Confined: Christmas Sermon 2011 At Patterson Avenue Baptist, Richmond, Virginia


Here’s the sermon preached at Patterson Avenue Baptist on Christmas Day, December 25, 2011. 

The text for the sermon was Luke 2:1-20.  The sermon is only about 13 minutes long and was well received by the church.  Prior to preaching the sermon, the congregation enjoyed singing most of the popular Christmas carols for the season.

If you want to watch the sermon on streaming video, please click this hyperlink now.

If you would like to read the text to the sermon, you will find it below.  I owe appreciation to an exegesis and sermon I read by Charles Hoffacker.

Confinement – Luke 2:1-20

For me, Christmas celebrations are not complete until I have seen the Charlie Brown Christmas Special  I missed this year’s television broadcast, but thanks to the wonders of the internet, I was able to watch it online.

My favorite scene – the most important scene in the entire program – takes place when a dour and depressed Charlie Brown cries out, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”

Linus responds, “Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.”  He then takes the stage where the gang has been preparing for their annual Christmas pageant, calls for the spotlight, and quotes the passage from Luke 2 that I quoted for you just a few moments ago.

The story Luke tells has been retold in many ways over the holiday season.

We’ve seen it on television specials, on greeting cards, nativity scenes, and Christmas pageants.

We’ve heard it in the words of scripture and in the lyrics of the Christmas carols we have sung today.

This is familiar territory for us.  We know of Caesars decree that all his citizens go to their hometowns for a census and levy of taxes.  We know that Joseph went to Bethlehem.  As a descendant of King David, Bethlehem was his ancestral home.

Joseph traveled with his betrothed, Mary, who was in her nine month of pregnancy with a child which was not his own.  Mary has said that an angel has come to her and declared she would have a child – even those she was a virgin.  Joseph did not know what to think of all this – but he was a good man and decided to take Mary as his wife and raise the child as his own, whoever’s baby it was.

We know there was no room in any of the Inns when the couple arrived.  We know that somebody was kind enough to provide them with lodging in a stable, among the farm animals.  We know that Mary came to term, delivered her child, and laid him in a manger.  We know that in the nearby fields, angels appeared to shepherds who were watching their flocks and announced the child’s birth.

We know the story.  Sometimes, however, if we dig a little deeper, something so familiar in meaning can take on some unexpected depths.

One of my favorite preachers to read in recent days has been Charles Hoffacker, an Episcopal Priest and author of several books.  In an exegesis of this passage, Hoffacker points out one phrase in Luke’s story with which I would like us to spend a little bit of time.  Luke writes that the baby Jesus was wrapped in swaddling cloth and laid in the manger.

The reference is made twice.  First, following his birth, Mary is said to have wrapped him in swaddling cloth.  Then, again, the angels make that same declaration to the shepherds in the field.  Now I have to tell you that for the 48 Christmases that I have been alive, I have never given thought to what a “swaddling cloth” was.  I just imagined it was like a baby blanket.

So, what is a swaddling cloth?

For first century babies and their parents, swaddling cloths were nothing unusual.   When a child was born, a mother or mid-wife, or perhaps a father would take strips of cloth and confine the child.  These cloths would be a regular part of a child’s clothing for 12 – 24 months.  The purpose for these cloths and the confinement was to insure that the that the child would grow us straight and well-formed.  As odd as that may seem to us today, there was nothing unusual about swaddling about Jesus being wrapped in swaddling cloth. So why does Luke mention these wrappings, both in the action of the mother as well as the proclamation of the angel?  Could there be more here than meets the eye?

There is a reference such cloth Apocrypha Book of Wisdom.  In Wisdom 7:1-4, King Solomon explains that he, like the rest of humanity, was formed and model in a mother’s womb, and then when birth was wrapped by a midwife in swaddling cloths.

So the son and successor of King David, is wrapped in bands of cloth as a baby – and many centuries later another descent of David is also wrapped in bands of cloth.   King Solomon is sharing that though he is king, he is just as human and anyone else.  Could Luke be telling us the same about Jesus?  Could Luke be saying that though Jesus is born of God, from a virgin, as King and son of the divine, that he is still just as human as the rest of us?

In his book The Great Escape Manual: A Spirituality of Liberation , Edward Hays ask us to “picture the scene: the newborn a prisoner confined by swaddling cloths. Like Solomon, he is David’s son, and a king far greater than Solomon or David. This Jesus is a captive, a captive of swaddling cloths and so much more, but no confinement can keep him captive. The theme of the swaddling bands of Jesus as emblematic of the confinements from which he will escape.  (Edward Hays, The Great Escape Manual: A Spirituality of Liberation (Leavenworth, Kansas: Forest of Peace Publishing, 2001), pp. 305-6.]

