Busy in Bethlehem
‘Twas the Night Before Christmas – Part 3
Luke 2:1-20

So we’re continuing in this series as we prepare our hearts and minds for Christmas.  I talked about this a little bit last week, but we are in a season of advent where we want to be intentional—not just to prepare our homes with decorations and Christmas lights and Christmas trees, but we want to prepare our hearts.  We don’t want to miss what really matters this Christmas.

I don’t know if you’ve ever missed something that really mattered, but I want you to try to identify that in your mind.  It doesn’t have to be overly significant, but it mattered to you.  So maybe you missed a ballgame, or maybe you missed a homework assignment.  Maybe you missed a wedding—hopefully not your own, but you missed somebody’s wedding.  Maybe you missed a children’s play at school or a family reunion.  I don’t know what it is.  Maybe you missed an ending to a ballgame that was important to you; and your wife DVR’d the game, but she didn’t…I don’t know…DVR the program after the game.  Because you’re supposed to DVR not just the game but DVR the program after the game.  In case the game goes into overtime, you always record the program after the game.  And you sit down to watch the game, and you’re excited about the game.  And the game goes into overtime.  And you go to watch the program that should have been DVR’d after the game, but that program wasn’t recorded and so you miss something.  That’s just a random example, mind you.  But you missed something that really mattered to you, right?  

I don’t know if you have something like that.  You missed an opportunity.  You missed an appointment.  You missed an announcement.  All kinds of reasons we miss things…  Maybe because we’re running late, or maybe it slipped your mind, or maybe you just got distracted with everything else on your plate.  Or maybe you underestimated the significance of what you missed.  You didn’t know you were missing something that mattered until after you missed it.  But have you ever missed something that really mattered?  I want you to take a moment and tell the person sitting next to you about something you missed.  It doesn’t have to be overly dramatic but something you missed and maybe why you missed it.  So if you haven’t been paying attention then you can use this as an example.  But something you missed and why you missed it.  Take a minute and tell the person next to you.  

You know, probably one of the biggest misses in my life was the time I missed a funeral I was supposed to be helping to officiate.  That’s one of the biggest fears for a preacher, that you will be late for a service or that you will forget about some important event. This happened when I was ministering in northeast Indiana. The town we lived in was only a few miles from the Indiana/Ohio line and I was to be one of the officiants at the funeral of a church member who actually lived in a town across the line in Ohio.  I had the start time for the funeral right in my calendar, that wasn’t the problem.  The problem was the time had just recently changed due to daylight savings time and the part of Indiana where we lived didn’t observe daylight savings time, so our time hadn’t changed.  So on the day of the funeral, I forgot that Ohio was now an hour ahead of us.  I thought I was showing up on time, when actually I was showing up an hour late.  By the time I got to the funeral home, everyone had already gone to the cemetery for the burial.  I was so thankful for the grace the family extended to a young rookie preacher!

But we all can miss things.  I was reading about a book Did You Spot the Gorilla? by Richard Wiseman.  He’s a psychologist who did this experiment where he had several hundred volunteers watch a thirty-second video tape of two teams playing basketball.  And the volunteers were told that their assignment was to count how many passes were made, and so they’re watching intently as the basketball gets passed.  They’re counting the passes.  But what they are not told is that halfway through there will be a man in a gorilla suit that will step in front of the camera, beat his chest and then go off screen.  So they’re counting these passes.  The guy comes in the gorilla suit, beats his chest, and then afterwards the volunteers are asked how many of them noticed the man in the gorilla suit beating his chest.  And a very small percentage of the participants even noticed that it happened.  In fact, they had to be shown a video of them watching the video of the man in the gorilla suit beating his chest to be convinced that it had actually taken place.  Now he goes on to make the point: The reason they missed something that significant, that obvious, is because they were very focused on counting how many times the basketballs were getting passed.  They didn’t even notice the man in the gorilla suit.

I read about another study where the researchers put a clown on a unicycle and had him ride past pedestrians on a sidewalk.  And then researchers asked people, after they got to the other end of the sidewalk, if they noticed anything unusual.  Most of the folks recognized…or noticed…the unicycling clown, except for those that were talking on their cell phones or texting on their phones.  Around three out of four of the people who had been on their phones didn’t notice the unicycling clown.  Why?  Because they were thinking about something else.  They were focused on something else.  And that happens.  We miss something because we’re distracted.  Something else is going on.  Something else has our attention.

