Just a draft right now...still have all morning and half the afternoon to edit!
Rev. Teri Peterson
December 24 2008, Christmas Eve
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!’
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.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
So a middle aged man, a pregnant teenager, and a donkey walk into a barn…
It sounds like the beginning of the world’s worst joke, but in fact it’s the beginning of the greatest story ever told.
This is a story many of us know well—a story of light and life and love and joy. The baby, surrounded by a chorus of angels and shepherds and sweet farm animals. The mother, wondering and pondering. The human father, silent and stoic.
It’s also a story that is, frankly, a little strange. I mean, this is an act of God we’re talking about here. God became a human being, joined us on earth, showed us what real power and real love and real service look like. God, who created the heavens and earth and all that are in them with just a word. God who parted the Red Sea. God who inspired the psalms and the glorious writings of the prophets. God—all powerful, glorious, wonderful, awe-inspiring. Wouldn’t you expect a big-budget Broadway musical for God’s entrance into human life? Even if that musical included being born a helpless infant, it seems like the guest list at least would be more carefully controlled. Philosophers, maybe, playwrights, musicians, definitely an emperor or king or at least a prince. They would arrive with majestic elephants and camels leading a caravan of exotic animals, money, and priceless art, singing and dancing in perfect time.
Instead we get something that begins like a bad joke—a peasant carpenter, his suspiciously pregnant fiancée, some smelly shepherds, a dirty barn, and a food trough for a crib. Not a dancing hippo in sight—instead we have cows and sheep and donkeys. No fancy clothes, no behind-the-scenes orchestra, no emperor or prince, not even a room in the inn. The angel chorus appears to the shepherds, but that’s as close as anything from Broadway gets to the stable.
Why would God, almighty, glorious, powerful, God, choose to enter the human scene in this way? Why not have fanfare and trumpets and dignitaries? Why peasants? Why peasants in an occupied country? Why peasants displaced from their ancestral home? Why shepherds for the welcoming committee? Why enter the world as the poorest of the poor—homeless, displaced, disgraced?
God often works in strange and mysterious ways, as many of us can attest. But I really think this is the strangest way God has worked—to solve the problem of distance, of our misunderstanding of power and love and covenant by joining our human condition at the lowest possible rung of the ladder. To change the world, to bring light and life and hope that cannot be overcome by even the darkest valley, by starting with the lives of ordinary people. This is so opposite the way we think, it’s hard to grasp. But this is at the heart of the Christmas story, at the center of the Incarnation—God became human not as a powerful leader, not as a military general, not as a wealthy landowner, but as a poor, innocent, helpless, vulnerable child. A child who needs love, and who gives love unconditionally. A child who changes everything—his parents’ life, his surroundings, his friends and disciples. A child who will grow up to bring hope to a distressed people. A child who will grow up to shatter the chains of death and darkness with light and life.
And that, friends, is what makes this night so holy. Not just the fact that a baby was born, though that is always a miracle and a holy event. Not just the fact that the baby was God’s word, God’s love, here on earth for us. But the fact that this baby who is God’s word and God’s love will grow up among ordinary people, will do and learn ordinary things, and yet will be the most extraordinary human being ever known. And he will change the world through love, through light, through hope, through grace, one ordinary person at a time. Unlike most of the gods prevalent at the turn of the millennium, God isn’t just for the rich, for the amazing, for the powerful. Instead we see on this night that God is with us, Immanuel. The angels say they have good news of great joy for all the people—not just the wealthy, but all the people, even shepherds, lowest of the low. This is God, turning the system on its head, surprising the whole world with grace and with the good news that power isn’t about might, isn’t about strength, isn’t about violence. Power, God-style, it turns out, is about love—love come down to earth to pour itself out for us, that we might love one another.
And so we celebrate on this holy night—we celebrate that God’s love came down to earth and lived among us, not in a palace or a castle, but in a stable, in a village, in borrowed homes, in a tomb. And that love is so strong, so real, that no darkness, no despair, no hate can overcome it. What began as a bad joke ends as a Broadway musical, full of light and life and joy. It is indeed the greatest story ever told—the story of a tiny baby born in a stable, who is in fact the Son of God, light that came into the darkness, saving grace of all the world.
Thanks be to God.