THE GOSPEL Luke 2:1-14
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!”
Merry Christmas! And…
Wow! What a birth announcement!
As the father of four beautiful daughters, I have sent out a few enthusiastic birth announcements in my day, but nothing quite as spectacular as this. It is almost too much to take in.
Today’s Gospel delivers the ultimate birth announcement – albeit one we have heard before. But even though it is one of the most familiar stories to our ears, I would like for us to enter into it once again, to find ourselves in it and to find, again, why it is such incredibly good news.
There are a lot of places in which we can find ourselves in this story.
First, and obviously, we can find ourselves in the position of being taxed. We can relate to that right away. We might be used to hearing the words “all the world was to be taxed” found in the other versions.
But, what words do we read in this version? That “all the world would be registered”. That carries a different implication today, doesn’t it? Even the mention of “Syria” here portends danger in light of today’s news.
And, this was an ethnic registration—people were to report to a city or town determined by their ancestry.
This is how the world organizes us—in categories to be counted, managed or ruled:
Black, white, Hispanic, male, female, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, poor, middle-class, plutocrat, straight, gay, trans, management, worker bee (or “individual contributor” as the corporate world calls it), rural, urban, suburban, exurban, liberal, conservative, independent.
Categories, though, reduce who we are. They also threaten to separate us. Caesar’s registration demanded everyone be segregated according to heritage.
Now Joseph was a Jew, but he had a lot of other ancestors besides David, who were from other cities, towns and villages. How did his name end up on the rolls of the “City of David”, and not on the rolls of the city of a more recent distinguished ancestor?
We can read into this account political and economic forces over which we have no control and little influence.
The first place we might find ourselves, then, in this story is subject to political whim or economic power in a way that may determine our fortunes.
Next, we come to Mary and Joseph. We know the back-story from other texts—how Mary, a young woman, was told by an angel that she would soon be with child—a child who happened to be the Son of God.
And of Joseph’s dream directing him not to break his betrothal to Mary — reassuring him that this was all in God’s plan for them — it would all be fine.
This is where we usually leave them — on the Christmas cards and in the paintings and songs — humbling nodding acceptance and understanding at this unusual change in their plans.
But I don’t think Mary and Joseph were paper saints.
For God to come in the flesh and live among us, God would have to deal with real people. Mary and Joseph were real people—real people embarking on the unknown: Marriage. Parenthood. A Mission from God. And it was a Package Deal!
Any one of those adventures would throw good people into a tailspin—and it was happening to these two all at once.
Maybe they thought the angel would make another appearance to reassure them whenever they became a little uncertain. Maybe we expect that from God, too.
And in our stories, the discussion is over when the angel leaves. Really? Don’t you think they talked about all of this? Disagreed? Argued a little?
I’m not trying to pick a fight between them. But put yourself in their place.
I mean, can’t you at least imagine that, once the fabled innkeeper told them there was no room, one of them might have turned to the other to say “Dear, I told you we should have stopped back there.”
I won’t suggest which one: but that is the reality of relationships when we are bound to each other for better or for worse.
In fact, we find ourselves in the middle of a web of complicated relationships that sometimes nourish and strengthen us as family, friends and the church do —or — sometimes constrain and aggravate us as family, friends and the church do.
A third place we might find ourselves in this story, beyond economic and political pigeon holes and our significant relationships is in the daily grind of life—out in the field with the sheep, showing up for our shift.
I just started a new job last week, having been laid off for a short while.
I thought about it the other day, and I have been working for almost 50 years—and most of 45 years in full time employment.
I usually like my work and I have a good feeling about this new job. I have been working long enough to know, though, that there are days when I would rather just stay home. Work is, well– work.
The shepherds here put me to mind of an old Warner Brothers’ cartoon that you or your kids may have watched on Saturday mornings. The cartoon begins when a wolf and a sheepdog clock in to work:
“Mornin’, Ralph”, “Mornin’, Sam”
and ends when they clock out.
In between they go through their respective routines of either rustling or protecting the sheep. When the whistle blows they take a lunch break together and return to rustling and protecting until the whistle blows again at the end of the day.
“S’long, Ralph”, “Seeya tomorrow, Sam”
They do this every day.
The shepherds in this story show up for their shift. It is not even their flock: they are hired hands—individual contributors.
They have work to do. There may be a wolf or a bear to kill tonight. I’ll guarantee, the same two ewes will wander off again. The same guy will tell the same story or dirty joke he told at the last full moon or the last time a jackal howled.
Nothing seems to change.
And then, what happens
A baby is born
An angel appears, and then….
More angels appear
The story that begins with an Emperor’s decree introduces the Lord-Child whose appearance startles the heavens into anthems of praise and promises of peace.
Admittedly, we prefer our rulers coming by more democratic processes. We don’t relate well to kings and lords and masters. When we do relate, watching Downton Abby, we imagine ourselves in the ruling class—not as one of the servants. God forbid one of the field hands or townspeople.
But however democratically inclined we think we are, I think we would be ready to give a hero’s welcome to someone who actually could set all things to right, who would show mercy and who would govern with equity.
The angel says — this Lord-Child is the One who will.
This story that begins tangled in the complications of a new relationship teases out the mystery of the ages—that is, the reconciliation of the human and divine drawn together in perfect relationship in the Child-Messiah.
The story carries us to the edge of imagination — to the highest heavens — where Glorias ring throughout eternity and infinity.
I can’t fully explain the mystery behind the Child — the mystery of Christ. Or rather, I wouldn’t be able to finish explaining it, because its revelation continues to this day and beyond.
The Scriptures say that this is what the angels longed to see. This is what all creation yearns and groans for.
This vision of the Child-Messiah is captured in the kaleidoscopic imagery we find in the Book of Revelation and in the writings of the Hebrew Prophets before that.
The mystery continues to unfold as we come back to this story each year and hear it again, and, again, consider our relationships with God and with others.
Finally, this story, very simply, breaks into our routine, where there is a time for this, and a time for that, and a time for some other thing.
Where, in the end, we might suspect it is all in vain, as The Preacher says. Just one more lap in the gene pool.
There is a promise, here, in the Child-Savior: a promise to our hungry, wandering souls that they will be satisfied and at rest. Peace is offered to all on earth: peace that, when taken up, shows the favor or good will of God.
My husband, Gary, sometimes asks me which of my daughters, Leah, Hannah, Abigail or Deborah, is my favorite. I always say “All of them” because it is true.
My answer annoys him. He wants me to pick just one.
I tell him I have different relationships with each of my daughters. Different interactions and exchanges. I talk to some more than to others and about different things, and, to be honest, with different ease.
But each is still my favorite. I tell Gary I am being neither noble nor obtuse. It’s just so.
The peace that this Child-Savior offers is a big promise. How does He deliver on it?
We go to other Scriptures and tradition to try to understand that. Ultimately, though, that promise is worked out in the course of each of our lives. It is probably worked out differently for each one of us.
We are all God’s favorites, you know.
But, for today, we can savor the promise that “the hopes and fears of all the years” (as the hymn goes) are met together in this one Child who is Savior, Messiah and Lord.
It is too big to be believed—and that is why I believe it.
For unto us a child is born;
Unto us a Son is given.
And the government shall be upon His shoulder, and His Name shall be called
Prince of Peace.
Glory in the highest to God
And on earth, peace among all of good will and God’s favor.