This is the message I shared with St.Timothy Lutheran Church and St. Mark Lutheran Church on Christmas Eve, 12/24/15. The scripture text is Luke 2:1-14.
"It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go..." Do we really miss the snow? Ray's hoping for orange trees to start sprouting in the front yard of the parsonage any day now.
This is such a wonderful time of the year as we gather with family and friends. We love the music and the food and all those nostalgic things that make this time of year Christmas.
Bethlehem and all its excitement with Jesus' birth seems far removed from our reality. We live in a world of materialism in which Christmas advertising begins around Halloween. By the time Christmas has arrived, we are already Christmased out. But don't let that stop you. There is good news here for us in tonight's gospel reading.
Mary and Joseph too went home--they went to Bethlehem because of a decree issued by the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus. This decree mandated that each person was to go to the town of his family origin, be counted in a census and pay a tax to Rome. Bethlehem was Joseph's family's original home. Caesar had spoken and go they must, despite the fact that it's around 100 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem and it would take around 34 hours to travel by foot.
Let's face it, this was not a joyous occasion. April 15th is not a day we look forward to here in the US. Imagine being told that not only do you have to pay your taxes, but you have to go to the city of your family's origin to do it! Yet this sets the scene for the Christmas story. Mary and Joseph are miles away from home, she's pregnant and when they get to Bethlehem, all the places one would stay are filled. So, they end up in a stable with cattle and horses and hay and other stuff we won't mention. This is not really the place that you would expect the Son of God to be born in. But our God is a God who loves to turn things upside down. where instead of going to the rich, he goes to the poor, instead of proclaiming things with big trumpets and fanfare in the city of Jerusalem to the rich and powerful, the Angels appear to shepherds, in a field, in the middle of nowhere and they are told to go and see a wondrous sight in the big city of Bethlehem. It's almost like having Prince William born in a stable here in Mayville!
The scene at the manger in Bethlehem is anything but imperial. God's power is revealed in weakness, and the people who count include the lowly, despised shepherds who were watching their flocks by night.
Luke, the author of tonight's gospel presents images of the poor--those oppressed by the Roman government, women giving birth in a place that houses barn animals, newborns wrapped only in strips of cloth, including the socially despised and religiously unclean shepherds. Where the commercialism of Christmas today suggests unrestricted spending and continual feasting, this image of the poor is striking because for most people of the 21st century, the poor and homeless don't exist.
God comes down to be with his people. This good news of great joy is for ALL, including dirty shepherds and unwed mothers. The angels declared to the shepherds, "to you is born this day,,,a Savior. A Savior has come, God almighty in the form of a baby has come to be with all of his people.
The angels gave the shepherds a sign, except that baby Jesus is wrapped as any other baby would be, lying in a manger. There is nothing unusual about that! God's son was as vulnerable as any other infant, subject to the conditions under which all babies live. He fully identified with every human's need for love. Yet he lies there without trumpet or drum roll and without a place to lay his head.
And the angels sing "on earth peace among those whom he favors." How do we know if we are favored or not? A better translation of this would be "on earth peace among all humankind, with whom God is pleased. Peace is for all--not just a certain special few who dot all the i's and cross all the t's. It is a peace that is too immense to be contained in an inner experience and too personal to be left to the affairs of nations.
The birth of Jesus is the story of the reign of God spilling over the boundaries set by the powerful people of the world and into those who are marginalized. God declares a new standard for power, a word of hope, "good news" for all who are fragile, weak, overlooked, despised, abandoned, homeless, all who are hovering between life and death. It is a story of reversal--earth is not looking to heaven for a sign, but heaven came down to earth and gave a sign. The extraordinary points to the ordinary and says, "See, God is with you."
But how do we incorporate this ancient story of shepherds, angels and a baby born in Bethlehem into our lives today? This happened so long ago. It's a nice story, but what does it have to do with the stress, frustrations and fears we experience today?
Besides that, the opening verses of tonight's gospel sound strange in our ears, with all those names of people that sound so unfamiliar and are so hard to pronounce. What if we put God's coming to us in contemporary terms we can better understand? It might sound like this: "In the year 2015, an executive order when out from President Obama that all the citizens of the United States should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Andrew Cuomo was governor of the State of New York and Marty Bova was the mayor of Mayville and Arden Johnson the Supervisor of Ellery."
The message for us as it was to the shepherds is "Do not be afraid." Our world seems so different from that of the time Jesus was born. In some ways yes, but in other ways no. As there were things to be afraid of then, so there are now. They just have different names.
We do not need to fear because of the good news of great joy for all the people. God has come down to be with us here in New York in the 21st century. God wants to be with us in every aspect of our lives---in our fear of terrorism, in our concern about data breaches, in our sorrow over loved ones who have died, in the joy of a newborn baby.
The message is clear. To us is born a savior who is Christ the Lord. The announcement was made to common people, people like you and me. Jesus was not born into a wealthy family that had it easy, but rather into a poor family with Mary an unmarried mother, in a place for animals.
The reality is we can't be rich enough, nice enough, smart enough or anything enough to make our way to God. However, God is the God who always comes down to us. Whether we are poor or rich or struggle with addiction, are uneducated or very well educated-- To US is born a Savior.
Like the shepherds, God gives us a very ordinary sign--a wrapped baby in a crib. God keeps coming to us--to cleanse us through the waters of baptism and to feed us through the bread and wine of the Eucharist, and through each other.
Amid our broken world the prince of peace is born among us and for us. God comes to us in human flesh--in Christ's body and blood, so that we may have hope and share that hope with our world. Jesus took on human form to show us just how much God loves us. Our responsibility as we leave this place tonight, can be summed up in the words of the African American spiritual, "God tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere that Jesus Christ is born!!"
Fred B. Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year C
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