|Christmas Eve 2013 Photo by Mark DeLap|
Scripture can be found here...
This is the hardest story.
Oh, it’s also the most beautiful, and the one we are told “never grows old,” even though it’s the “old, old story.”
But I believe it’s the hardest to hear really fresh. It’s the hardest to honestly open our hearts to, because our hearts actually have these very thick crusts around them, composed, roughly, of the following:
5 cups of exhaustion from cleaning, decorating, shopping, and/ or travel;
3 cups of anxiety from visiting and/or missing loved ones
1-1/2 cups of vague and confusing memories from the Christmas pageant you were in as a child, which seemed to feature a rubber chicken.
1 unwelcome annual visitation of a ghost of Christmas past
¼ cup of true grief
2 months of credit card debt
40 yards of wrapping paper
A sprig of holly
A bag of cranberries
And roughly 4-1/2 lbs of cookie dough.
Ok, and a partridge in a pear tree.
All this is baked in the furnace that is December, until it turns into a nice golden brown, almost impenetrable shell around our hearts. How could the story possibly get through?
Let us try.
Our storyteller, Luke, starts by telling us what the big people, the important people, are up to. These are the days when the Emperor, aka Caesar Augustus, exercises his divine right to move people around from here to there so that he can count them and tax them and figure out just how wealthy and powerful he really is. His minions, like Quirinius, make sure it happens, in hopes he will remember them with a fruitcake this year. Everyone is to be registered, which means, they all head to their hometowns. Because, there’s no place like home for the holidays.
Among the travelers is a couple, Joseph and Mary, and this cannot be an easy trip for them, for lots of reasons. For one thing, Mary is very, very pregnant, and this is a trip most people are taking on foot. Eighty miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem would be four days for someone who was reasonably fit and unencumbered. For a pregnant woman, even if she had the relative luxury of a donkey to ride, it was probably more like a week. That’s one thing. For another thing, this couple didn’t follow the traditional pattern of dating, then engagement, then marriage, then baby; the timing on things was a little unconventional, and, honestly, for a while it wasn’t clear things were going to work out between them. So, there’s that.
Once they arrive in Bethlehem, the young woman is in hard labor—the real deal, this baby is definitely coming. But Bethlehem is crowded, all the people have been coming from all over the place, and everyone’s in the same boat as our young couple. Because it’s Joseph’s hometown the usual plan would be to go ahead and stay with relatives, but apparently that is not even an option. What our translation calls “the inn” is really a kind of very basic guest room, probably in the house of one of those relatives. But it’s full. So this young first-time mother has to fend for herself in the area where the animals are kept. She doesn’t have her mother with her, or anyone else, as far as we can tell, except for her husband. And… this is not an era of prenatal classes for spouses. Even with the best of intentions, Joseph’s level of helpfulness is not likely to be high. Though we can always hope.
Are you starting to see what’s going on here? On the one hand, we have Caesar Augustus, waving a royal hand and sending the populace of more than a continent scurrying, because he can, because he has all the military might of the empire behind him. And on the other hand, we have this couple, these poor, road-weary nobodies in need of some hard-to-find hospitality and kindness. And, in the midst of their exhausting and stressful journey, a babe is born.
Where do you think we’ll find God in this story?
You know the answer. God is not with the mighty and powerful. God is not with the guy who has the backing of armies, unless you count armies of angels. God is nestled in the feedbox, swaddled in strips of cloth, the newborn clothes of choice for the poor and unimportant.
What if God was one of us? (In the words of the immortal Joan Osborne...)
This is what our storyteller is getting at. What if God was one of us… the people who are not carried to royal events on the backs of slaves or in Hummer limos, but who toil along the weary road with painful steps and slow. What if God was one of us… the part of the population, who, rather than sleeping in silken sheets, can’t even manage to find a bed to give birth in? What if God was one of us?
And to put an even finer point on it, God has those armies of angels announce this birth, not to the Emperor, or his governors, or the local mayors or religious leaders… but to shepherds. Guys who are literally living in fields, doing the least prestigious, least lucrative, and most dangerous work there is.
What if God was one of us?
Our storyteller offers an answer to that question. God chose to be one of us. God chose to come, not as the five-star general of an army ready enact a scorched earth campaign, but as a tiny human, utterly dependent on others for his survival, ready to be raised by nobody parents from Nowheresville, Palestine. And Luke has the audacity to describe his birth using words typically appropriated by the Emperor. Words like, “Good news,” and “savior,” and “bringer of peace.” The angels tell the shepherds: You’ll know him by those fancy baby clothes he’s not wearing. He’ll be swaddled in bands of cloth, lying in a cow’s feedbox. Just like one of us might be.
It truly is the hardest story to take in: that God would choose to come among us, not in power, but in weakness; not in triumph, but humility bordering on humiliation; that God would come willing to literally get down in the dirt with humanity, not worried about the stains on the heavenly robes or smudges on halos. Because, yes, God is great, and yes, God is good. So very good, that God chooses to throw in the divine lot with the likes of us.
The heart of the story is clear, if we can get our hearts out from those Christmas-encased shells. It’s about God’s love for us, the ultimate ‘putting your money where your mouth is’ story. The hardest story. The old, old, story. The most beautiful story: the love story of the one who chose not to sit on a throne in the halls of the mighty, but to be enthroned in our loving hearts. Thanks be to God. Amen.