labor for nothing!).  What’s more, childbirth is an experience that cannot help but create change in the persons involved in a variety of ways: physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. And the thing is that even though there are weeks and months of anticipation and preparation that lead up to the event, inevitably there comes this moment when the actual arrival of the child creates this new and utterly bewildering reality of life!   I remember this well with all three of our kids, but especially on the night that Jake, our firstborn, came into the world.  I’m holding him in my arms, I’m so full of joy and love and I’m feeling all this wonder in my heart; but all the while there’s this fleeting voice in the back of my head that’s asking, “OK, big shot, now what do you do?”

So can you imagine, then, what it must have been like for Mary and Joseph?  This sweet, romantic, bucolic image we have of them to the contrary, the truth is that here were two people who had a great deal working against them: to begin with, they were young (so very young; Mary was no more than 14 or 15 years old and Joseph only a year or two older than that); they were dirt poor and under the thumb of an oppressive Roman government; and not only that, they were engaged but unmarried and expecting, and thus facing the scandal that such a thing would create.  And add to all this that now, thanks to a government edict of taxation, they were both far from their home and trying in vain to find a place to stay in Bethlehem where Mary could have the baby in safety and perhaps some comfort, only to end up having it all happen in the squalor of a stable surrounded by farm animals.

Doesn’t sound quite so sweet or romantic when you think of it that way, does it?

But this was, in fact, the scene of his birth, the “little Lord Jesus” of whom we sing: a tiny, helpless child who was the very light of the universe all wrapped in human skin; ever surrounded by two altogether ordinary people (actually, from the world’s point of view, maybe less  than ordinary people!), two people in whom and through whom God was doing something extraordinary, even as they themselves must have wondered why they were there in the first place!

Max Lucado addresses this beautifully in his book In the Grip of Grace: “He whom angels worship nestled himself in the placenta of a peasant, was birthed into the cold night, and then slept on cow’s hay,” Lucado writes.  “Mary didn’t know whether to give him milk or give him praise, but she gave him both since he was, as near as she could figure, hungry and holy.  Joseph didn’t know whether to call him Junior or Father.  But in the end he called him Jesus, since that’s what the angel had said and since he didn’t have the faintest idea what to name a God he could cradle in his arms.”

“Don’t you think,” Lucado goes on to ask, “[that] their heads tilted and their minds wondered, ‘what in the world are you doing, God?’ Or better phrased, ‘God, what are you doing in the world?’”

Think of it, friends, as that same utterly bewildering reality of life that hits at every new parent sooner or later; but this time it’s hitting on a divine scale… which, when you think about it, pretty much what Christmas is!

For you see, within and beyond the beautiful and peaceful scene depicted at the crèche is this incredible story of God doing something that thoroughly confounds our human sensibilities; which was for the divine to come to us, and to be born and live among us just as any child would do… with everything that entails!    How incredibly wonderful and strange all at the same time that God would become a real, living and breathing, laughing and crying person; knowing every one of the joys we experience in life, but also willing to take on the hurt and the pain as well. What an amazing and yet bewildering thought that the almighty would even deem it suitable to step into the harsh realities of our lives and living, but in fact does it again and again, today, tomorrow and all through our lives, so to understand who we are and how it is that we feel!

But such is this divine love that comes to earth in the midst of a Bethlehem’s manger.  Incredible, isn’t it?  Incredible that out of the harsh reality of his birth a new reality in the world was created; incredible that this was the family that God chose to bring forth this child of love into the world and then to raise him up to be the man he would become; incredible that this one who was called “son of God and son of man” saving the world from its sin would be brought into the world by two young, impoverished and ultimately powerless people who literally had nothing else to give except to simply say, “Yes.”

But the good news is that that was more than enough.  Mary and Joseph said yes… yes to God!

Every year as I return to this nativity story, I’m newly amazed that even though at the very beginning she was no doubt confused and scared at what the angel is saying to her, and that she even dares to ask this heavenly visitor, “How can this be,” still Mary identifies herself as “the servant of the Lord,” saying “let it be with me according to your word!”  And not only that, what’s just about the next thing she does? She sings!  “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!”  Mary sings with joy to overflowing for the blessings in her life and in her womb and in her world by the grace of God almighty!

