Portions of a Christmas Eve sermon.
Friends in Christ, God has come. Christ is with us. Grace and peace to you from the God who shows up tonight whether we’re ready or not, because God is all in and we are fiercely loved beyond our wildest dreams. Amen.
The Christmas story begins by pinpointing this moment among secular, political superstars: Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius. Lest we wander into tonight as a fairy tale or myth, Luke reminds us that God became flesh in the midst of an Empire – in the midst of borders and policy and wars and oppression and pomp. His birthdate is marked by current events and a Roman calendar, much like ours.
And then the tale takes a sharp turn toward the Plain Janes and Joe Blows:
- A pregnant teenager awkwardly timing her contractions, who just months ago was one prophetic dream away from being scorned or stoned right out of history
- A dutiful patriarch heading home to be counted, prepare for judgment and gossip from fourth cousins about his pregnant fiancé
- And shepherds, the hired help working the night shift for the sake of other peoples’ sheep, smelly and grazing along the edge of Bethlehem where they are so easily forgotten and unseen.
Travelers and Tenants. They don’t have much power to wield in the world, but this message of a savior’s birth draws them together to witness, to adore, to participate in something brand new and much bigger than their ordinary, individual lives.
The angel appeared to the ones we’d least expect, barely named and on the fringe, so small to be tangled up in a tale with Augustus and Quirinius. Even so, they are the ones noticed and claimed by the announcement each time: Do not be afraid. This is happening. God is all in. Salvation is here and you get to be part of it. Come and adore him.
It’s a beautiful thought, these ordinary people – Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds – they are drawn to the manger through fear, angels, dreams, and wonder. It sounds like an invitation show up with all kinds of people you didn’t think would be invited – to be started by your own inclusion and then startled again that travelers and tenants of every kind are there too.
Christ is born! This is for me! Oh, wow. And for him. And her. And even them?
And yet our depiction of the nativity can seem like a quiet haunt apart from the census and crowds, one barn in the shadows of town.
Our family has a small wooden nativity scene that is treated as a very interactive toy in our living room. Last week I found the three magi lined up neatly near one sheep, a shepherd, and a headless Mary.
Yikes. I imagined that Mary had, quite literally lost her mind at 39 weeks pregnant and these visitors had showed up too early, unwelcome. Jesus hadn’t been born yet and Joseph was missing in action, probably at a CVS buying Tums, ice cream, and diapers.
Over the course of the next week, Mary’s head was reglued and we found Joseph under the couch. Tonight baby Jesus joins them in the manger. But still too set apart from the rest of the world.
I guess I've been haunted by the minimalism of this birth announcement: its isolation and rejection. Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room in the inn.
Completely turned away? This would have been impossible for Joseph, a son of David. Naming the particular patriarchs in his ancestral line would have required even distant relatives to provide hospitality, to find them a place, to welcome them home.
The word used here for inn appears only one other time in Luke’s gospel, when Jesus and the disciples share the Last Supper in the upper room of a private home. This sent me seeking more information about ancient Israeli architecture. What did houses look like, anyway?
It didn't take me long to learn that most Israeli homes in that region were three stories.
- The first level was a common living space with a dirt or straw floor. This space had an adjoining stable and, on chilly nights, the animals were brought in to keep warm.
- The second level was a more personal sleeping and eating space for the family and guests, a warm place that was likely already booked solid with visitors for the census.
- The third floor was open air and might have been used for laundry and work, but too exposed for sleeping.
Perhaps verse 7 tells us that there was no place for them in the upper room, where privacy and comforts were available. Instead, Mary and Joseph bedded down among the animals in from the chill, welcomed into the most chaotic, messy, vulnerable, and public part of the family’s home.
I’ll admit that I’m falling for this translation tonight because I want to believe that
- Jesus is born into our tiny foyers that never fit all the shoes and coats
- Mary and Joseph were navigating a situation in which the futon wouldn't pull out because the manger was in the way
- curious relatives listened to labor pains from upstairs, simultaneously excited and irritated about one more baby coming to be counted by the census
I want to believe that Jesus was born into these thin and sacred spaces
- between public and private
- between hospitality and good intentions,
- between landowners and the animals who graze the land
I want to believe that Jesus has come into our hinge moments
- the cracks in our souls
- between lonely tears and the warm embrace of a friend’s consolation
- into elections that trigger every emotion
- at dinner tables filled with family tension and conversational landmines
I want to believe that there was at least one introvert in the house that night who wandered up to the third story to get some air, who saw the star brightly shining above and thought,
“It’s beautiful. It’s shining just for me and yet it is surely for each of them downstairs, too. The ones tucked away and the ones up late gossiping. The ones snoring softly and the ones hogging the bathroom. The ones I was so excited to see and the ones who fill me with fear, loathing, and trepidation. It shines for all of them, whether they see it or not.”
A light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.
I think I will add two stories to my little wooden nativity set. For the Christmas story is not a fable set in the seclusion of a peaceful barn. No, it is a story that squishes us together with hospitality that says, We’ll make room. We'll find you something.
It invites us to be together under one roof with a whole cast of characters, for better or worse, reimaging family and relationships and home through the Christ child, who says,
“This is the Kingdom of God. The Empire will continue to count you as tokens and numbers, but in here you are family, however distant. You belong, you are welcome. What you see is what you get. It’s a mess, but here are some swaddling clothes and don’t mind the animals.”
This Christmas, hear the invitation to come inside where it is warm enough. We offer what we have to give because we belong to each other for the sake of the good. And, in the chaos and vulnerability between what is public and private, we are met by the Son of God who sees our true selves and decides
Yes. Yes! This is the perfect place to be born.