Christmas Eve 2008
Theme: Meaning is seeing beyond the obvious
Let us pray.
Most holy, Lord God, we gather this night, this holy night, to re-enter into the beginning of the salvation of the world; let us, with joy, relive this great event, for Jesus is with us. Amen.
Luke tells us that the Emperor Augustus ordered a world census. To Luke, the world was the Roman Empire. Only there is no historical evidence of an empire-wide census under Augustus. Quirinius did order a census in his area of influence, after Augustus died. That census did not include Judea. That’s why we are uncertain of Jesus’ exact birth year.
People were required to be registered in their hometowns, which necessitated Joseph to take Mary from Nazareth to his ancestral hometown, Bethlehem. Augustus demands peace with an iron hand. The Prince of Peace is born in a small town in a no-account province.
We are told that Joseph is a descendant of the great king, David. This is important, because people were looking for a messiah who would be a descendant of David. Mary made the trip pregnant – not only pregnant, but very pregnant. She was due at any time. They made it to Bethlehem in the nick of time. Mary was in labor.
The small town of Bethlehem was unprepared for all the visitors. They couldn’t find a place to stay. They made no reservations. They may have been too poor for the internet and had no cell phone. So, they made do.
Mary had to travel about 75 miles to a strange place. The Bible doesn’t actually say anything about a donkey – that’s another of our sentimentalizations – so she may have had to walk the whole distance. And even if she did ride, how many women here would welcome bouncing along on a donkey’s bony back when they’re ready to deliver?
Then there’s the birth. All sweetness and light. “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given” – no woman wrote those lines! Mary’s a teenager. Her first birth. You can bet your life it wasn’t silent! The stable? Piled high in dung. Not exactly a pretty sight.
The baby was wrapped in swaddling clothes, as all babies were in those days. There being no bed, a feeding trough was filled with hay and the baby was placed there.
The scene now shifts. Bethlehem is located in the Judean hill country. In those hills, shepherds were doing what shepherds do – tending their sheep. The sheep are helpless. The shepherd guards the sheep from predators and makes sure that the dumb things don’t get lost. Shepherds were not welcome in polite society. It was night.
Then suddenly and without warning, an angel appeared to them, surrounding them with blinding light. I don’t know if the sheep were scared, but the shepherds sure were. I would be too. The angel was likely in full battle array. Seeing how frightened they were, the angel tries to calm them. The angel brings good news to fill the world with joy.
Why announce this birth to shepherds? Maybe because, they were the only ones up at that time of night. God says, go announce this birth. The angel looks around and says, “Well these shepherds look conscious.” Royal births are usually announced as “good news”.
In the City of David, which is Bethlehem, a newborn child is there who is the saviour and the Christ. The term saviour was usually reserved for the Roman emperor. This child is wrapped in swaddling clothes and lies in a feeding trough. The angel’s announcement breaks a future hope into the present. Jesus’ birth is announced to people who were thought of as shiftless, dishonest people, who grazed their sheep on others’ land. Yet, Jesus is descended from the great king David, a shepherd.
Then suddenly, the angel’s buddies arrived. The assembled army praises God and says, “Glory to God in heaven. Peace on earth to everyone who pleases God.” After the angels left, the shepherds talked it over and decided to go to Bethlehem to see for themselves what was announced to them. They left in a hurray, leaving their sheep to fend for themselves.
They found Mary and Joseph and the baby just as the angel had said. They then told the baby’s parents everything the angel said. The shepherds find the saviour of the world lying in a bunch of hay. Well, everyone who heard the shepherd’s tale was astonished and impressed. Meanwhile, Mary kept all of these things inside her, continuing to ponder their meaning. The shepherds went back to work praising and glorifying God for all that happened that night.
In this season of gift giving, Jesus comes to us as a gift – both expected and unexpected. Expected, because we may plan for this time for months. Unexpected, because what Jesus’ birth means is to turn our world upside down. And God’s power comes to us in weakness. Jesus requires us to change as we slowly move to creating the Kingdom of God on earth.
Jesus is the most wonderful gift we receive, the one we don’t expect. We have the gift of the saviour, the messiah, the Lord. The announcement that was first proclaimed to shepherds is an announcement for us all.
In one of the All in the Family episodes that aired some years ago Edith and Archie are attending Edith's high school class reunion. Edith encounters an old classmate by the name of Buck who, unlike his earlier days, had now become excessively obese. Edith and Buck have a delightful conversation about old times and the things that they did together, but remarkably Edith doesn’t seem to notice how extremely heavy Buck has become.
Later, when Edith and Archie and talking, she says in her whiny voice “Archie, ain’t Buck a beautiful person.” Archie looks at her with a disgusted expression and says: “You’re a pip, Edith. You know that. You and I look at the same guy and you see a beautiful person and I see a blimp. Edith gets a puzzled expression on her face and says something unknowingly profound, “Yeah, ain’t it too bad.”
[Walk to crèche]
This is not a pretty sight. But that is not what we see. We see a miracle. We see a couple making lemonade out of lemons. We see the salvation of the world.
What we see is beautiful.
We now pray: Gracious God and giver of all good gifts, give us the gift of wonder; let us wonder at the birth of your son; let us wonder at the strange circumstances of his birth; let us wonder at the strange announcements; but most of all, let us wonder at how beautiful all of this is, through Jesus who changed the world. Amen.
Text: Luke 2:1-20 (NRSV)
2 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 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. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 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.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before 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; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah,a the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,b praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”c
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
a Or the Christ
b Gk army
c Other ancient authorities read peace, goodwill among people
 The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.