And then there’s Joseph, who legally and socially had every right to turn away from Mary in this unexpected and life-changing situation, but who was not only, as scripture tells us, “a righteous man,” but also loving and compassionate, a “man of incredible faith” who paid attention to dreams and angels and did what needed to be done for the sake of Mary, the child and ultimately, the world.

We might well wonder as we look upon the nativity scene why it was that God chose this family to bring his only son into the world; what the criteria must have been for becoming the most significant foster parents in human history… well it seems to me that with Mary and Joseph, first and foremost it was that they said yes!

That’s important for us to know; especially now as on this Christmas Eve Day we draw ever close to the manger and the miracle of the holy birth; for you see, it turns out some of the most important lessons of this season come from those who were the first to say “yes” to that birth in the first place.

Friends, above and beyond everything else we bring to this time of the year, the whole point of Christmas is that God comes.   “To you is born this day… a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”   That’s the promise of Christmas, a gift of God’s power and love that’s in fact every gift we will ever need to fulfill every longing we may ever have.  It’s the gift of forgiveness, and healing, and restoration and eternal life all wrapped up in the person of Jesus Christ.  As Jack Hayford has put it, “It will take a lifetime to unwrap the essentials [of this gift] for our present, and an eternity to unfold the glories for our future.”   But it starts now… by first saying an emphatic yes to the gift itself, letting our hearts embrace the Christ Child for today and letting him grow with us into the year ahead; accepting God’s presence in Jesus be the solid reality of our lives, and that place where all our hopes for tomorrow are placed and secured!

Think for a moment of the Christmas gift that goes unopened.  Think of the disappointment and sadness the refusal of that gift creates in the giver, and how much less the recipients are for not having had experienced the joy and the wonder that comes with the gift.  But think also of how much deeper the relationship between the giver and those who receive becomes when that gift is received with a whole heart and with great joy and thanksgiving; indeed, in the giving and the receiving there’s a relationship that cannot help but grow and deepen, and life – and the world – changes because of it!

Well, such is the gift of Christmas that’s now offered to us in Emmanuel, God With Us.   When that gift is not received by an open heart, then Christmas remains just another holiday, another opportunity for revelry and gift-giving that’s comes and goes with the 25th of December.  But… when we say “yes” to God’s gift to us of a Savior and Christ is born again in our hearts, then Christmas – true Christmas – becomes the centerpiece of each new day; a way of life and living that is forged in an ever deepening relationship with the Lord girded in love, and joy, and peace, and unending hope.

I hope and pray on this day before Christmas that in the same way that those two who first knelt before the manger bed, you also will say yes to God’s gift.  It’s still a gift, as much now as it was two millennia ago; and it’s still good news, as fresh and as real as the here and now in which we live.  For unto you is born this day is a Savior; one who comes to us so that he might lift the burden from off of our shoulders; one who comes to wipe the tears from our eyes; one who comes to assure us once and for all that we are not alone in this world, and that there is truly hope and joy unending.

And the beauty part?  All we have to do is say yes!!  So say it… Say yes!!   Let our souls this day magnify the Lord!  Let our spirits rejoice in God our Savior, for truly God has looked with favor upon us and has sent us a Savior!

Yes… Yes!   YES!

Merry Christmas, dear friends, Thanks be to God, and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on December 24, 2017 in Advent, Christmas, Jesus, Sermon, Sermon Series


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Round About the Manger: The Man Who Isn’t There

(a sermon for December 10, 2009, the 2nd Sunday of Advent; second in a series, based on  John 1:1-5, 10-14, Matthew 8:18-20 and Luke 2:1-7)

He’s arguably one of the pivotal characters of the Christmas story, and yet he isn’t there; not really.

I mean, he’s never mentioned at all in scripture; moreover, there isn’t this rich tradition of folklore that surrounds him (as in the case of the three wise men, for instance); and unlike the shepherds, the angels or even that mythical and ubiquitous little drummer boy, you’d be hard pressed to find many songs written and sung about him.  Even if he’s included in the nativity scene – which isn’t often – he’s usually relegated to a position way in the background, as to not distract our attention from those at the manger!

And yet, in every Christmas pageant we’ve ever seen there he is, playing his small but essential role; because somebody has to greet Mary and Joseph at the door and with arms crossed and head shaking back and forth tell this travel-weary couple that there‘s “no place for them in the inn.”  Yes, we’re talking about the innkeeper, the one whose part in the nativity story – or at least we assume it is (!) – is to shuttle the holy family off to an adjoining stable, the place where Mary gives birth to the Christ child amongst dirt and hay and farm animals.

