Experience the joy and hope of the Christmas season with us!
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
In this busy, and at times frantic, time of year, how wonderful it is to be able to come into this sanctuary, to enter a place of quiet and calm, away from the noise and chaos of the season. In the same way, it is important for us to slow down, and to read and to listen a bit more carefully to our beloved and familiar Christmas text this evening. The text is so familiar that many of us can recite most of the details. The challenge in fact is that in our retelling the Christmas story, we will put in too many details, embellishing and elaborating so much that we lose the power and the message of the story. What compounds the problem is that there is a competing account of Christmas Eve in the Gospel of Matthew; and we all make the common mistake of blurring the two texts together. There is something to be said about paying careful attention to tonight’s reading from Luke, especially to what Luke does NOT say. For starters, there is NO snowy winter, NO animals overlooking the baby’s crib, NOT EVEN a stable, NO innkeeper crying out, “no room”! Amidst all the excitement, excess, pageantry, and parading of people on Christmas Eve, we could not, at this point in the narrative, present a more contrasting humble and private event. This is not a memorable event; it is rather, a simple, straightforward, plain account of a baby boy born in very humble surroundings. Jesus is born like any other baby, except Jesus is born on the road and laid in a feeding trough. There are no Magi at this manger scene. Jesus is born among the lowly and the poor. The child’s name is not even given. Luke gives no hint that Jesus is anything special: there is no angel over the stable because the angels are out over in the field with the shepherds.
The real show begins with the shepherds, with the unexpected army of heavenly beings who are speaking a grand doxology to God and proclaiming peace in God’s name. I noted that there was no mention in the birth narrative of the name of the child. The child, however, is identified by the angel, and given the titles—Savior, Christ the Lord! And consistent with the child’s humble birth surroundings, the announcement of these titles are not given to the highest strata of society, but to common shepherds. Though Luke’s Gospel sets this scene by dropping names of some of the best known people of the day (Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius), the key characters in this narrative are Mary and Joseph (an engaged, pregnant couple), homeless shepherds who lived in fields, an angel/messenger and a chorus of angels, and a newborn baby. God was ready to enter the world and God did so in a most unconventional way.
By the time of Jesus, shepherding had become a profession most likely to be filled from the bottom rung of the social ladder, by persons who could not find decent work. Society stereotyped shepherds as liars, degenerates, thieves. The testimony of shepherds was not admissible in court, and many towns had ordinances barring shepherds from their city limits. Early in my ministry, I served a church in Medford, a town in Southern Oregon. Medford had the reputation as a “sundown” town. The religious establishment took a particularly dim view of shepherds since the regular exercise of shepherds’ duties kept them from observing the Sabbath, rendering them ritually unclean. The Pharisees classified shepherds with tax collectors and prostitutes, persons who were “sinners” by virtue of their vocation. So according to Luke, Jesus is born to those who have been outside so long that they have given up on God. Don’t we know people who have been outside so long, for a variety of reasons—failures and defeats, disappointments and tragedies, marginalized and excluded—that they have given up on God? While we sit here in this beautiful sanctuary, God is sending angels out into the fields with good news of great joy because God does not give up on anyone.
The coming of Jesus into human history is good news—but it can only be recognized as good news when we sense our deep need for what Jesus offers and are willing to accept it on God’s terms. The Rev. Dr. Cleo LaRue, Professor of Homiletics at Princeton Theological Seminary, tells the story from early in his ministry when he was a young pastor in Texas where his church had a Christmas party to which they invited all the children in the community. They served a traditional Christmas dinner with all the trimmings. The children in this poor neighborhood looked forward to this celebratory meal, open to all. And they could hardly contain their excitement because they had also been told that Santa Claus would make an appearance. When the children and their parents were done eating, the lights in the fellowship hall were dimmed and Santa walked in to take his seat in the dark. It was not so dark that the children could not see just enough of his red suit and flowing white hair to know that it was Santa Claus. The children were elated. Shouts and cries filled the air. “There he is”! Then the lights were turned up, and the children saw that Santa Claus was black. Some of them recoiled in fear and refused to come up to the front to get their gifts. No convincing could get through to some of the children that this was indeed their Santa Claus. Some of them simply could not accept him—they openly protested that Santa Claus is not black. For others, the gifts in his hands outweighed the color of his skin, so they made peace with him and returned to their seats devouring the fruit and candy they received.
God’s favor on the least likely is the main theme of Luke. God’s favor rests upon those of us who suffer this Christmas. Jesus is being born where people need him the most. In the face of the death of a loved one, Christmas is the birth of the one who brings hope through His resurrection. In the face of separation and alienation from family, Christmas is the birth of the one who is present as the church, the body of Christ, gathered as family. In the face of misunderstanding and conflict, Christmas is the birth of forgiveness. In the face of failure and mistakes made, Christmas is the birth of grace and unconditional love. God’s strength is not in its size and greatness, but in God’s ability to become small, in order to be close to those who are poor and suffering. God is like Sofia Robinson, an 8th grader in Los Angeles, whose OpEd piece appeared in Saturday’s NY Times. Sofia has been writing Christmas cards to prisoners since she was 5, when her mother told her that there were 1000’s of ladies and gentlemen who were spending Christmas alone, unable to leave their rooms as they pleased (behind bars). To many of the prisoners, Sofia’s Christmas card is the only one they have ever received. On this night, we celebrate together the announcement of a birth that brings joy to all, especially to those who have been outside for the longest time, to those who have given up on God. “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us…” reminding us that God does not give up on anyone.