He escapes the constraints of those swaddling cloths.  This is normal.  He outgrows them.  He leaves them behind as he becomes a toddler, a boy, and then a man.

But he also escapes other constraints.  He escapes the constraints of his religion.  The word religion means to bind up, to hold in place.  Religion’s aim is high and mighty.  It’s intention is to lead men and women into a life with God. Yet it is characterized by hundreds of rules, rituals, regulations, and requirements that actually prevent people from finding life with God.  Not only that, but they also end up separating people from one another.  The religion of Jesus day separated men from women from woman, Jews from Samaritans and Gentiles and Romans.  The religion of Jesus built walls instead of bridges, boundaries instead of crossover points.  Jesus was wrapped up tightly in these swaddling clothes of religion.  He struggled hard to escape, and he did.

Read the gospels and you will see dozens of stories about how Jesus shed the  swaddling clothes of religious restriction and social custom.  You will see how he revealed compassion to rejected lepers.  You will see how he cross racial boundaries to connect to Samaritans.  You will notice how he built bridges with the woman and the well, how he reached out with compassion to offer grace to marginalized sinners, and how he always expressed openness to those society and the temple deemed as unacceptable. Jesus frees himself from the restrictions of religions – and in so doing; he made it possible for those to whom he ministered to find their freedom as well.

Now people expect to see babies outgrow the clothing of infancy.  What is not expected is to see adults outgrow the taboos that normally remain unquestioned. That’s what got Jesus in so much trouble with his contemporaries.  At every turn Jesus was seen shedding the swaddling clothes of what the establishment could culturally accept and support. So what did they do?  They put him on a cross to die and then they bound his body in burial clothing and consigned his remains to the tomb.

But get this:  once again he escapes. It’s more than the natural growth that freed him from the swaddling clothes of infancy,  It is more than simple liberation from the bondages of his culture and religious tradition.  Jesus breaks from the power of death itself.  Charles Hoffacker writes, “He shows himself the true king, one greater than Solomon, greater than David, for his reign is to be forever. He wants to reign in every social situation, in every human heart.”

Here’s the good news for this Christmas day:  “Jesus Christ, the human Son of God, is born into this world captive to all the things that bind and restrict us.  Then, in our place and on our behalf, he escapes one confinement after another.  In the process he opens us up into an ever-increasing and irreversible freedom.  Because of what he has accomplished – in life, death, and resurrection – we have been set free.

No longer must we be held back and held down by things like racism, sexism, classism or any of the other –isms that divide us – because Jesus has set us free.

No longer must we be held in check by a list of religion’s rules, rituals, regulations, and requirements – because Jesus has set us free and provided a way to genuine intimacy in the Triune relationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

How is it that you are held back this day?  What confines you and holds you  prisoner?

Is it trepidation resentment jealousy anger embarrassment shame sorrow grief infidelity betrayal apprehension timidity guilt a sense of unworthiness some sort of addictions an episode in your past anxiety about your future or the feeling that nothing awaits you beyond the grave.

All of these things, and many more like them, may be the bands of swaddling clothes that hold us back and keep us down.  But today we celebrate the good news that there was one born in a stable and wrapped in bands of cloth – but he escaped them and all other bondages – and we call him Savior because he sets us free, as well.

Jesus leads us out of confinement toward that freedom which the Father always intended for us to experience.

So ask yourself today:   How am I bound? What is it that imprisons me?

Then know that whatever the answer, Jesus has come that you might have freedom – that you might live without that confinement – that you might have life in all its abundance.

You see this baby was born and becomes the man who dies and then defeats deaths confinement.  He  rises again and in so doing unwraps what binds us and holds us prisoner.  He experiences every way we humans have to stifle our lives, and he breaks free from them.

He is killed on a cross, consigned to a tomb, dressed in grave clothes, but leaves them behind. He escape from every set of shackles and as our representative, he sets us free as well.  Hear his call today to live life in freedom with him.  Rise and follow him wherever he leads.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.



One Response to “Confined: Christmas Sermon 2011 At Patterson Avenue Baptist, Richmond, Virginia”

  1. Great application! So very true! Consider also. “Swaddling” is an English word translating a Greek term used for preparing a body for burial. Strips of cloth, sometimes soaked in an fragrant oil solution, became burial clothes. When families expelled a child who shamed the family, they were sent away with only swaddling, a way of saying, “You are dead to us.” Did Mary have swaddling cloth with her for this reason?

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