I don’t know what the technical term is for this dynamic—where we miss something significant because we’re busy focusing on something else—but I feel certain it was at play in that very first Christmas.  So I want us to look at Luke 2 again, but this time we’ll look at it from a little different perspective.  It says, “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.  (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)  And everyone went to their own town to register” (vv. 1-3).

We read that.  I made the point a couple of weeks ago that those details demonstrate the historicity of this story.  But I want us to think just for a moment how incredibly chaotic things would have been in a small town like Bethlehem.  Normally there are less than a thousand residents in this town, and now things become extremely busy, as people make the journey back to their own hometown.  Just imagine what it would be like today if the government issued a similar decree that required each of us to go to our own hometowns, the towns we were born in, and to register there for a census.  Well, there would be people crisscrossing the nation.  If this were your hometown, what would happen to your house?  Well, your house would get overrun with family members and friends who used to live here and then moved away but now they’re coming back.  And you would have to try to figure out sleeping arrangements and food for everyone to eat.  Some of this probably should sound familiar to you this time of the year.  It would have been very chaotic.  People packing and unpacking.  The roads would have been a mess.  Just a lot going on…  You get there and there would have been long lines at government offices.  And you would have had to fill out forms and paperwork would have had to be completed.  

So it was just very busy in Bethlehem the night before Jesus was born.  It was so busy that Luke makes the point that there were no guest rooms available for Mary and Joseph.  There was no place for them to sleep, no place for them to stay.  It had already been taken.  Maybe they were a little bit slow in arriving because of Mary’s pregnancy, but they get there and there’s no place for them.  And so it seems that they were put in some area that was typically occupied by livestock, because we’re told that Jesus was placed in a feeding trough.  He was placed in a manger.

You talk about missing something that really matters.  I mean, that would have been a story.  Everyone in Bethlehem is just so busy that they’re oblivious to this young mom giving birth to the Son of God in their small town.

Imagine what it would have been like for the owner of the house…or the owner of the inn…years later if he realized what he had missed.  That for generations he and his family had been sitting around tables talking about the Messiah, that one day the Messiah would come, and prophecies would be fulfilled, and it’s happening in his own backyard and he misses it.  He just didn’t realize the significance of what was happening just right there in front of him.

Instead, what we find…and what’s interesting is to take note of who received the announcement of Christ’s birth.  So, let’s look again at this passage in Luke 2, verse 8.  It says, “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.  An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid.  I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.  Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’  Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’  When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about’” (vv. 8-15).

Verse 16 says, “So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.  When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them” (vv. 16-18).

And so, the people of Bethlehem were busy, right?  That’s the context of this.  They had a lot going on.  They were preoccupied, being reunited with family and friends.  They were scrambling around, taking care of details that needed to be taken care of.  Meanwhile, the Son of God is born.  But outside the town in the stillness of the night, in the quietness underneath the stars, there are shepherds watching their flocks.  You wouldn’t think shepherds would be the ones invited to an event like this.  You wouldn’t think that they would be at the top of the list.  But they are the ones who have the margin.  They are the ones who have the space.  They are in the quiet and they’re able to receive the invitation and respond to it.

We get so busy with so many things this time of year, and they all feel necessary, right?  We look at the list, and it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot to take off it; and we end up missing out on the whole meaning of it.  It’s really cliché to talk about, and yet we…you know, we still continue to put ourselves in that position.  It’s not that those things are bad or unspiritual or your checklist isn’t important.  It’s just that they can steal our attention.  They can distract us from what really matters.

And so, when we see these shepherds we…you know, it’s kind of boring.  They’re out in the fields watching sheep.  But it’s significant to note that maybe the reason they were chosen…at least in part…was because they were in a place to hear from God.  

Everyone else was so busy and so preoccupied with things they needed to get done, but here are these shepherds who have a job that allows them some quiet.  They’re able to receive it.  It wasn’t that they intentionally got away from all the craziness, but they had a job where they were able to be in a position to hear from God a little more clearly.  

