Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]
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.]
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
The Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton tells a story about one time he went down to a retirement center to hear a Choir sing. It was a good show. They did a very hilarious version of “I ain’t getting nuttin’ for Christmas.” Do you know the song? I didn’t but he explained it as a little boy sings about all the mischief he’s been in, and then the chorus goes: “I ain’t getting nuttin’ for Christmas, ‘cuz I ain’t been nuttin’ but bad”
After he finished laughing, he started thinking and realized that while that line sums up a lot of our thinking about how God works, it’s just not true. Actually, it is the exact opposite of the Gospel truth of this night; it is because we “ain’t been nuttin’ but bad” that we have received the one gift we needed, which is Jesus Christ Our Lord. Not just as individuals, but us as the human race, and as humanity. As the Bible says, God so loved the World that he sent his only beloved Son.
It’s not that we are individually evil; it’s that the world is in a mess, and can find no way out. Jesus Christ was born at a time of political and social unrest. Israel was once again a conquered country, living under the domination of the Romans, ruled by King Herod.
When Christ came, there was hunger and social injustice and war raged upon innocents, all in the name of such things as Truth and Justice and National Security. Then as now, the old values had become skewed and obscured and unrecognizable, and no one knew whom they could trust. And into such a world God sent the Son.
With a text that is so familiar to us I often think it’s interesting to ask questions about what we don’t know from the text. Questions like:
- What prompted Caesar Augustus to order a census?
- Why is there no room at the inn?
- How far away from the manger are the shepherds?
- Do the sheep see and hear the angels?
- What is the “glory” of the Lord?
- What is it about the angels that terrifies the shepherds?
- How do the shepherds find the little family?
This story exemplifies the mystery of a world in which we have been called to move toward one another rather than build walls. We have been called to accept both our terror and our joy because all of it is known to God. We are rightfully awed by the prospect of promised peace and harmony because around us we do not see the path to that longed-for place. The vision has to come from outside our own sensibilities; it comes from angels who are messengers of the author of creation.
One puzzle in this text, despite all the aspects of the story that elude our understanding, stands out as a continuing thorn: to whom is this child really born? The angels tell the shepherds that the Messiah is born “for all people.” The heavenly host says that peace on earth is for “those whom [God] favors.” So who is the savior saving? “To you is born this day…” and “Do not be afraid…” How does the Holy Spirit transcend our closed-in hearts and minds? The answers to our questions about this most holy birth are found in the story we hear on Christmas Eve whether we come to worship with families or alone or with friends, whether we are hungry because we come early before the feast or full because we come at midnight after much feasting.
We come to hear the songs that take us back into the Christmases we have known throughout our lives, the tunes that remind us of our parents or the people who befriended us, the rituals of dressing up, opening presents, giving gifts, and gazing at brilliant decorations—or having had none of those things in our formative years while yearning for them.
We come for the savior who is in the manger. There, Jesus is swaddled in warmth, in the safety his parents provide. Because of Jesus’ newborn fragility, he is dependent on those who care for him. He becomes emblematic of us all—infant, young adult, middle aged, or elderly—who need the care of family and neighbor and to be swaddled by the love of God, whether or not we know it.
A few weeks ago I was working the Optimists Christmas Tree sale. I had worn a pair of boots I hadn’t worn for awhile. I had them laced up tight and after about 1hr/45 min I felt a pain on my left heel. I knew exactly what that pain meant, I had a blister on my heel. So I laced my boot up tighter and finshed my shift hobbling more and more because it was too late. I hate heel blisters, it just seems like the worst place to get one. It’s intersting to me how we manage to wound ourselves in strange and new ways. It is all part of having a body.
That’s the kicker of the Incarnation- the enfleshing of God. Divine Love is poured into a body that can and will be scratched, cut, blistered, and bruised. And all that just from every day living. Jesus’s body- from compression through the birth canal to simple hunger and exhaustion- was like ours. Long before the marks of the nail and the spear, before the rope burn of a full fishing net or a smashed finger in a carpentry job, Jesus’ body was wiped somewhat clean of afterbirth, swaddled to simulate the closeness of the womb, and held to his mother’s breast.
We must not forget that there are so many bodies in the Nativity story. Mary and Joseph’s. The stench of shepherds, coming in from watching their flocks. The close musty smell of animals, their feed, and their waste. It’s a messy story, full of scarred, scabbed, and imperfect bodies.
This past year, 2020, has been one that has brought hyperawareness of bodies. How close are we standing? How long since you were hugged? Will you be in a bubble with me? Can we meet outside? I’m sorry, but maybe we can have a sleepover for your next birthday? Was that the last time I will see them?
In the middle of political fights, pandemic precautions, and continued overt evidence of systemic racism and oppression, we are pressed to be aware of one another’s bodies. We are more aware than ever that all bodies are not the same. Not only in terms of political or social standing or access, but actual physical bodies are not the same. We do not all have the same health histories, comorbidities, or underlying factors.
If we have had any consolation this year, any hope, any courage, it has come from God’s presence in our flesh and in the flesh of those who have sustained us with their own bodies, even as we were apart. In our bodies, as in the manger, there is not always perfection, but there is Love.
The message then and the message now is that we are not alone in the midst of the world’s evil. Though we, collectively,” ain’t been nuttin’ but bad, we’re still gettin’ something for Christmas.”
God has come to us in the midst of our distress. In the middle of our loneliness and despair,God has sent us a sign of his love.I nto a world filled with hopelessness, God comes to us in the hopeful form of new life and new birth.
Christ came to be a beacon of light in a dark world. Christ came to show us love in the midst of hatred and strife. Christ came to bring life in the midst of death.The cross is a reminder to us that Christ did not come to be cute. Christ came to preach, teach, heal, suffer and die. Just as the Cross looms over our altars, the cross hovers over the manger of the Christ Child.
Christ did not come so that we can have parties and give gifts. Christ did not come, to reward us for being good, but to save us from being bad. Christ came to show us the love and care of God in the midst of a deadly and dangerous world. Christ came to show us how to live and how to die. Christ came to die upon the cross for us, to save us from sin, death and the devil.
When we realize that, we are ready to celebrate with somber joy and reverent jubilation.“I’m getting’ sum-thin’ for Christmas, even though I been nuttin’ but bad.” Then we have finally taken the words “For unto us a child is born, who is Christ the LORD” to heart.