CHRISTMAS EVE 2016
Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14, (15-20)
It was a dark time, an uncertain time. The rich were getting richer, the poor poorer. The people were deeply divided about public issues, some favoring the government of Rome because it had brought peace, others calling for revolution. The religious were at odds with the less pious. Everybody resented the taxes except the people who were collecting them.
And one Galilean couple was dislodged from their familiar surroundings to make the long trek to Bethlehem so that they could sign a government register and pay a government duty. There was no place in town to stay but the stable behind one of the inns. And there Mary realized that she was going into labor.
Joseph ran quickly to find the local midwife. He had already built a fire to keep her warm. Now he was heating water on it and doing all the midwife’s bidding. Poor Mary! None of her more experienced female relatives there to help and reassure her—just the midwife and Joseph.
But the child got born and the mother was doing fine. The midwife bathed and swaddled the infant. Joseph could breathe again. And the midwife left with a promise to return in the morning.
They had barely settled in for the night when they heard a rustling and some hushed voices outside and then a quiet knock on the stable door. Joseph got up and, not inclined to take strangers in the middle of the night lightly, he picked up his staff before he went to the door and raised the latch. He opened the door a crack to see a small huddle of rather dirty and nervous looking shepherds with a lantern.
After a bit of shoving and jostling, they pushed an old man forward to be their representative. “Sir,” he said—and fell into an embarrassed silence. This was more than a little odd. Joseph wasn’t used to being addressed as “sir.”
After a moment, the old man tried again: “Your excellency,” he said this time. Joseph’s brow furrowed and his eyes crossed a bit at this compounding of excess. But after clearing his throat rather noisily, the old man went on.
“Your excellency, we was directed here by a certain personage—a knowledgeable personage, I think—what told us that we should come straight here and pay our respects to the new baby what he went so far as to say is the Savior, the Messiah. We be most sorry to disturb you so late in the night, but the, uh, personage was most insistent and specific and said to come right here and no place else.”
This was all very odd, but then odd things had been happening to Mary and to Joseph, too. And, since the little huddle of shepherds really didn’t look threatening, he invited them in.
He began at once rifling through his saddle bag to find some little refreshment he could offer them. One couldn’t have guests, even uninvited guests, without offering refreshments. But the shepherds would have none of it. They had brought gifts for Mary and Joseph instead: good cheese, some hard bread, a bit of wine (not so good) and some spring water (quite refreshing). And they laid these out on a cloth as an offering to the new parents.
The old man began again. “It’s a strange tale—nothing like it in my time, though I’ve heard stories from long ago. It was like a person made of fire—lit the place up like broad daylight. We all ducked, of course—afraid of getting singed. But he said, the way those, uh, personages do: ” No need to be afraid. I’ve got good news.” And he sent us off here straightaway.
“We’d have been too blinded by it all to find the track down the hill, but then the whole sky lit up and we heard music coming at us from all sides. I never heard such music! And found our way down the mountain and into the town, and here we are. And here you are. And we brung the baby a wool blanket to keep him warm—here, it’s pretty clean; almost new.”
And it was still a dark time, still an uncertain time. Indeed, it seemed to be getting darker. The rich went on getting richer, the poor poorer. The people were still deeply divided about public issues. The religious were still at odds with those who were less pious. Everybody resented the taxes except the people who were collecting them.
But something was unleashed on the world there in Bethlehem that is still making trouble for the oppressors and giving hope to the poor, that’s still offering hope in troubled times, still proclaiming that love is more important than rigorous piety. It is the astonishing news that “Immanuel” is here. God is truly living alongside us—weak as a baby and yet strong enough to change the world in and with and for us.
The greatest of transformations springs from the humblest of beginnings. We are here with the shepherds to witness it again in awe and wonder—and to be filled again with the courage to live faithfully even in dark and uncertain times.