The Birth of Jesus
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
. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Syria Nazarethin Galilee to Judea, to the city of Davidcalled , 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. Bethlehem
The Shepherds and the Angels
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
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. Bethlehem
The first time I ever paid attention in church was on Christmas Eve. I was ten or so, and while I liked the warmth and the candlelight of the evening service, I was anxious for the gifts and Christmas cookies that waited on the other side of the chilly trip home. I had no intention of listening to the preacher that night, but he startled me into really hearing the gospel for the first time. Standing behind the Communion table, the Reverend proclaimed in a passionate voice that the birth of Christ was meant for everyone. No matter if you were a thief, an adulterer, an alcoholic, a sexaholic. I remember being shocked, thinking that you weren't supposed to talk about those kinds of things at church. Especially not right there in front of the Holy Family. The words the pastor used seemed out of place amidst the pretty manger scene. They were words that spoke of the sorrow and sin of human life. It just didn't seem right to bring all that uncomfortable stuff up on a night that was supposed to be about God.
And yet this is the night that we celebrate that our God became human. The child we welcome with joyful hearts was born of flesh and blood, as weak and needy as any newborn baby. His blood may have been laced with divinity, but the child born in Bethlehem was as human as any.
The nativity of our Lord is a sight to behold in our faithful imaginations. Angels singing and shepherds praising in a festival of starlit adoration. But it didn't happen in a spiritual vacuum. It happened in a specific time and place, to a particular group of people. Every time we hear the Christmas story in the Gospel of Luke, whether it's read from the sanctuary pulpit or by Linus on the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, we are reminded of the very worldly context of Jesus' birth. We hear about Emperor Augustus and his ridiculous ambition to register the whole world. We hear that this happened when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And we hear of the journey required of Mary and Joseph, the long trip from Galilee to Judea.
The Gospel of Matthew also testifies to another circumstance of Christ's birth, the devastating violence that King Herod unleashed upon the families of Bethlehem in his attempt to defeat the newborn King before he even spoke his first word.
By all accounts, the Advent of our savior was littered with the uncomfortable stuff that goes along with being human. Messy stuff: childbirth, politics, injustice, poverty. The star shined brilliantly against the heavy darkness of Bethlehem. The angels' song was heightened by the anguished cries it displaced. The Lord of Love was born into a world polluted with hate. The miracle of the incarnation is that God poured his spirit into the humblest of creatures in the humblest of situations.
Last year, the worship leaders of a Baptist church not too far from here prayed their way into a serious question. Where would the Christ child be born today? They recognized that the nativity of Jesus emerged from a scene of desolation. And so when they set out to build a nativity scene to inhabit the nave of their sanctuary, they borrowed imagery from the newspaper. They constructed a meager shanty covered with a blue tarp, and surrounded it with rubble: cinderblocks and mortar, an old abandoned shopping cart, empty cans and jars, a couple sleeping bags. Hanging by the scene were spray-painted signs that echoed those that were posted on rooftops during the fatal 2005 hurricanes: Save Us. Need Water. Help. Their Advent wreath was an empty oil drum turned on its head. The candles of hope and peace and joy and love smoldered, the only source of heat for the residents of this haphazard refuge.
That scene was painful, not pretty. It preached a powerful message that our carols have long proclaimed: the Christ child was "born to ransom captive Israel." "With the poor, the scorned, the lowly, lived on earth our Savior holy." The hopes and fears met by the Christ child were on display, a silent witness to the depth of our need for Emmanuel, the God who saves us by being with us.
My friend who serves that congregation confessed that the crèche challenged her to "keep [her] eyes open to God's world, the world God loves." Not all of the members of her church responded that way. The first Sunday, my friend noted a "roaring silence about it all." The roaring silence reached a fever pitch as the Advent season trudged on. Some church members struggled with the contemporary reflection of the manger scene. They didn't want to be confronted by the same pain that was relentlessly broadcast on the news when they gathered to praise God.
I need to tell you that my friend is a really great pastor. She cares deeply about the members of her flock. She would not, could not, ignore that the manger's message had gotten lost in translation for some of her church. The nativity scene was meant to be a testimony to how Christ is born to save a suffering world, not to be a cause of suffering. Yet even as my friend recognized that her people needed comfort, she lamented. "Even if we do clean up the sanctuary, the world remains broken."
The church found a way to rejoice on Christmas Eve. Some of the symbols were taken away, and light of Christ filled the space they left behind. But that challenging nativity scene was deconstructed because women and men couldn't bear it, not because God couldn't bear it. The hope of the original nativity in Bethlehem, and the hope of every other nook and cranny in Creation, is that God can and does bear our suffering.
Tonight we celebrate the birth of God into this world. He showed up when we needed him most, and he has never left since. God is present, God is with us. Whether we are laughing at the church potluck or wringing our hands in the emergency room, the One who loves us most is here. The stuff we think we're supposed to leave at home—our rough edges, our skeletons, our insecurities, our broken-down world, is just the load to carry with us on this holy night. Here we meet the One who is ready to share the burden and show us another way, a way of forgiveness and love and justice. A way of salvation.
A story. The chaplain of a home for troubled children was preparing to lead the Christmas Eve service when one of the staff members informed him that one of the boys was hiding beneath his bed and refused to come out. The chaplain went to see if he might be able to convince the child to come out and join in on the Christmas festivities. He stood there in the dorm room and regaled the boy with the plans for the evening: the food, the gifts, the blinking lights on the tree, and so on. The boy didn't make a peep.
This went on for some time, and the chaplain began to worry that he really needed to ring the bell to gather the rest of the children for the carol service. With the boy looking so fearful, he didn't want to pull him out of his little blanketed cave by sheer force. So he did the only thing he could think to do: he got down on his stomach and wriggled partway under the bed, mussing up his clothes in the process. He kept talking to the boy, going on about the good things that waited if only he came out from under the bed. Finally, he was quiet, hoping that the smell of the fresh-baked gingerbread cookies or the laughter of the other kids would cast the boy's fear aside. Patient silence. And then it happened: the boy took the chaplain's hand crawled out from his safe haven and into the circle of celebration.
The miracle of Christmas, the mystery of incarnation, is right there if we're paying attention. God meets us where we are. If we are hiding under the bed, God will shimmy up alongside us and offer us an invitation to come into the light. Through Christ Jesus, God "came to dwell with us in our loneliness and alienation."
No sorrow is outside of his reach. No shame is beyond his forgiveness.
Tonight the angels are singing on high. The message is this: "Do not be afraid. 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 Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord." Do not let the beauty of the candles and carols overshadow the radical hope that is cradled in that mangy manger. In Christ we are reconciled and redeemed. In Christ the love of God is offered to us not despite of—but because of—our needy broken selves. It is in that divine hope in the midst of human hopelessness that we find the fullness of our Christmas joy. In is in that good news we find the beauty of this night.
May you welcome the Christ with all that you have and all that you are. Hallelujah and amen.