Now, how this mysterious innkeeper is portrayed varies with the telling of the story.  Sometimes he’s seen as a caring and sympathetic provider of at least some small manner of shelter for this couple when absolutely nothing else was available; other times he’s viewed as this harried entrepreneur who can’t be bothered to do anything better for them than the barn out back!  But… either in fact or speculation, the fact is that this “innkeeper,” whoever he may be, comes and goes so quickly we don’t have much of a chance to even consider his motives.  So in practical and strictly biblical terms, I guess he truly is “the man who isn’t there;” and yet, I would submit to you that is one character in the nativity story who needs to be “round about the manger,” if only at a distance.  And not simply because an inn needs an innkeeper (!), either, but because of what this particular innkeeper represents: the choice he made on that holy night, as well as the choice that every heart must make as regards the Christ Child.

You see, there was room in the inn on that night in Bethlehem.  There had to have been; not only was hospitality so central to Jewish culture that there would almost always be an extra room or an additional bed for unexpected visitors or strangers in need, but for the innkeeper there was also a business point of view to consider.  As J. Barrie Shepherd notes in a beautiful little piece entitled The Innkeeper’s Defense, there was “always, within reason, one chamber… kept for that noble, but unexpected guest, that personage of means and influence, accustomed to the very best accommodation, who arrives without reservations and [who could] make or break your reputation as a host.”

Not that an inn of biblical times was a place of much privacy or comfort.  Historians tell us that these places were most likely very primitive in nature: a rectangular, flat-roofed building of many small rooms opening into an open courtyard with a common well and a fire burning where guests could cook their own food.  Some rooms might well have had a small stable attached for the beasts of burden that travelers brought with them; others were just big enough for a pallet on the floor.  And, no doubt, there were a few “nicer” rooms that even had meals provided… for a price, of course.

And granted, we all know that the little town of Bethlehem was a inordinately crowded place that night, what with all those who’d come there for the “registration” ordered by the Roman government.  And we also know, as “the time came for [Mary] to deliver her child,” that there would have been little or no time for discussion or possible alternatives; so perhaps what happened next with the stable was out of necessity.  Still, you wonder why the innkeeper couldn’t have possibly found something better for this young couple who were in so much need!   Surely there was another place somewhere on the premises where Mary could give birth amidst something less than squalor; at the very least couldn’t he have set them up in the corner of the courtyard where there’d be a warm fire burning nearby?  No, there was none of that; only the stable, which contrary to the familiar image we think of, might well have been a nearby cave, hollowed out of soft limestone by time, water, and wind, a small nook barely sufficient to keep animals out of the elements, much less a young woman in the midst of labor pains!

By just about any reckoning, it was about the worst place for a baby to be born; and this is where the innkeeper had sent them!  Honestly, you have to wonder if it wasn’t so much the inn that had no room as it was the innkeeper’s heart!

And you wonder why; could it have been that he couldn’t abide the possible liability or the scandal that came with such a sudden and mysterious birth?   Perhaps it was that he didn’t quite like the looks of these two travelers who, aside from being tired, dirty and expectant, were also obviously poor and from a place much rougher than Bethlehem; not exactly the kind of clientele that would attract a higher and wealthier class of guest!   Or maybe it was simply that he was too busy to get involved: too much else going on at the inn,  too much happening in Bethlehem, too much going on in his life to make a commitment or even notice that something wonderful was happening!

I know the scriptural account doesn’t bear this out, but surely there must have been this moment when the innkeeper went out into the night air to check on things; noticing, for the first time, the brightness of a star shining overhead; seeing that a group of shepherds, of all people, were crowded around the entrance of his stable to catch a glimpse of… a baby; all the while going on and on about a heavenly host of angels and good news of a Messiah!

What really happened in that moment, we don’t know. Maybe the innkeeper went down to see this thing for himself; or perhaps he dismissed the whole thing as another of the late night revelries that had been taking place all over Bethlehem, and went back to bed.  But either way, at some point – and maybe it was months or even years later – the innkeeper must have come to the realization that for the sake of his business and busyness, his rush to judgment or whatever reason, when he’d sent this refugee couple and their soon-to-be newborn off to the stable, he’d missed something and someone important; someone who was no less than the Savior of the world!

