Christmas: Bethlehem had no room for Christ, do we?

I taught a version of this in Sunday School this past week. I hope it gives each of you reading some inspiration.

Luke 2: 1-14

1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. 2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) 3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) 5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. 6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. 7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. 8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

This is the story from the Gospel of Luke about Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. My United Methodist and Roman Catholic friends will recognize this passage as the recommended Gospel verse from the Lectionary for Christmas Eve. There are several things going on here and as with most passages of Scripture they can mean a few different things. First, we see in verse 5 a description of the family dynamic. Mary and Joseph were not married when Jesus was born. Jesus, as with many folks today, was born out of wedlock. What else do we know about Christ’s parents? We know from elsewhere in the Gospels that Joseph was a carpenter. We know little about the social status of Mary, though I should think it safe to assume that she comes from a simple working family much the same as Joseph. In verse 6 we read of the birth of Jesus Christ…the Savior, Prince of Peace, King of Kings born out of wedlock to simple working class parents. Certainly there is the divine lineage of Joseph to consider here, but in that context, Christ the Savior comes from incredibly humble origins.

Continuing into verse 7 (which can be seen as something of a parable) we see Mary have to lay her son down in a manger because they were unable to find lodging. First, what is a manger? A manger is a feed trough for livestock. Yes, brothers and sisters, the first place Christ was able to lay his head and sleep was in a filthy (because, let’s face it, the mouth of a cow, donkey, horse, or whatever is not the cleanest place on Earth) feed basin. But why did He have to sleep in this filthy feed basin? Because Mary and Joseph were unable to find lodging in Bethlehem. The verse says “there was no room for them in the inn.” There is no indication as to why there was no room. Were Mary and Joseph rejected because she was having a child out of wedlock? Were they legitimately sold out of rooms given the people who had traveled to town that day? Truly, we do not know. But absolute knowledge in this case is not necessary. The truth that we read here is that for one reason or another, our Savior Jesus Christ was denied lodging in Bethlehem on the night of his birth. The humble origins are building…born out of wedlock, to working class parents, and spends his first night in a feed basin. But it gets better.

As we move forward, who are the first people to come and visit Mary, Joseph, and Jesus? Shepherds. An angel comes down and visits some shepherds who are tending their flocks. How many shepherds? The passage does not say and much like the reason for not having lodging, it does not matter. What matters is the shepherds in general and their social stature. During this time period, shepherds were some of the lowest members of society. The New Interpreter’s Bible talks about the shepherds saying “Shepherding was a despised occupation at the time. Although the reference to shepherds evokes a positive, pastoral image for the modern reader and underscores Jesus’ association with the line of David (1 Sam 16:11; 17:15; Ps 78:70), in the first century, shepherds were scorned as shiftless, dishonest people who grazed their flocks on others’ lands.” So, while there is obvious theological symbolism here tying Christ to David with the shepherds, when reading straight from the text without 2,000 years of analysis and “religion” to filter it, here we have Christ born out of wedlock, to working class parents, spending his first night in a feed basin, and the first people to receive witness of His divinity and visit him were some of the most despised members of society. Humble origins indeed.

But what did we read in verse 10? “I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” Yes, indeed, the angels are telling these shepherds that this little child of humble origins brings a universal message of joy. This message of Christ was not and is not intended for some select group of people. This message is for everyone. Everyone within our churches and everyone outside the churches on the streets. In verse 14 we are given what I feel amounts to the very core of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This verse is a verse that I feel we should read as though it is being spoken directly to us and something we must internalize. First, we read “Glory to God in the Highest.” (the NRSV reads “Glory to God in the Highest Heaven” and while that is obviously different from the KJV the LDS Church reads from, it is not at all objectionable given our theology) “Glory to God in the Highest” is meant for us. We are to show glory to God. Why? Because the He is sending us a Savior. We just read about Christ’s birth. It is now directed back to us to show glory and thanks to God for that blessing. Because it is indeed a blessing. Christ is now born and without that birth, there is no death and resurrection. Without that death and resurrection we have no atoning sacrifice for our sins. Without that atonement there is no salvation or exaltation. 

Here is a statement I would like you to consider for a moment before moving on:

THE PURPOSE OF THE GOSPEL OF JESUS CHRIST IS NOT SALVATION OR EXALTATION

No, the purpose of the Gospel is not salvation or exaltation. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is about getting each of us to change ourselves so that salvation and exaltation become possible. That is what we see in the other part of verse 14. Peace on Earth can be obtained by people who become true Disciples of Christ and work to bring people to that message. This does not mean we should use the Gospel or our role as a Disciple to browbeat someone into submission. No, it means we commit to living as Christ did, ministering to all people, loving our neighbor as ourselves, and treating all people the same way we would treat Christ himself. That, then, is the “good will toward men” part of the verse. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is about creating change within ourselves. Without that change, which is us becoming a Disciple of Christ as I just described, we will be unable to attain exaltation. Remember when I started talking about verse 7, I said it could be seen as something of a parable? Folks, the inn described there is our lives just as much as it is some stone building in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. Is there room in our Inn?

