A few weeks ago, my husband Jeff and I were decorating our Christmas tree and I began to think about the ornaments. We’ve got some I made when I was a child and are now looking a little rough after many years. Some are gifts given by family, neighbors, and friends. Some from Tar-jay… that’s Target in case you didn’t know! And some from Christmas markets in Germany. Each of them has a story and a memory attached to it. And as we pulled out the ornaments and hung them, one by one on the tree, I was reminded of all the stories we share and hear at Christmas.
During this season we gather with family and friends, telling stories of Christmases past. We watch movies and laugh or cry over stories and quotes we all can repeat in our sleep, whether it’s, “God bless us, every one,”or “every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings,” or, “you’ll shoot your eye out, kid!” The last line is from my favorite Christmas movie!
And tonight we gather together to worship and hear once more the story at the heart of it all. The story of a God who loved the world so much, he became a human, taking on the form of a tiny, helpless baby – growing, teaching, healing, preaching and dying among us, so we could know that love.
The story of Jesus’ birth is miraculous, dramatic and joyous. And what struck me meditating on this story again were the timing and the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. Jesus is not only born in a humble stable during the rule of the oppressive Roman Empire, but the reading tells us he was born under the reign of the Emperor Augustus. This was a man known in imperial decrees as “Son of God” and the “savior of the whole world,” the one who was rumored to bring peace.
But that’s not the way the Gospel writer sees it. Instead, Luke’s Gospel, through the proclamation of the angel of the Lord, declares to the Empire that this little, vulnerable baby born in a stable is the true Savior, the Messiah, the Lord. That flies in the face of everything people knew and were accustomed to. Besides that, the angel and the angel host, or army, don’t show up to the powerful or the esteemed. No, they show up to some shepherds, who, like baby Jesus, have no place to lay their heads since they live in the fields.
In that time, shepherds had a pretty bad reputation. Since they worked in the fields, they didn’t practice Sabbath observances or worship in the Temple, and most likely, they smelled pretty bad. They were also seen as dishonest since they sometimes grazed their flocks on others’ land. According to teachings of the time, this made them ineligible to act as witnesses in court. Ironically, these are the people God chooses to become the first witnesses to the Messiah’s birth!
2,000 years ago, in a time of occupation, oppression, poverty and darkness, Jesus was born in dingy, dangerous, and stressful conditions and placed in a feed trough. Then angels appeared to stinky outcasts and God’s glory shone all around them. Out in rocky, rolling fields under a dark sky, God’s glory washed over people who were looked down upon. While God’s glory was born to a poor couple from the backwoods of Israel, a messenger of the Most High God shows up to some rough shepherds with good news of great joy for all people – even the outsiders – and proclaims peace in a brutal and tense time.
In January, I was lucky enough to travel to the Holy Land and visit Bethlehem. There, I visited the Church of the Nativity and the land where the shepherds must have been grazing their sheep. But I wasn’t as moved by the landmarks themselves, as I was by a quote that I saw in the courtyard of the church. On a simple stone in English and German, there was a quote that read: “When dark is the world today, This Child brings the world light.”
We pick up the newspaper or flip on the news and we hear all too often of the darkness of the world. We receive bad news from family and friends. We worry about our loved ones, our schoolwork, our jobs, our health, our finances… Fear, anxiety, disappointment, low self-esteem, painful relationships, and the shadows of our past mistakes and sins haunt us and weigh us down.
But the story of Christmas tells us that Almighty God, out of a love we can only begin to fathom, took on frail human flesh in order to forgive us and restore our broken relationships with God and one another. That God, creator of the universe, became a tender, gurgling infant in order to show us the depth and breadth of God’s love. Christmas shows us the ridiculous lengths to which God is willing to go to reach out to us and touch us with God’s grace, love and forgiveness. This is a God who doesn’t look upon us from a distance, but was born into the heart of the struggle of what it is to be human.It’s the beginning of the wonderful news the Gospels will continue to proclaim. The news that God’s salvation in Jesus Christ is for all people: rich and poor, powerful and weak, proud and humble, the religious and the impious, the saints and sinners, the outcast and the admired. The good news that whoever you are, wherever you come from, whatever you’ve done, or whatever you’re facing, God loves you and welcomes you.
The real miracle of Christmas is that Jesus is not only the light born in the darkness of a night long ago, but that he is the light shining brightly in our darkness, here and now. In the words of Isaiah, Christ breaks the yoke of our burdens and snaps in half the rod of all that holds us back, freeing us to let our lights shine into a dark world.
Take the shepherds, for example. They were so overjoyed by the vision and the message they heard out in the fields that they ran to find the little child they had heard about. And once they reached him, they were so filled with awe, they bubbled over telling Mary and Joseph about what they had experienced and then bolted out to tell others. In spite of their social status, they knew they had been transformed by what they had experienced and they wanted to share the precious news with everyone they met. If God showed up to, transformed and embolden shepherds seen as sinners and outsiders, what might God be doing through each of us?
Christ is our light, our hope and our joy. In the middle of the darkness of the world, there is a little child born to lead us into the way of the kingdom of God – the way of love, mercy and peace for all people. As Christine Sine writes, “How many fathers would give their son for us. How many mothers would pour their love into a child for us. How many kings
would leave their thrones for us. Only God in the birth of a child, in the birth of a kingdom, in the birth of a new world, would give up everything for us.” This Christmas, may you know the depth of God’s unfailing love for you and for all people. And may your lights shine brightly as you follow the light of the world. Thanks be to God and Merry Christmas! Amen.
© 2014. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.