And you know what?  I could find a great deal of fault with that this morning; I could pass judgment on that innkeeper and portray him as one of the villains of this story (many preachers have, to be sure!); except for one thing.  As I stand here now, 2,000 years later, I realize that the innkeeper… is me.  And he’s you.  

I said before that the innkeeper in this story represents something very important; and it’s every one of us who has tended to put the Lord Jesus aside in our hearts and lives as though there’s no room for him there. As Jesus himself would say many years later to those who would blithely declare a sense of loyalty without any real conviction about it:  “’Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’”   The innkeeper of the Christmas story actually serves to remind us of a very hard truth: that it’s all too easy for us to put Jesus “away in the manger” of our thoughts and good intentions, in the process keeping him away and apart from the ways we really and truly live our lives.

It’s one thing, you see, for us to suggest that that we need to put Christ back in Christmas, and that’s true; but it’s quite another come to grips with the fact that in so many ways, there’s never been enough room for Christ there in the first place; or anywhere else, for that matter.  Jill Briscoe, a pastor and writer from Wisconsin, has written what is admittedly a disturbing piece of poetry that nonetheless strikes an all-too-familiar chord:

“Room in my inn for my business affairs,
Room in my inn for my worries and cares,
Room in my inn for the drink and the smoke,
Room for the act, for the off-color joke,
Room for my family, room for my wife,
Room for my plans, Lord, but no room for your life,
And room for depression, when the party’s all through,
Room for myself, Lord, but no room for you!”

How sad a thing it is, friends, that the this season comes and goes every year without some new kind of awareness of what Christmas really is; that we become so preoccupied that we fail to notice that far above and beyond the decorations and music and gifts and fun, beyond even what we do here at church is this miracle of spiritual birth, this utter reality that God is being born (!), and that in Jesus, God is seeking to make himself at home in our lives!   Think of it, beloved!  God Almighty, the King of the Universe, is taking his rightful place on the throne of our hearts, and does it in the guise of a tiny, crying helpless baby.   How could such love and power not change our lives?  How could anything be more urgent than this?  How could we possibly allow ourselves to miss it?

And yet, like the innkeeper of Bethlehem before us, so often we do just that.

John’s gospel, of course, does not include any version of the nativity story; in fact, John opens his account of Jesus’ life with an affirmation of Christ as “the true light, which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9) coming into the world.  So there’s no mention of shepherds and angels, mangers or innkeepers; but there is this: “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.”  It’s a reminder that that there have always been, and shall always be, those who will miss out on that light because they refuse to recognize God in the midst of it.  Beloved, we are beginning now the second week of Advent, our season of waiting and watching and preparing for the coming of light in Jesus, our Emmanuel.  How awful it would be if we choose to stand so distant to the manger that we end up missing the miracle that soon and very soon will happen there!  What a tragedy it would be for us not to make room in our hearts for his coming?

But the good news is that even now we’re being called to draw closer to the manger and to take notice of what is about to happen; and make no mistake, it’ll be wonderful.  But as Tim Roehl writes in his book Christmas Hearts, “oftentimes the Lord comes to us in ways we don’t expect.  The nudge we feel in our hearts is the whisper of His Spirit beckoning us to discover the miracle just beyond the mundane.  Too often our minds, frazzled by the rush of life, overrule the voice we hear speaking to our hearts” he goes on to say, “and God is moved to the back of our lives, out of the way again… but [even now] there’s someone knocking at the door of your heart.  [The question is] have you any room?”

Well, believe it or not, there’s only two weeks left to go before Christmas comes; and I suspect that for most of us, there’s still shopping to do, places to go and lots of things to do before we can feel in any way, shape or form ready!   It’s a busy time, to be sure; and hopefully a good time as well.  But I hope and pray that in the midst of all of it we don’t lose an ear for that voice that keeps asking us for a place to stay; and that we might answer in such a way that the Lord of love might truly be born in our in our hearts and lives, so to live there now and forever.

Let there be no regrets that we didn’t make room for his coming; but rather that we truly invited him in, to “Come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel!”

Thanks be to God who comes in Christ to live in our hearts!


c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on December 10, 2017 in Advent, Christmas, Jesus, Sermon, Sermon Series


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