The Birth of Jesus
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.
The Shepherds and the Angels
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,
“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.
And, yet, here we are. We have been through a lot these past few months, but tonight, even with this Christmas Eve service that has adapted to the realities of this pandemic, we are together in some way, whether here in the sanctuary, or on Zoom, Facebook, or in the parking lot, we have gathered to hear this story again!
I love the traditions of Christmas. Whether it’s Christmas cookies, Christmas dinner at my mom’s house, Christmas trees, all of it, I mostly enjoy! This year, we’ve had to cancel so much, but we have also realized on a deeper level what Christmas is about, it’s about something new being birthed…in us and in the world around us. Childbirth isn’t easy, or so I’ve been told, it’s painful…yet, what do we call babies after they’ve arrived? “Little bundles of Joy”. Possibility, mystery, love, struggle, suffering, growth, and presence are all wrapped up into babies.
I can vividly remember the birth of our both of our kids. McKenzie came out with a smile on her face, that turned quickly into a scream when she realized that she was out of the womb and into this world. It was like, OK, I’m here, not sure what to think, doesn’t feel comfortable, but let’s do this!
My son’s birth was quick, which makes sense, he’s a fast runner and swimmer! But, before he was born, even though it was a quick labor, it was intense and I know Deb was ready for him to make his appearance. I, not really knowing what to do or say, tried to comfort Deb, but she punched me in the arm…to this day, she says it didn’t happen…but, I remember, and she was a bit out of it.
And, as we said last week, those babies grow into adulthood through the throes of life. Our faith does as well. Sometimes we have to remember that things are formed in dark places, like the womb. Faith, also is birthed in darkness.
Many of us know that December 25 is not actually Jesus’ birthday. No one really knows when he was born. So, why December 25? It was decided by the early church because it is close to the annual winter solstice.
The winter solstice is also known as the “longest night”. It is the day of the year where it’s darkest the longest.
The winter solstice is the day with the shortest period of daylight and longest night of the year, when the Sun is at its lowest daily maximum elevation in the sky.
The symbolism is great. Throughout history, people and culture have known “dark times”. Times when things are in upheaval. Unless we aren’t paying attention, we must know that we are also in a time of great change and upheaval. Politics, families, relationships, and even the church are facing schisms, divisions, scandals, and seem to be failing all around us. We see it, we experience it.
So many times the church has practiced program after program in order to be relevant or preached a message that is easy and overlooks the hard and dark aspects of life. We proclaim growth but not with the hard lessons and dissonance that must occur in our lives in order to have growth. This pandemic and the upheaval in our culture and country has forced us to face some hard realities and ask some deeper questions.
We truly live in a time where we cannot see what is going to happen next. It is a struggle and many would say that these are dark times personally and in the larger world around us.
Into these times, God has called and placed us. We are asked to embrace the dark night, because in the darkness we can learn so much.
Our ancient German and Celtic ancestors understood that darkness forces us to search even in our blindness or lack of light. Darkness also forces us to rest as we can’t work without light. It also forces to wait until the morning comes.
So, our early Christian fathers and mothers decided to put Christmas on this day of the longest darkness.
In the darkness of Christmas night, there is a great stirring, movements towards hope and something new. There are shepherds seeing and hearing miraculous news while dutifully minding their flocks. There are wise men and women seeking knowledge and growth.
The passage that we read tonight is full of subversive beauty! Caesar August, the Roman emperor was the head of a political cult that set him up to be divine, a savior, the lord, one who didn’t have any failings, a winner at all costs…and he lived in imperial power exacting a census that was a sign of his authority and ability to collect taxes and contribute the wealth of Rome. Yet, Jesus comes to us impoverished, on the run, and in a dirty stable. His coming is announced to a group of outsiders, literally, shepherds and not some great proclamation to the entire empire, this proclamation came from the heavens to a few shepherds and wise men and women so that it can be carried to and for all of creation. Amazing!
Into that dark night, a baby is born. Emmanuel or “God with us”! Jesus, Emmanuel, born to us, humanity. God, entrusting God’s self to us, in darkness, and to a couple of teenagers who were still trying to figure things out! God, who gives hospitality and relationship receives hospitality and relationship. The “uncreated” creator giving over itself to its creation. For the first 1200 years of the church, Christmas was not as big as Easter. 800 or so years ago, St. Francis began to change that by announcing that the miracle of Jesus, of God becoming flesh, was the turning point in all of history! God, incarnate! In the flesh, being born, living, loving, suffering, losing his life, and rising from the dead.
Into the night, a small light, or as my friend, Dr. Alexander Shaia says, a “radiance”, came on to the scene of history that grew to a blazing fire illuminating hope, peace, grace, friendship to ALL, welcoming the outsider, showing radical hospitality. This Jesus that says he will be with us in the darkness birthing new life and possibility to us and to those around us! This Jesus that reminds us that the church is not the latest program, fad, building, numbers, or whatever but that we are the very body of Christ! We are becoming more and more radiant as we acknowledge the hard and struggle of life, share that life together, and look at each and see the “glory on each face”!
In so many ways, this is the most exciting time and age for the church and of humanity! We have opportunity after opportunity to meet God in the darkest places and to grow into people of radiance as we wait for the morning light!
Friends, in this new year, may we walk together in whatever darkness that we are in. May we embrace where we are on this journey together. And, may we look into the darkness for the hope of Christ to be born again in us and around us…and may we proclaim and rejoice in this king, this savior, this lord, this friend to us.