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 Savior, 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 favors!” (NRSV)
Here is my Christmas Eve sermon…
Grace to you and peace from God our creator, from Jesus Christ, our redeemer and friend, and from the Holy Spirit, our sustainer and guide.
Sit back and imagine with me overhearing one side of the conversation between Mary’s mother and one of her neighbors…
There is good news! Have you heard? The baby has been born! Yes! It’s a boy. He’s healthy!
Yes! He has all his fingers and toes, and he is perfect! What did they name him? I’ve told you that a hundred times! They named him Jesus, just like they had planned!
What? No, no you can’t go see him. They aren’t at home. They are in Bethlehem for the census, remember?
No, Mary did OK on the journey down there, but that is probably what put her into labor.
Yes, yes… you see as soon as they got there, it started. But there was no place for them to stay. The Inn was full and Joseph’s people were overwhelmed. They didn’t have any room either. Every available space was already being rented out to somebody. But finally someone let them have some space in a barn. Can you imagine! Making a woman in LABOR stay in a BARN! Its disgraceful…
Yes, yes, follow the money. You got that right. Everybody was taking advantage of the situation and if you couldn’t pay, you couldn’t stay. Joseph said he thought they had brought enough, but not the way these greedy people were gouging the public.
Yes, Joseph is a dear. I don’t know what Mary would have done without that man. He got down to business and made it the best he could. He broke out fresh straw. He got the midwife. Lord knows how he found her, in all that crush of people, but she got there in time. Mom and baby are fine. That is the main thing.
Yes, but I have to tell you, they finally got settled down and Mary was resting and Joseph had just gotten everything cleaned up, and the most awful thing happened…
Now wait, just let me tell you. There was a rustling outside the barn, and low voices and Joseph said he thought, “Oh no. Bandits? On a night like this?” but it was worse. Shepherds! Bandits that smell like sheep! And they came right into the barn! And Joseph put his hands up and cried, “Do not harm us! My wife has just had a baby! We have nothing much of value!” but the shepherds interrupted him and said, “We know about the baby! That’s why we are here. Do not be afraid. We are not here to hurt you but to honor him and you. The angel came to us and told us he had been born and we had to come see for ourselves!”
No! I am NOT kidding you. Shepherds said an angel came and told 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 Savior, 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.” (Luke 2:10-12, NRSV)
Yes! That’s what she told me. Yes. I wouldn’t have believed it myself, but that is what both Mary AND Joseph told me. I quizzed them quite a bit. I wanted to make sure I got it right.
Yes, yes. I guess it didn’t turn out so bad. But hold on, you have to let me finish. Yes, there’s more… there’s so much more!
And you can just imagine. The conversation would have gone on quite a bit longer, because there was lots more to tell. But that is how the news has traveled from the beginning. The angels told the shepherds and they came and saw. The shepherds told their friends and word got around.
Good news travels fast, especially when it is juicy and prone to exaggeration. Or then again, when it is almost too much to believe, it gets told a few times but when it is received with shock and disbelief and even scoffing, it doesn’t get told that many more times. It gets filed away in the deepest parts of one’s memory.
And regardless of whether you believe it historically happened this way or if these stories are a construction used to tell a timeless truth, the bottom line is, God has come into the world in a completely unexpected way.
God has done something altogether new, and not new at all. God has always been a force FOR the people doing a new thing, pushing humanity always a step closer to the fulfillment of God’s love.
From the creation of the world, God has been about making a way for humans to receive the full benefit of divine revelation, but God doesn’t show us more than we can handle as a people. God came to the Israelites to form them as a people that they might someday serve as a conduit to the nations of God’s love and compassion, a light to the nations, that the whole world might eventually see God and know God.
And from the beginning, that is how it has been. One person tells another, and then another, and through the years, despite the failings and frailty of God’s people and despite the ways humans have messed up God’s story and despite the shortcomings of the church as an organization, God’s love continues to come to us. Good news is ours for the hearing. God loves you. God loves you so much and I want you to hear that very clearly. God LOVES you.
Hear the good news. A savior has come for you in a way we all can receive and relate to. The baby born into the rudest of conditions has come to bring God’s love to you. May it wash over you. May it surround you like a blanket warming you on a cold night. May it fill you from the tips of your toes to the top of your head. May it heal your hurts and make you whole. May God’s love fill you with peace.
And as good as that is, that is NOT the end of the story. This good news is only good news if it is good news for everyone. We who have received it… We who believe it… We are called to make it live. If it is ours, it is ours not for us alone. It is ours to give.
The shepherds received the news, but not just to know it. They let it move them. They went to see. They told everyone. Shepherds were the lowest of the low in Jesus’ day. They were not the ones anyone would expect to be bearers of good news. One could only expect to be robbed and bullied when THEY came into town. But that is just it. GOD KNOWS NO LIMITS. God isn’t limited by people’s reputations. God isn’t stymied by anyone’s past.
If God can use shepherds, of all people, God can use you. May the good news of God’s love in the form of the Christ child move you. May it enter your life and fill you up until you too have to go tell someone about it.
God bless you and Merry Christmas.
blessings to you,
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.