And I know that there are some of you who are on the outside looking in, right?  That you wish this Christmas was a little busier for you, that you had family or friends in town to celebrate with, or you’d hoped to get invited to a party or two and that didn’t happen.  And things are quiet around your house, and it’s not really what you want.  You don’t really want a silent night, and yet I can’t help but wonder if maybe…if you’ll be open to it…if you could experience the meaning of Christmas in a deeper way than a lot of the people living in Bethlehem.  That God might want to come to you and reveal Himself to you in a deeper way than He might be able to for those of us who are so busy and distracted.

I know for many of us we live in the middle of Bethlehem right now.  Things are busy.  There’s just a lot happening.  Family and friends are coming and going.  Lots of details that need to be taken care of.  And it’s difficult to build in some margin, to just stop and remember what really matters.

I was reading an article in The New York Times called “The Busy Trap.”  And this article just made the point that when you ask people how they’re doing, they talk about their busyness, you know, with…kind of as a pseudo complaint.  “Oh, I’m so busy.  I’m crazy busy.”  But in reality, our busyness is something we wear as a badge of honor.  But here’s what the author of this article said.  He said, “Busyness serves as a kind of hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day…  [We’re] busy because of [our] own ambition or drive or anxiety, because [we’re] addicted to busyness and dread what [we] might have to face in its absence” (Tim Kreider “The Busy Trap” nytimes.com/opinion).

And that first line is what got my attention: That “busyness serves as a kind of hedge against emptiness.”  That the emptier we are the busier we try to be.  And we’re afraid that if we slow down, if we stop, if we really think about our lives, if we really think about what God has done for us—that the emptiness will catch up to us.  We’ll be forced to see some things about our lives that maybe we don’t want to acknowledge or recognize.  And I would say: The harder it is for you to slow down and make time to encounter Jesus probably the more desperately you need to do that.

The other thing we see in the shepherds—and I think we can learn from them as well—is that they were willing to act on what God told them.  They didn’t just receive this from God; they responded to it.  

In verse 15 the shepherds say to each other, “Let’s go…and see this thing that has happened….”  And I feel pretty confident that if we really listen in, if we take some time to focus on the birth of Christ and the love of God demonstrated through Jesus, and if we take time to focus on His sacrifice and give attention to the great lengths that God has gone to for us—that it will cause us to have a response.  Imagine how crazy it would have been to read about these shepherds receiving this news but then just continuing to find that they went back, and they just continued to watch the fields at night.  Of course, when they received the news their response is, “Hey, let’s go!  This calls us to do something different than what we’re currently doing.”

And when you personally encounter the news of Jesus’ birth, it shouldn’t just change you.  Even more than that, it should…it should direct you.  In other words, Jesus doesn’t just change our lives; He should be the One who determines our lives.  That suddenly the shepherds have purpose.  They have meaning.  They have a direction.  They’re on mission.  And we continue to see that.  After they encounter Jesus, they leave and they start telling everyone who will listen what they had experienced and how they had met Jesus.  And I can’t think of a better way to celebrate Christmas than to take the time to personally encounter Jesus and to tell someone else about what you’ve experienced.  As I see this and read this story…I think it’s such a beautiful example.  We take the time to personally experience Jesus and to tell someone else about what we’ve experienced.

And so, I just want to give you a few ways that you can do that over these next couple of weeks, as we prepare our hearts for Christmas.  

Number one, I’d like to ask you to plan on worshipping at our Christmas Eve Service.  I know most of you are planning on that already.  But I want you to listen.  I’m not asking you just to come to that service (or just attend that service); I’m asking you to worship at that service.  That this Christmas Eve not be a time where we just make this a Christmas function or a holiday event or a family tradition or, “This is what we do this time of the year.”  But that we have a sense of expectation, and we have a sense of awe, as we come together and as we worship God, give glory to God for the gift that He’s given us in Jesus.

The second thing I would ask you to do, as we approach Christmas, is to invite someone else to come with you to the Christmas Eve Service and to meet Jesus.  I think the shepherds left and they started telling everyone about what they had experienced in part because, while they were experiencing it, they were thinking of all the people they wish could be there to experience it with them.  I’m sure you’ve had those moments in life where something extraordinary happened, and as much as you’re taking it in, you’re also thinking of the people in your life that you wish could be there with you.  And that’s what happens.  They immediately go and they start telling everyone who will listen about what they had experienced.  We hear this a lot at church.  Where someone will come to a gathering…they’ll come to a service…and God will use it to impact them in a significant way; and then afterwards they’ll be talking to us, and they’ll say, “I just wish…” and they’ll tell us about someone they wish could have been there to experience what they experienced.  And I would love to challenge you with this.  Christmas Eve is a great time to invite friends, to invite a family member to personally encounter Jesus.  It’s a very appropriate way to celebrate Christmas.

