1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph 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. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And 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.
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15When 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.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (NRSV)
|A Morning Walk by Chris Ford. Creative commons image on flickr|
It's no secret that I’m a Grinch when it comes to secular Christmas music or holiday shopping.
But I’ve never grown tired of my three favorite Christmas movies: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, A Christmas Story, and Home Alone. The last of these movies was released in 1990—meaning that I’ve spent the last 27 Christmases watching them.
The plots are all basically the same: the best-laid plans for the perfect Christmas crumble into absolute disaster. Yet, a pack of mangy dogs, two bumbling burglars, and a S.W.A.T. team ultimately fail to crush the holiday spirit, and by movie’s end everybody’s happy, having discovered the “true meaning of Christmas,” which, by the way, has nothing to do with Jesus Christ.
Compare all this to the Nativity story, which is a sequence of unfortunate events for everyone involved: a young bride-to-be is pregnant with a child that is not of her future husband. A ruthless and power-hungry emperor flexes his political muscles by ordering a census of the entire Roman Empire, forcing the expectant couple to leave home and make a grueling ninety-mile trip to Bethlehem. Upon their arrival, the time comes for the child to be born—and with no room in the inn, they are forced to take shelter in the most unsanitary and inhospitable of places.
Then there are the shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Their work was grueling and lonely—and their standard of living was no better than the sheep. That night, an angel of the Lord appears before them, and invites them to be the first to meet the newborn Savior. Yet they come barging in, uninvited by Mary and Joseph, bringing nothing but their stink and filth.
If you take all these things at face value, you have a sequence of disasters that are punctuated by a birth.
But all this is playing into God’s hands: the census, the manger, the shepherds, everything. Nothing is happening here by accident. The census makes for the fulfillment of God’s promises in the Scripture, that the Savior would be born in the city of David. His humble birth foreshadows that he will exercise his kingly power through peace and compassion—unlike the raw power and force of Augustus and the other rulers of this world. The manger serves as a sign for the shepherds, so that they will recognize Jesus when they get into town. And God chooses the shepherds to be the first to meet Jesus because they are at the bottom rung of society, even lower than slaves.
The Nativity story is more than just a birth. It is a revelation.
Jesus comes alive when the powers of evil are at their worst…
He is there when everything is going wrong.
He is born to be the Savior of all the lowly, forgotten, and despised persons of the world.
This is why Jesus’ birth is good news for all people.
Right now, our world is groaning with eager longing for the revelation of God’s Son. In the past year, we’ve witnessed the deadliest wildfires and hurricanes in recorded history. North Korea is threatening nuclear war. Our nation is bitterly divided along partisan lines. Drugs and violence infest and streets. More and more families are falling deeper into poverty while a few lucky rich get richer. And if you’re grieving the loss of a loved one or a broken relationship; or you’re worried about what the New Year will hold, this is undoubtedly a very painful time for you right now.
Yet these are all the reasons Jesus came. The miracle of Christmas is that Jesus shows up in ways you least expect, in the times you need him most, when all other supports give way. His birth doesn’t necessarily change life’s trials and tragedies, but he will change you.
Remember: Augustus is going to remain the emperor. Mary and Joseph are a long way from home and will soon have to flee to Egypt when Herod learns of Jesus’ birth and sets out to kill him. The shepherds will return to the poverty and loneliness of keeping sheep. But because there is Jesus, there is joy. That’s the promise here: Pure joy.
Joy happens God’s reality meets your reality in the birth of Jesus Christ.
The joy he brought to the shepherds is the same joy he brings to folks who are working the menial, low-wage jobs; struggling to make a living; doing the work that takes care of the sick, guarding public safety, and making modern life possible.
The joy he brought to Mary and Joseph is the joy that will move you forward into an uncertain future with hope. There will be joy, no matter what your boss says, what doctor says, or what you see reported on CNN or Fox News. His joy will move you forward towards the redemption that awaits you in Christ.
When you go from this place, let that joy move you forward into the New Year with hope.
Let that joy draw you deeper into your relationship with Jesus Christ, and all the ways he draws near to you—both here at church but also when you’re at home or on the go.
Let that joy ring out with love and compassion for God’s people; joining with the shepherds in praising God and telling others of the new life the infant Jesus gives to you. Let that joy banish the darkness and give peace to your corner of the world.
Go on your way rejoicing—because Jesus is born for you.