Christmas celebrates the birth of our Savior. It celebrates the beginning of his ministry and the beginning of what we call the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As I said before, that Gospel is there to bring about change in our lives. Do we have a place in our lives for the change that Gospel demands? Are we doing our best to be Disciples of Christ?

That’s the real meaning of Christmas. Christmas is about the birth of our Savior. The birth of the great example for us to emulate. The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Do we always have room in our Inn for Jesus Christ and that Gospel? A second thought to that would be do we do our best to help others open the doors of their Inn and allow Christ to dwell there?

Let’s really celebrate the birth of Christ this year. Celebrate the beginning of the Gospel that leads to salvation and exaltation. Let’s use that celebration as the start of a change, a rebirth, a renewal within ourselves that allows us to be more like our Savior and example Jesus Christ.

In His holy name, Amen.

Wear Pants to Church Day

Yes, I wore a Purple coat today for this Women’s Wear Pants to Church Day thing. Camille did as well and so did one other guy who I told about it. One guy wore a purple tie and, as I said a week or so ago, I automatically assumed he wore it for the same purpose that I wore the coat. He did not. The purpose of this was unity, not divisiveness. People can wear, and are allowed to wear, anything they want to worship. Are we so wrapped around the axel about what other folks can or cannot, should or should not wear that we forget our real purpose as Christians, as Disciples of Christ? Would we rather sit in congregations of 50 or 60 folks in starched shirts and recently dry-cleaned suits who talk a big talk but do little or have congregations of 250 or 300 folks wearing dirty jeans and muddy work boots who go out everyday, live like Jesus, and try to change the world for good? I think if I really learned anything today it is that the clothes we wear for the few hours on Sunday we are in church or traveling to and from means far less than what we do in the hours of the week we are not in Church. You want to wear pants to church? Great, now go out this week and do some good in your community. Want to wear dresses? Great, now go out this week and do some good in your community. Want to wear a suit and tie? Great, now go out this week and do some good in your community. Want to wear jeans and broke down boots? Great, now go out this week and do some good in your community. Sure, I wore a shirt, jacket, and tie to church today. But what did I do good in the community this past week? More importantly, what will I do good this coming week?

 

I posted that on Facebook this past Sunday. If you don’t know, a small group of LDS women put together a day where they would all wear pants, instead of skirts, to church. This is the second year they did this. I have nothing against them wearing pants. I feel like people should wear whatever is comfortable to them. If a person is not comfortable in a certain item of clothing how can they really come to church and worship God?

 

Now, the main point I made in the above post is that Christians must take a hard look at what we really believe. Does it really matter what people wear? I say that it does not. It matters what people do. A man could go to Joseph A. Bank clothing store and spend $3,000 or more on a single outfit. Boy, will he look classy at church that coming Sunday (if he even goes to church at all). But what else has he done? What did he do this week to give back to the community? Maybe he should have thought about spending $300 on those clothes and given the other $2,700 to his local food bank, his church, or some other organization and had that money benefit his community. Actions like this were originally one of the main reasons for this Wear Pants to Church Day idea. We need to stop thinking of ladies who wear pants as folks who either don’t know any better or who don’t have anything better. The fact is, “Sunday Best” can mean a lot of different things and those things can depend on the person. Clothing does not matter. Actions matter.

 

What did I do in the community this week? Well, I did a little bit, but not as much as I could have. Everyone needs to ask that question. What did I do this week? Sadly, I think the huge majority will come back and honestly answer that they did not do as much as was within their ability (because let’s be honest, virtually none of us could do as much as we’d like to do if money and time were not limiting factors). But beyond that, I think many would look and see that he or she has done absolutely nothing to benefit the community this week. Even among church going people. But you sure looked good in that suit on Sunday, didn’t you brother? Might have looked good in that fancy car, living in that big house.

 

This is what Christianity is really about. It’s certainly not about what you wear. I can honestly say that I don’t think Jesus or God care one bit what I wore last Sunday or what I wear this Sunday. Truthfully, the heart of Christianity is not even “salvation.” Salvation is simply the result of everything else. Christianity is about change. Changing ourselves for the better. I’m probably about to use a bad analogy here, but I think salvation (that life in heaven and all that) is something like water. Hydrogen is not reactive. Neither is oxygen. You have to add an energy source to get them to react; in a chemistry class we once used a match. The two elements bond together and you have water. Christianity should be about that energy that allows us to change for the better. It can’t be simply about salvation or the end result of the above equation. Otherwise we simply have the various elements of our own lives (represented very simply by oxygen and hydrogen) but nothing to cause the change to water. We must be certain we are giving people that change they need.

