I love nativity scenes. I have a lot of them, and I enjoy taking out a few each year, and setting them up. One of the things I enjoy the most about Nativity scenes are the animals. I have a Native American scene that includes a wolf, but I don’t think there was a wolf at the first Christmas, but chances are good that there was a donkey, a sheep, and a camel. What is interesting about these animals is that each one is connected to a person found in the Christmas story, and each person came to Bethlehem following some kind of light. Tonight we come to this place looking for a light, a that can fill us and change us and brighten our world, and we are not disappointed because in Jesus we find the light of God’s plan, the light of God’s purpose, and the light of God’s promise – and it is this light that guides us to new life.
So let’s go back to the animals, the donkey is associated with Mary and Joseph, who made a long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. We don’t know that Mary and Joseph actually had a donkey on their trip, but considering Mary was pregnant at the time of their journey, chances are good that they used the help of a donkey. But the donkey, and Mary and Joseph, didn’t follow the light of a star to Bethlehem, they followed the light of God’s plan.
Nine months earlier, God spoke to both Mary and Joseph through an angel and it was that message that shed some light on their lives. God told them that His plan was for them to help bring the Messiah, God’s Son, into this world. Neither Mary, nor Joseph, was expecting this would be the path for their lives. They were ordinary people, living ordinary lives, but suddenly God revealed that He had something else in store for them, another plan. Mary and Joseph listened to God and said yes to His plan. Mary became pregnant by the power of God, and Joseph took her as his wife, and together they raised the son of God.
But God’s plan for them wasn’t finished because the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, and Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth. So a census was called, which meant that Joseph had to return to his hometown of Bethlehem. He took along Mary and as luck would have it, or as God had planned it, the child was born while they were there. The light of God’s word again revealed God’s plan for Mary and Joseph, the child was to be born in Bethlehem, and it was a donkey that helped make that plan become a reality.
So the donkey reminds us that God has a plan for us. We might feel like our lives are pretty ordinary, and that God can’t, or won’t, use us for anything significant, but the light of this story, a light of God that can fill us and changes us tonight, is knowing that God does have a plan for us.
For Joseph, the plan for his life was simple, be the best father you can be. Watch over Mary and raise Jesus well. This meant Joseph needed to be a good husband, work hard to provide for his family, and set a good example in life and faith for his children. In many ways, the plan for all of us is to be focused on our family. God’s plan is for us to being the best husband, wife, parent, child, grandparent, aunt, or uncle we can be. Being a parent, and investing in the life, faith and future of children is perhaps the most significant work we can do because we are shaping the future. If this is God’s plan for you, if you are in a season of life where you are helping care for children, see this as God’s plan for you and embrace it. Live into it and God will fill you and guide you with all the light and strength you need.
For Mary, however, God’s plan was more personal. Giving birth to Jesus was something Mary alone had been called to do. There are times when God’s plan for us involves something unique and personal. God often has a plan that only we can fulfill, and when we say yes to God, we begin to see the power of God’s light shine on our path and show us the way. When we say yes to God, we begin to see the power of God’s light shine through us into the world.
Tonight’s offering came about because one person, sitting at a State College Spikes ballgame, heard God say, get to know these players, and it was through those relationship that a way was developed for us to give hope to a community struggling in darkness. God often has a very specific plan for our lives, and if we learn to listen for God’s voice, and follow where it leads us, God can accomplish great things in us and through us.
Now the sheep in the nativity scene points us to another kind of light and another group of people. On the night Jesus was born, there were shepherds out in the fields watching over their flocks. When an angel appeared and told them that the Savior had been born, the light of heaven exploded across the skies. That light, and the angels’ message, didn’t just proclaim a child’s birth, it also revealed the purpose for this child. Luke 2:11. The purpose of Jesus was to save people from their sins. It wasn’t just a child that was born, it was a savior.
The purpose of this story hasn’t changed in 2,000 years, God has come to save us. What we couldn’t do for ourselves, God has done for us. We can’t live the perfect life, we can’t forgive our sin, and we can’t set ourselves right with God, so God sent Jesus to do all that for us. John 3:16. The purpose of Jesus is to save us from our sin, and to give us the gift of a full life here and an eternal life to come. Christmas isn’t just a nice story about the birth of a baby and a group of shepherds who went to visit him, it is the powerful story about a child whose purpose was to save humanity.
The sheep reminds us that no matter who we are, no matter what we have gone through, no matter how unworthy we might feel right now, the purpose of Jesus is to forgive us, and to set us free from guilt and shame. Through Jesus, we are set right with God tonight, and forever. The purpose of Jesus is to shine a light into our lives that assures us that our sin has been forgiven, and that all that tries and hold us down in life can be overcome, and we can experience God’s peace and the power of a new life.
And then there is the camel. The Wisemen had a long journey, through a dry and desert land, carrying with them all they needed for days and weeks on end, so they most likely would have used camels for their trip. These camels followed the light of a star – or at least they were guided there by the Wisemen who followed that light. But the real light they were drawn to wasn’t in the sky, it was the promise of a better life and a better world.
The star that appeared in the sky told the Wismen that a new king had been born in Israel. This king was so powerful, and his kingdom was going to be so good, that the heaven’s declared his birth. The light of this star carried with it the promise that the future was going to be better. The story of Jesus we celebrate tonight continues to shine God’s promise into our lives. The promise is that through Jesus, our lives and our world can be better.
Life can be better for us because in Jesus, God is with us. God has come to love us, and save us, and God has come to fill us with a light that shows us how to live a better life. The baby born in Bethlehem grew up to be a man who showed us how to live according to the principles of God. He showed us the power of love in relationships, the power of joy lived out in our community, and how God’s peace can change the world. The life of Jesus shows us how to overcome fear, how to establish new habits, and how to turn our pain into possibility and purpose. These are some of the game-changers we are going to explore in January, and I want to invite you to join us in the New Year as we keep looking at how the light of God’s promise can make our lives better.
Tonight isn’t just about celebrating an event that took place 2000 years ago, it’s about coming to the light of God found in Jesus. It is this light that reminds us God has a plan for us, that tells us God’s purpose of Jesus is to save us from our sin, and where we can stand firm on the promise that through Jesus, our lives and our world can be better and brighter. A donkey, a sheep, and a camel – they help lead us to the light of God and the love of Jesus.