GOSPEL READING Luke 2:1-20
The Holy Gospel according to Luke.
Glory to you, O Lord.
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 God 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.
The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to you, O Christ.
Now let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord, our strength and Redeemer
This month at Council we had a devotion about the shepherds in this reading. The Shepherds don’t get much attention in this story, but when asked to think about them a few words came to ming: awe, joy, and wonder. Then I began to think about Mary in the story and realized the same words were true for her: awe, joy & wonder. For these are words that help articulate the feeling to such rich and familiar stories as we hear on this day. With the 4th Sun in Advent and Christmas Eve falling on the same day we hear a lot from Luke and can see more easily how these stories are all connected. Whether it was from Luke 1 in the morning of the Fourth Sunday of Advent, or tonight from Luke 2 and Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem. The words(awe, joy & wonder) describe feelings and our response as God’s people for all that God has done and all that only God can do.
If we honest with ourselves, I think we all recognize that Christmas can toggle between being a delight and being a chore. Traditions may feel more precious after COVID isolation, but they also may seem futile.
What difference does it make to decorate the tree, put up lights, wrap presents, send cards, host parties, and travel for family when the world is weary and heavily burdened?
Will any of it stop a military power from obliterating a nation?
Will any of it keep another mass shooter from wreaking havoc on a community?
Slow down climate change from destroying the planet’s most vulnerable?
Prevent bureaucracies from exerting damaging control?
It is striking to me that the story of the Nativity opens not with the glory of God but with that all-too-familiar, ugly reality. This time, it is Emperor Augustus who is pulling the levers of power. He monetizes his authority by ensuring the highest tax grab possible.
His decree requires that every single person, even the poorest of the poor, travel back to whatever God-forsaken place their family is from and register. Mary and Joseph have to trek 90 miles—oh, and Mary is nine months pregnant. Such a safe and comfortable time to travel, I’m sure it was a nice pleasurable experience. To the middle of nowhere. To a town where all the rooms are full. Lucky them—Mary gets to give birth in a stable. The contrast between the power of Emperor Augustus and the powerlessness of Joseph and Mary could not be more different.
One might expect that the birth of the Messiah would have a more pleasant beginning. (Merry Christmas! Ho, ho, ho!) Or at least one where it looks like God is in charge, instead of some narcissistic ruler. It is only when the scene changes that the mood shifts . . . even darker. A bunch of shepherds—also very low on the economic totem pole—are terrified by the blazing light of what we might think of an extraterrestrial visitation. It is not exactly comforting. But it is the start of God’s interference in the absurdly woeful world.
Awe, joy, and wonder. Here are a few examples from these two chapters at the beginning of Luke that are brought together on this Holy Day at the intersection of Advent and Christmas:
The first is: “The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:30). Mary is greeted by the angel with the familiar words that God so often enters in with.
“Do not be afraid.” It’s a reminder of a holy presence, but also signifies that something important is happening or about to happen. For Mary, her whole life and vocation is about to change forever. How might she respond? Mary responds with trust and faith. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be.…” That kind of faith is grounded in awe and wonder. God is up to something, and it’s far beyond Mary’s or anyone else’s wildest hopes or imaginations as God has come to Mary to fulfill the words of the prophets of old.
The next example Mary sings: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46-47). Mary sings her Magnificat as a response to God’s presence and promise. It sounds like a response of awe, wonder, and joy. Her spirit rejoices in God, and she gives words for all disciples and stewards to share and lean into as we come again to these familiar stories of God’s promises for all of God’s beloved.
Then we hear this about the shepherds: “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” (Luke 2:17-20). The conclusion of these 20 verses heard on Christmas Eve is not the end of the story but actually the beginning of God’s people coming to know and believe and share about God’s activity. The words from these verses that detail the response of the shepherds, Mary, and those first witnesses on that world changing night Bethlehem. Awe, joy, and wonder.
Messages like “Do not be afraid,” “Good news,” and “Great joy” are not what people are accustomed to hearing—especially when they never know what the emperor’s next missive might demand; when they cannot predict when his army might descend on them; when they do not pretend to have security, safety, or sustenance.
And if the point were not clear enough, God brings it home when a host—an army—of angels swarm into the sky. “You think you’re in this alone?” God laughs. “Just try me.” No earthly power dares to compete with God’s glory.
Even then, mere promises are not enough. The shepherds go to Bethlehem to confirm what they have been told. The baby’s birth is just a sign—not the completion—of God’s promise to them.
There is no obvious evidence of God’s glory in the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. But it is precisely when the news is bleak, when there is reason to count our own faith as absurd, that God’s faithfulness shows up, in wonder and surprise.
Now I realize stewardship may not be the preaching focus on such a holy day. And that is okay. But it is present in these stories. It is present in the way we respond to them.
In the way we remember and listen and tell the story of God’s promises and love for God’s people.
In the way we recall that God has come to dwell with God’s people through the birth of the baby Jesus.
In the way we remember the stories of those who first witnessed this in real-time, and then remember the stories of the years since of how God’s people continue to share this story and lean into it. Making sense of it now. All the while knowing that this at its core might be one of the most well-known stories in the Bible.
Let the story be told. Don’t get in the way of it. Don’t simplify it. It’s complex. It’s full of mystery. Let it breathe. But remember that in these stories that mark the Fourth Sunday of Advent and the Nativity of Our Lord, are invitations to respond. To sense awe. To show and sing with great joy. To think, wonder, and pray about God’s creative, redeeming, reconciling, and saving work for God’s people. And to embody this awe, joy, and wonder through all that we are and all that we do.