Luke 2:1-20 (NIV)
1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.
4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Christ, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
by Pastor Cherie Dearth
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! As we draw to the close of 2016, we must admit that it has been an exciting year. Many people may say that it has been much too exciting. There is a saying from China. May you live in interesting times. It may have been coined by a British diplomat there, Joseph Chamberlain. There has always been a question as to whether this is a blessing or a curse.
It feels like we are in the midst of a major world change. There are those moments that we can pinpoint where it seemed like the world changed in an instant. Some of them are good, some not so good. Some of you will remember where you were when President Kennedy was shot. What about when Neil Armstrong took that first small step on the moon. He was right, it was a giant leap for mankind. There was the day that the Berlin Wall came down signaling the end of the Cold War. The ending of apartheid in South Africa, and the election of Nelson Mandela. After these things the world was never the same, or at least the way that we looked at the world. Now, we seem to be on the cusp, the beginnings of another major change. Some are saying hip-hip hooray! It’s about time. Others are not quite so sure. None of us know where it is going or what it will look like.
Tonight, we are celebrating acknowledging another one of those moments in history. One of those moments when the world changed forever. This night was the night that the world changed forever when God became flesh and came to live among us. (John 1:14)
Joseph and Mary were living in interesting times, too, though they may not have thought of them so much as “interesting” as hectic. Though Luke gives us a very straight forward account of what happened, we can see how frantic it could be for them. At the worst possible moment when Mary is at the end of her pregnancy, they have to make a long and arduous trip of about 100 miles. They didn’t have to deal with the snow like we have, but there were no cars. We have a picture of Mary riding on a donkey. While that wouldn’t have been the most comfortable way to travel either, there’s no mention of a donkey in the Scriptures, so it could well have been that they both would have had to walk the entire way.
When they get there, we have a picture of the inns and hotels of Bethlehem putting the no vacancy signs out. It would seem reasonable. There would be lots of people there needing a place to stay because of the census, and I’m sure that the town was full. However, there wouldn’t really be any hotels. The word that we see translated as “inn” really means more of a room for guests. The same word is used in Luke later when Jesus and his disciples gathered to celebrate the Passover and have the Last Supper together.
Typically, a house at that time would have three stories. The ground level was where they would typically bring animals in for the night. The next floor would have been the sleeping area and where they would have brought guests. The top floor was an open air room, like a terrace. So, the “inn” would have been the private homes of the residents of Bethlehem. They had already offered hospitality to visitors. They didn’t turn Mary and Joseph away. They just didn’t have any space left in the upper room, so they made space on the ground floor. Likely, the animals that we see in our nativity scene here were put out for the night. Maybe, they looked in through the windows.
This space, apart from the rest of the guests, would have been a blessing when things got very hectic, the time when Jesus was to be born. Again, Luke gives us a very straightforward description, “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born.” (Luke 2:6) I don’t think that it was that simple. They were probably thankful that they were in a more private space. Any idea of peace would have been the last thing on their minds. It would have been loud, noisy, with people rushing about. Childbirth is not peaceful. It’s painful, messy, and frightening. Yet, once it was over. Little baby Jesus all cleaned up and wrapped in swaddling clothes, laid in Mary’s arms. Mom and baby very tired after this huge ordeal. It is over. There is life, and then comes the feeling of peace.
That could be the end of the story, but it’s just the intermission. Suddenly, we are introduced to a whole new cast of characters. The shepherds are out in the fields, minding their own business, when an angel of the Lord appeared to them. We don’t know whether this is the same angel that appeared to Mary or Joseph, but he does say the famous words that an angel says almost every time there is an encounter with people, “Do not be afraid,” or “Fear not!”
I’ve heard about people who say that they want to see an angel. We see beautiful paintings. We have the magnificent Christmas tree toppers. We could imagine that it would be such a peaceful or pleasant experience. Perhaps, they imagine someone very different like the unassuming and non-threatening appearance of Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life, but that it not what the Bible describes either. In almost every instance, the people are afraid, and the angel has to give some kind of reassurance. In this case, the shepherds are “terrified.” I’m not sure that I’d be so anxious for that kind of encounter.
However, the angel calms the shepherds, and he makes the proclamation. It’s not just good news. I’d be so bold as to call it great news! “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11) Then, the heavenly chorus appears to add emphasis.
When the angel and friends depart, the shepherds have to check this out, but how will they find this newborn. The angel has told them. He will be in the City of David, Bethlehem, and he will be the newborn lying in a manger. Sometimes people focus on the manger as an indicator of Jesus’ humble state. Maybe it is, but for the shepherds, it’s a sign that they’ve found the right child among all the babies that might be in Bethlehem.
So, the shepherds rush off to Bethlehem, and these very different people from different places are brought together. We have these shepherds from the field, a couple from out of town, the owners of the home where they stay, an angel of the Lord, and the heavenly host. No inherent connection between these people, but they are brought together to experience this extraordinary event, this moment when the world changed completely and forever, even if they were the only ones that knew it at that moment. They were able to find unity despite how very different they were. They were able to feel peace, even if it was just for a moment. They could see hope for a future that was very different from the “interesting times” they were living in. They could see the glimpse of a future. They could see in this baby’s face, even if it was only for a second, the promise of God’s kingdom.
And that is the promise for us too, as we gather together this evening. We gather from so many different backgrounds, ages, experiences, and places. We all have our hopes and fears for the future. We have the whirlwind at the close of the year with holiday season, what’s going on in the world, and the everyday experience of living our lives. Out of all this comes a sign, a sign of peace. The birth of Jesus, the fact that God came in the flesh to be among us, all he taught during his time on earth, his death and resurrection, his promise to come again: all of this is a sign from God. It is a message to all people. It is a promise that there is hope for the world.
The proclamation of the angel is a proclamation for us too. On this day, in the city of David, a Savior was born. He is our Messiah, our Lord, the Prince of Peace. This good news is not merely for a certain group of people in a particular time of a particular place. It is for everyone who is willing to listen. It is not a general message. It is specific and personal for every person. It is a specific promise for you … and you … and you, for all of you. On this day, your Savior was born, Christ the Lord.
Thanks be to God! Hallelujah! And Amen!