 

If the reason for wearing pants to church is to make people feel welcome and realize that all types of clothing should be acceptable on our brothers and sisters, these children of God, then I am all for it. If there is some other agenda, well, we might need to reevaluate. But if we see people in church wearing whatever they happen to be wearing, how about we not worry about trying to change his or her clothing and make sure we have changed his or her life for the better? There are far more important matters within our churches than making people feel uncomfortable or somehow ostracized because of what they are wearing. These are all children of God. We must treat them as such. Christ taught us in Matthew 25 that we will be judged in the end based on how we treated those around us. He taught that we are to treat all persons the same was we would treat Him. The weakest of my brothers, Christ said. Brothers and sisters, those weakest are not just the homeless or the prisoners. Those “weakest” are everywhere and everyone. They are sitting there in our own congregations. They are walking the streets of our towns. They might even be wearing $3,000 outfits. The truth is, we need to focus on changing souls rather than changing clothes. Clothes mean nothing in this great journey to salvation. Using the Gospel of Jesus Christ to change people for the better means EVERYTHING in this great journey of salvation.

The Memory of Nelson Mandela

Yesterday it was announced to the world that Nelson Mandela had died. He was truly one of the five or ten great world leaders of the twentieth century. His story is rather well known worldwide. Born in a South Africa that was still under loose British rule, his early years are marked with a significant increase in racial oppression in South Africa. He joined an opposition party, the African National Congress, and this group practiced both civil and violent resistance to the oppressive laws. Eventually Mandela was jailed and remained there for 27 years. Upon release, he toured the world and was eventually elected President of South Africa. To be sure this is exceptional work that he did. It is because of this work that he is held in such high regard worldwide.

But is it this work by itself that causes him to be held in such high regard by so many people? I don’t think so. The reason that we revere people like him so much is that we know that he is a flat out better human being than we are. Same goes for people throughout history. St. Peter, Joan of Arc, signers of the US Declaration of Independence, Joseph Smith, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King Jr., Harvey Milk, and others, depending on the particular group, are all held in incredibly high regard because individuals know that he or she is simply not that good.

We all know that these people are those few people who stopped talking and actually got up and did something. We know that we generally do not have that level of commitment or care to do anything. So we put these people up on pedestals that are so high we figure there is no point in even attempting to reach them and, of course, we ARE unable to reach them because we never really try. Such is the problem with a great many individuals; they fail to attain greatness because they never really try. Oh, sure, a person will say he tries to be the best or to be great, but the truth is, that is not the case. A good example of this is in athletics.

I recall watching a show on the Golf Channel about instruction. They had Tiger Woods’ former instructor on there and he talked about how Tiger practices. Basically, when not playing a tournament, Tiger will spend eight to nine hours a day practicing golf in some form. He does that six or seven days a week. That is not unusual for golfers at that level. Yet there are a great number of people who think they can practice for a hour or two a day, 2 or 3 days a week, and make it on the PGA Tour. That is simply not going to happen. If you want to be as good a golfer as a PGA Tour pro, you are going to have to practice like one. The same goes for the individuals I listed above.

We, as people, simply do not try to be as good as they were. For any number of reasons we simply find excuses to not do some good and make a difference in the world. Friends, if we really want to honor Nelson Mandela and all those other people we need to start acting like they acted. We need get up from our easy chairs, quit eating those turkey legs, and go out to help someone. I have said that I feel like if I can do five percent of the good things Nelson Mandela did, I will have done a great deal. If every person in the world did just one-half of one percent the good he did, I believe we could virtually wipe out problems like poverty and hunger. Yes friends, brothers and sisters, if we have a real desire to honor the life and times of people like Nelson Mandela we need to get out of our houses, shut our mouths, and start working. Otherwise, we would be just as well off forgetting them entirely.

Introduction

Hello, I’m John Moore and hopefully I can write something here that allows me to chronicle my growth as a person, as a Chaplain, and as a Latter-day Saint. 

A little bit about me. I am originally from Cedar Point, North Carolina and I moved away from there in 2003 to attend school at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. After I graduated, I got a job as a golf instructor near Pinehurst, North Carolina and worked in that capacity until mid-2009. After that, I joined the Coast Guard and have been in four years now. I have recently felt inspired to start divinity school with the intention of being an LDS Chaplain in the US Navy or Army. I attend United Theological Seminary in a distance education program. I figure I am now at the very beginning of my spiritual journey and growth. I hope to post here regularly about my personal growth and how I feel like I am becoming a better person.

A primary reason for doing this is to keep track and publish my experiences as I celebrate Easter this year. Now, for a great many Latter-day Saints, Easter is simply an Easter Sunday affair. Not this year for me. I am intending to celebrate all of Easter, all the way from Ash Wednesday, through Fasting for Lent, to Holy Week and the Seven Churches Visitation, Easter Sunday, onto seven Sundays of Easter, the Feast of the Ascension, and finally ending with Pentecost. I hope this journey through the Easter season will be a time time for great spiritual growth.

Enjoy everyone.