The next reading is the familiar one from Luke, the story of the birth of Jesus. It is a story that changed everything for those who were witnesses. Do you remember the feeling you may have had in moments, events or revelations that changed your life, your outlook, your trajectory forever? The depth of that feeling is what “deep joy” is about. Not simply happiness, that can be fleeting, but the idea that no matter what, there is something you have experienced that can sustain you for the long haul. God is birthing this within us again and again. Hear these words this night:
Luke 2: 1-20 (NIV)
2 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 guest room available for them.
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 that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, 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 heaven,
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.
Merry Christmas! Last week, I got onto Facebook and asked people why they celebrate Christmas. I received a wide variety of answers. A time to experience camaraderie through community. There are so many gatherings of clubs and organizations. There are concerts and sing-a-longs. Christmas is an opportunity to reconnect with family and friends. These days we can be spread so far and wide. With our busy lives this might be the only time of year that we get to see people. Sometimes the connection is through phone calls, video chats, gifts exchanged through the mail (Thank you Amazon.), pictures on social media, and for us old fashioned types a note or letter in a Christmas card.
I heard about the need for encouragement that people can be better than they seem the rest of the year. The need to get a recharge of joy in their lives, a deposit in their emotional bank account, so to speak. Folks want to feel the spirit of peace and love and encourage it in others. They want opportunities to spread love and joy to others. They want to remember the family times of the past and make new memories. And, they want the reminder that no matter what is going on out there, through the memory of the birth of Jesus we can have hope, a sense of renewal to help us face it all when we return to it.
Jesus can understand this because he had a family too, and it starts right here. All the promises from the prophets start their fulfillment on this very night. New parents with their baby in a place where animals were kept, for a young family’s privacy as much as anything. You see that night was the Great Exchange. This is not exchanging Christmas cards, cookies, or presents. It is an incredible thing. This is where God takes on human form. The infinite of God is exchanged for the finite. What is imperishable becomes perishable. He didn’t materialize as a fully grown human to take on the Caesar, the Roman Emperor. He wasn’t born in a palace nursery. He came as a little baby, and He put his trust in some ordinary humans to take care of him. Through Jesus, there is divine participation in all that is painful, ugly, frustrating, and limiting in human life. Through Jesus, the Divine takes on humanity to bring back the image of God started at creation but torn apart by the brokenness and sin in the world. That is why the birth of Jesus was a sign of God’s grace, God’s great gift to us. He came for us.
It’s a simple story. In the very beginning of his gospel, Luke says that his purpose in writing is to provide a carefully researched, orderly account. (Luke 1:3) As we heard, it was direct and to the point. There was an order for a census. Joseph had to go. Mary went with him. The baby was born. He was swaddled and placed in the Christmas crib, the manger. Yet, there is so much that we see there between the lines. We see the vulnerability of this family’s situation. Perhaps, that is why we continue to find the story compelling.
We may not have experience with what we might call supernatural miracles. When was the last time you had a choir of angles looming over you at night? However, the vulnerability of a newborn? The fear and the hope wrapped up in the hearts of new parents? We can easily relate to these and other pivotal points in life. How many of you come here today with concerns about your finances? Do you have a fear about a relationship? Are you trying to figure out how to handle illness in yourself or someone you love? Are you anxious about a loved one who is serving abroad? Is there something else that is concerning you?
No matter who we are, we have these kinds of things in our lives. We feel vulnerable in our own lives, or we go to extraordinary lengths to avoid all vulnerabilities, which leaves us feeling lost and alone. So, we can relate to these new parents who are in unfamiliar territory both literally in Bethlehem and figuratively as new parents.
We can also see something else. If God can work through these ordinary people, perhaps he can work through us. Mary, Joseph, shepherds to spread the news. In Jesus, God comes into the thick of human weakness and vulnerability and comes to save us. “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you.” (Luke 2:11) In the great Christmas exchange, God became like us, so that we might be rescued, and as the Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 8:29, we might be conformed to the image of his Son. In other words, ultimately we might become like God, Christ-like. That is why he came. He came for us.
In his humanity, Jesus cares about what we care about. Jesus had a family. He had people with whom he celebrated the holidays, holy-days. There were festivals, people he would only see certain times of the year, people to reconnect with. He felt the need for refreshment. He needed the love of his friends, and he had compassion for those who were suffering. He grieved when his friends grieved.
Jesus loved us so much that he was willing to go through the trauma of being a human and made that ultimate sacrifice for us on the cross. You see it’s not just human flesh that God takes on in Jesus. It is our flesh. It is our history and our lives that God makes himself a part of.
When we hear the Christmas story, we need to realize that it isn’t just about Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds, and a baby. It is also about us. It is about us gathered here in this space with candles, lights, music, and prayers. Love came down for us at Christmas that we might have hope and courage to come through the challenging parts of our lives with joy. It is so that we might be refreshed and renewed. This is why we celebrate Christmas. This is why we gather, so just as God entered into time and history so long ago through Jesus, the Word made flesh, God may also enter our lives even now.
Joy to the World, the Lord is come!