Tonight we do come, as we have for many years, and through many generations. We come to remember and tell again and sing again of the birth in Bethlehem of Judea, the birth in which Love itself became human flesh.
We come to marvel and to be grateful.
But, as we’ve said many times in recent months, this year it is different. Tonight it is hard to summon up “joyful and triumphant.” I think it is important to acknowledge how hard it is not to be together physically tonight, how hard not to see and touch and greet one another in person, how hard to receive only a spiritual communion, and not the physical elements of the sacrament of Eucharist.
I was rather tearful when I read the first draft of tonight’s liturgy; I suspect that a lot of us will feel a lump in the throat during this evening’s service.
Many of our Christmas traditions center on the warm-and-cozy - families gathered in cinnamon-and-balsam scented air, watching adorable children re-enact Christmas card scenes of a wonder-filled holy family surrounded by pleasant shepherds and proverbial “friendly beasts”.
But that is not really the story we have heard from Luke’s gospel tonight. And the thing is, the realities of the events recounted in Luke’s story are realities that we can connect with in powerful ways in this Christmas in this strange and difficult year; as always, tonight’s story has much to tell us, even (and perhaps particularly) from the vantage point of this challenging Christmas season.
Luke’s narrative is set in a landscape of political unease -a first connection we can make. The Emperor, Augustus, had issued a decree requiring everyone to travel to their city of origin to be counted – not for anything that would benefit them, but for taxation purposes. Regardless of the cost or inconvenience, required compliance with political edict was nature of things for Jews of 1st century like Joseph & Mary – something in which they had no choice.
That the couple could find no lodgings and wound up in a stable added insult to the injury of the requirement of their travel from their home in Nazareth to Joseph’s ancestral home in Bethlehem.
Bethlehem was not a commercial center with available lodging for strangers, but a small village. Joseph was not a stranger, however, but returning to the town where he certainly should have had family.
And if we know anything about the culture of the ancient near east, we know they valued and practiced hospitality.
What an extraordinary run of bad luck for Joseph and Mary that they should be required to travel just as she was ready to give birth, that for reasons unknown, there were no kinfolk to provide assistance, and that in a land of hospitality, the best shelter they could find was in a stable.
Mary and Joseph’s situation, that first Christmas, didn’t turn out the way they would have planned it any more than our Christmas is what we would have chosen.
And then there were the shepherds.
Shepherds occupied the very lowest rungs of the social ladder in first century Judea. Stereotyped as liars and thieves, shepherds were not permitted to give testimony in court. For the religious community in Judea they were outsiders; shepherds were considered ritually unclean and were unable to participate in the Jews’ required Sabbath rituals.
These were not the people to whom you would expect God to send a birth announcement, and certainly not who you would invite to visit the newborn. What must Mary and Joseph have thought when the shepherds showed up?
Luke tells this story he does to make a point about the birth of Jesus and the nature of God. It’s a point that echoes throughout the gospel – really, throughout all of scripture, - a point Jesus’ followers struggled with then, and that we struggle with today. Luke shows us (as do so many of the biblical storytellers) that God does the unexpected and the incomprehensible. That with God, things FREQUENTLY don’t turn out the way we expected or the way we would have planned.
The Christmas story show us that God arrives on the periphery, and where things are hard, which is always where God is needed. That night in Bethlehem of Judea, God shows up in the midst of the everyday realities of a baby being born and a group of disenfranchised fieldhands hearing the news and coming to see.
God takes on new life in human history in a setting of political oppression, and to a couple unexpectedly on their own in difficult circumstances.
The birth of Jesus says to us that God’s desire is to be with us in all times and places, not only when things are tidy and sparkly, that God comes among us even when we cannot be together as we wish we could.
The birth of Jesus reminds us that redemption of the world begins in small events in out-of-the-way places, that the small events in our own out-of-the-way lives are also a part of that process of redemption.
The visit of the shepherds, in Luke’s account, suggests further that the good news of God’s presence, God’s new life in the midst of chaos and discomfort, is news for everyone, and perhaps especially for those whose lives on the margins make them most open and receptive to good news.
As Martin Luther points out, the angels declare that Jesus is born “for us,” not merely that Jesus is born. We are called by this story to understand the birth of Jesus as a gift, something precious that blesses us and binds us to the Giver in love.
Like all the best gifts, this one can change our lives.
We must ask whether we are ready for our unexpected God to show up in unlikely places in our lives, and to invite us on surprising journeys – journeys that, as Heather pointed out in her sermon this past Sunday, we may not even quite feel ready for.
We always have the option of visiting the Nativity story once a year and allowing the Christmas-card images to wash over us, enjoying a sweet story without really entering its power.
But this story’s true value comes in its gritty reality, its affirmation of the messy-ness of human experience, its narrative of God’s great love for us, known in Jesus of Nazareth.
God intends for God’s love to be born and grow in us, to change us, heal us, remake us – not merely to delight and comfort us.
Moreover, this story takes its greatest power, not from Jesus’ birth, but from resurrection, from the continual rebirth of all that is good and true and beautiful, the conquering of the powers of terror and death that surround us and that are seen so visibly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Tonight we remember just the beginning of that story, but its power can sustain us throughout the coming year, whatever else lies ahead.
Christ the Savior is born.
Let every heart prepare him room.
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