Like the carols we know so well, our gospel reading of the nativity of Jesus describes the story we just love to be reminded of; the sweet baby Jesus, born in a stable, swaddled and laid in a manger, where the animals warm his little body and perhaps a drummer boy even shows up, to sing him a song. It is a story repeated in countless Christmas carols and songs. Books and cards and other beautiful artwork throughout the centuries have portrayed the nativity scene in gorgeous colors and tender depictions which have helped us visualize the scene of this holy family on this holy night. Sweet. Comforting. Reassuring.
And so, we often gloss over the shocking, frightening, startling and improbable aspects of this story. We rarely contemplate the surprise, the terror, and the radical reality of the event. It becomes for us more like a fairy tale, and less like the history of Christ’s advent that it really is. And so I invite you to spend a little time with me tonight taking a second look at the gospel, rubbing off the familiarity so that the unexpected and mysterious good news at its heart shines out.
You know the story that begins: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Quirinius that all the world should be registered…Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea to the city of David called Bethlehem….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 room for them at the inn.
Jesus was born into the humblest of circumstances: unwed, teenage mother, a carpenter father who commits his life to raising this child not his own, poor animals yielding space in their shelter to this child being birthed among the sights and sounds and smells of a barn.
Then come the shepherds, “keeping watch over their flocks by night.” Sometimes we think of shepherds as a lot like their charges—peaceable, non-threatening, maybe a little bit woolly. But in reality, they were tough—tough enough to drive away or kill the beasts that preyed on their flocks. They were probably cold and dirty and smelly. They lived in the fields with their sheep, after all, and they were despised by a large segment of the society, who saw shepherding simply as a necessary evil, who thought that while someone had to do the job, the less visible shepherds were, the better.
And yet, amazingly, these dirty, despised shepherds lurking in the night are the people God shared the good news with first. Incredibly it is the lowliest of characters who are the first to know the miraculous news of the Christ child’s birth. The shepherds had no right, no expectation, and no hope of being singled out for such great news. And yet, God chose them and lifted them out of the mundane setting of a hillside night to witness to the dawn of God’s coming to dwell with humankind.
And how did God share the news? Through “an angel of the Lord,” and “a multitude of the heavenly host.” Our songs and carols often describe the angel host as a heavenly choir, which can make us forget what the word “host” actually means in the Bible— where a “host” is an army. So if you’re going to imagine what the angels looked like as they sang out the good news, forget the choir robes and harps. Instead, picture battle gear and war drums.
We might imagine how the words of the angel must have sounded to the awestruck shepherds.
“Do not be afraid—” (Yeah, right! they think).
“for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people.” (Sounding good so far…)
“Is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (For us? All right! Yes! The news we’ve been waiting for! News fit for an angel to deliver!)
“This will be a sign for you—” (Oh good, signs! Bring on the tongues of flame, the shining stars, the rushing winds, the invisible hand writing on walls!)
“You will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” (Wait—what? Me?)
I doubt that many of us here tonight would hold out hope for angelic visitations and divine messages to be delivered to us, personally. I for one know that if I were visited in the middle of the night by a heavenly army, lit with the light of a thousand candles and announcing this unexpected, unprecedented, incredible proclamation, I would indeed be terrified. We, too might feel that we have no right, no expectation, and no hope of being singled out to share the good news of Christ’s coming among us, and yet, it is for us that God took on flesh and blood, becoming one of us, one with us, in order that God might truly dwell with all of humankind. And like the shepherds, unlikely though we may be, God has chosen us to help tell the story of a love so strong that it has broken the bonds of evil, sin and death. God has blessed us with grace upon grace, and made us worthy to tell this story.
The improbable, unexpected and amazing fact of the birth narrative is that it tells us that this good news is for everyone. The promise and the good news of this Christmas story is in the details. When God came, it was not to the high and mighty, the powerful, the flashy, the rich, or even the priestly. Rather, when God came to dwell it was with the meek, the mild, the lowly, unexpected, vulnerable, and weak, and those of no account, except to God.
You and I have much in common with these characters. We may or may not consider ourselves weak, vulnerable, or lowly. But we know ourselves to be imperfect, broken, sinful beings. We live in a world fraught with danger. The news coming from our towns and cities, from countries near and far, from the government and our schools is troubling. We ourselves know deep doubt and fear. We know failure and we know the weight of disillusionment. We know the brokenness of addiction, divorce, depression, loneliness that may surround us. We know loss, grief and the inevitability of death.
And so, while it is true that we might feel undeserving of being singled out to share the good news of Christ’s coming among us, the truth is that if God can work in such an extraordinary way through ordinary characters like shepherds and a teenage girl and her carpenter husband from a town of no special significance, God can work in and through each and every one of us, in and through each and every one of our stories as well.
Like the shepherds, unlikely though we may be, God has chosen us to tell the story of the radical love that turns the tables on worldly power. Through God’s astounding, radical incarnation in a stable in Bethlehem, we are assured t
hat the blessed and esteemed of God are found not in earthly mansions and boardrooms, but in the ghetto. God has come among us not to lift up the successful but to raise the struggling, dying, thirsting ones. God is revealed in the mundane everyday places of our lives and in our world – and this truth is terrifying – for the powers that be. And it is wonderful – for us.
In the birth of Jesus Christ God makes God’s intentions known. In taking on human form, God’s love is made manifest in an infant. God’s incarnate love, Jesus becomes the embodiment of God’s grace, and the world, and our lives, will never be the same. We are freed from all that troubles us, all that binds us. We are lifted up and blessed by God’s amazing grace, to be a blessing for the world. Through this love, we are freed to become the messengers of God that the world needs to hear. Amen.