Number three, I would encourage you to find a few moments alone in the quiet and to stop and to consider what God has done for you.  We’ll have those moments as a church family.  You might have those moments with your family or with your spouse, but I want to ask you to go off by yourself at some point.  And maybe everyone else is inside talking and laughing.  Maybe they’re complaining and bickering, but you go outside.  Maybe they’re inside playing games or watching a game, but…  And this is not just for adults, but, kids, I want to ask you to do this.  If you’re a student I want to ask you to do this: To go off by yourself.  Don’t tell anybody you’re doing it.  Just walk outside, shut the door, look up into the night sky, and I want you to find the brightest star in the sky; and I just want you to be quiet, to just be quiet and then ask God to reveal His glory to you.  And just listen.  And as you look up in this starry sky and you’re finding that brightest star in the sky, just raise your hand.  Your neighbors probably already think you’re a little weird.  It’s all right.  Just raise your hand and just say with all of heaven, “Glory to God in the highest!”  Just take a moment by yourself and be intentional not to miss what really matters.

So the last thing I want to encourage you to do…just a practical idea to keep us from missing what matters…is to set up a nativity scene if you haven’t.  Or if you have a nativity scene…or maybe it’s someone else’s…but go to a nativity scene by yourself and look at each piece and just imagine that you were there.  So, as you’re looking at the nativity scene, if you can picture it, imagine what it would have been like to be in the stable…just a shed really…about the size of a garage.  Imagine what it would have been like to be there and to smell the odor of the manure and the stench of the animals.  Just for a moment, by yourself, just be quiet long enough to hear the sheep and the goats and then look at the manger.  Maybe hold up the little manger.  It’s an ornament.  It looks beautiful.  But then think about what the real one would have been like.  Nasty, dirty.  Joseph would have had to clean it off.  It was a feeding trough for animals.  And then you look over at Joseph, and Joseph is a carpenter…rough hands…but he was so gentle with his new baby.  Mary…can you see her?  She looks so young and tired and a little bit afraid, but she has a smile on her face as she looks at her newborn son.  And then don’t miss Baby Jesus.  He is God in the flesh.

I wonder what it would have been like to be there.  I wonder what the shepherds would have done.  I wonder if they would have taken the back of their hands and placed it upon the brow…soft brow of Baby Jesus.  I mean, they wouldn’t have known that one day a crown of thorns would be pressed upon His head.  We know that.

I guess I wonder if the shepherds wouldn’t have been able…you know, just to keep from touching…or maybe pinching…the cheeks of the…it’s hard.  It’s just…they’re so sweet…the cheeks of Baby Jesus.  And they wouldn’t have known that one day a foul soldier would spit on those cheeks and strike those cheeks.

I can’t help but wonder if the shepherds…these dirty shepherds…I don’t know if they had hand sanitizer.  But I wonder if maybe they stuck out their little pinky for Baby Jesus to hold.  Don’t you love that with a newborn baby?  The way that a baby’s hand will just instinctively wrap itself around your pinky.  I wonder if they did that with Baby Jesus.  I mean, they didn’t know that those hands would do incredible things.  Those hands would make the lame to walk and the blind to see.  They would raise the dead back to life.  And those hands would be nailed to a tree.  And I wonder, if we were there, if we would see the slight, tiny shoulders of the Son of God.  One day those shoulders would carry a cross and with it the sin of everyone in this room.

And so, this Christmas would you take time to do that?  Just look into a nativity scene.  Imagine what it would be like to be there.  And as you’re doing that, here’s what I want you to whisper to yourself.  I just want you to whisper, “God loves me so much.”  Just take a deep breath and just say that to yourself.  “God loves me so much that He would give His only Son for me.”  This Christmas don’t miss what matters most.


David Hall
First Church of Christ
December 12, 2021