Here is the Sermon I would have preached on Christmas Eve had I not come down with a nasty cold and, in the interests of public health, stayed home instead:
WHAT WERE THEY REALLY THINKING?
That’s a beautiful story we just heard from the Gospel of Luke (2:1-20). But, as so often, the Scriptures don’t offer to tell us much about people’s thoughts. We wind up filling those in for ourselves. I’m going to give it a try for a few of tonight’s players.
Picture, if you will, the old shepherd at the rear of the group, as they walk back into the hills to look after their sheep again. What’s he thinking?
“Well, that were a surprise. I didn’t think angels still came calling these days like they did back in Bible times. But we all seen it and we all heard it; so it musta happened. And when we got to that cowshed they sent us to, ’twasn’t all that much to see. Just a baby and a new mother, tired and excited the way they are, and a dad looking kind of frazzled. Was nothing grand about it—nothing like the show those angels put on. No. Now, you did get a feeling there—like somethin’ new was startin’ up—a feeling that maybe, just maybe after all this time something might go right with the world after all. A feeling that God was up to somethin’. I think we caught it from Mary and Joseph. Even in such a hard spot, they seemed hopeful and trusting and friendly and, unlike a lot of townsfolk, they made us welcome. But, really, you know? I don’t see how it’ll ever work.”
Or picture Melchior on camelback—a middle-aged Professor of Theological Astronomy on his way back to the University of Central Asia. What is he thinking?
“What was that all about? The signs seemed clear enough. And I thought the local people would have been right on top of it all, making observations and going to pay their respects. It should have been easy for us to find the child. But they acted as if we’d taken them by surprise when we arrived. Hmm! Probably a good thing, actually. I wouldn’t trust King Herod any further than I could throw him. Not far, I’d say, judging by all the gold he was wearing. We did find the child, yes, and we brought our gifts and we felt there was indeed a mystery there—a mystery worthy of being announced in the stars. There was a great sense of the presence of God surrounding and pervading that poor family. One almost dared hope that God might be about to do something useful in this crazy world. But, really, you know? I don’t see how it’ll ever work.”
And I wonder if you noticed, in the third row of the angelic chorus, that sort of middle-rank angel who seemed to be having a particularly fine time singing. What is that angel thinking?
“Wow! That was really thrilling. We’ve never done a better job, not even around the divine throne in heaven itself. But what, exactly, is God up to? And is it wise? I know I wouldn’t want to get this entangled with those problematic humans. It’s one thing to go distract a child so she doesn’t cross a collapsing bridge. I like the “guardian angel” gig. But becoming human—getting involved in actual human flesh and blood? They’re a dangerous race, you know. They can be cruel. They won’t take kindly to this, I’m afraid. I hope God has a Plan B—or C or H or Q or whatever it is at this point—because, really, you know? I don’t see how it’ll ever work.”
And what about Mary and Joseph? Luke actually does tell us something about Mary’s thoughts: “she treasured all these words [of the shepherds] and pondered them in her heart.” She had made her leap of faith nine months before. Joseph made it along with her. And their faith, intertwined with hope and love, buoyed them up through their long trek and the birth of their child. And yet, they didn’t know exactly what God was doing or what further part they might be called on to play. Instead, they pondered, they hoped, they loved. And they wondered, “How will this ever work out?
And what about God? What is God thinking at this moment in Bethlehem? That’s tricky to imagine because God’s relationship to time and space isn’t like ours. But we have hints scattered all through holy scripture. Maybe we can risk it. God is thinking:
“This isn’t all going to be pretty. The angels think I should give up on these human beings. What they don’t get is that I love them even with all their problems. The humans don’t get it either. First they tried to confuse me with the forces of nature. They credited me for good harvests and blamed me for hurricanes and earthquakes. Then they tried to commandeer me to take responsibility for their cities and religions and wars and got upset when I didn’t help them. I keep trying to get them to see me as a lover. I even sang love songs to them. But mostly they just ignore me except when they’re in trouble. And then they come and quake before me as if punishing them were my favorite thing to do.
“Well yes, it isn’t going to be pretty. But there’s some comfort in being able to see the whole story already. I can see that some people will start catching the invitation to love—that young fellow John who’s going to be a disciple, Mary from Magdala who’ll be first to figure out what’s really going on and, above all this Mary here and her Joseph, who’ve consented to be my partners in what sounds, admittedly, like a crazy scheme. And, really, you know, I think, in the long run, it’ll work.”