Of course this is a very beautiful and cherished reading. It is the story of the birth of Jesus filled with joy and hope. But sometimes the impact of its message is lost on us because it is too familiar. Thus I think we often overlook that the opening of the story is designed to set up a comparison between Jesus, who too would become a King, and Caesar. Caesar was a powerful ruler and it was claimed that he had brought peace on earth. I think Luke is trying to say that this peace pales in comparison to the peace Jesus will bring.
The humble birth of Jesus is also in direct contrast to the Emperor and I think it points to the way in which Jesus whose parents were forced to go to Bethlehem to register by Caesar would overthrow the powerful and liberate the oppressed. The story also puts the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem to highlight that Jesus was from the house of King David as Bethlehem was the birthplace of David. This is also a way to demonstrate that Jesus would be a great King.
The birth story of Jesus with its very humble setting portrays a contrast and confrontation between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world. The rest of the Luke's Gospel describes Jesus coming into his Kingdom. The story mentions three times that Jesus was laid in a manger. N.T. Wright comments on how many sermons have been and will be preached on the humble nature of the Lord lying in a manger but he argues that Luke's emphasis here is to use the manger as a signpost pointing to this baby as the Messiah. It was the manger that verified to the shepherds that Jesus was truly the one the angel spoke of.
Of course the angel speaking to the shepherds declares the heart of the matter. Christmas is good news and a wonderful gift. Christmas is grace. Christmas is the announcement that God comes to us and offers us love. We did not earn this gift or even really ask for this gift. It was announced that God had freely offered the gift of Christ's kingdom of love, forgiveness and peace inaugurated through Christ's sacrificial life and love. It is pure gift and grace.
The sign of this gift of grace was the baby in the manger. This year I read a Christmas sermon by Thomas Long that helped me see the story in a new way. He argues that there is very few descriptive details in the story. But he noted that when there is descriptions of characters it is the response of the shepherds and Mary to what has happened. He feels that Luke told the story in such a way that we would put ourselves in the story and muse about what our reaction would be. This leads him and me to think about Christmas pageants and our Living Crèche as a way to enter the story in this way and to explore what our response might be to being at the manger. Is it a sign to us of the Saviour who brings great joy and peace?
And so I ask, who are you in this story, what is your experience, your response? I note that Joseph in another Gospel is described as silent, he finds all of this too hard to comprehend. And yet in a dream he is told to continue, to carry on, to complete this journey of faith. I have had this experience, and there are times when the Advent of God’s presence has brought forth a silence in me, a confusion to my discipleship, and yet…that dream holds me and takes me in a direction I have not sought or desired. In the end it was exactly where I needed to go.
And then there is Mary, holding all these things, pondering, processing it and trying to put all the pieces of the story, her story, together. That’s been my experience as well. There have been times when the various pieces made sense but God’s overall intention remained a mystery. Has that happened to you? It remains for me to ponder, and process and pray for some sense of where all of this is leading me.
And what of the shepherds, this motley crew of rough characters who are told by a witness to the event, the angels, to go and see and behold. That has also been my experience, times in my life when I was taken from my rough place, where I strangely found some comfort, to another place filled with good news and exotic epiphanies. And I went… There I saw miraculous things, blessed things, and wonderful things. Thank God for the voices of angels who showed me, us, the way.
And finally, the angels, heralds of good news, have we not also been called to share our good news with others, to witness to a blessed event in our midst? There are times in my life where the good news is so overwhelming, so powerful, that I could do nothing but share, tell, proclaim, to utter the joy of seeing with my own eyes the beauty of what God is doing in our midst. There can be no arrogance here, no conceit of being a “know-it-all”, this news was given as a gift, for we are only there to see and to share. What others do with this news is up to those who hear and makes sense of it for themselves. But people want to know our story, our experience. Too often we spend our time telling people what they ought to be doing rather than telling them what God has done for us. If it is obvious what God has done in our lives people will be affected. The church has a long and sorry history of confusing witness with imposition. Humility is really our only way, and it happens to be Jesus’ way throughout his ministry.
So where are you in this story, which kingdom is moving you, how is God’s grace, unearned and offered as a gift, being experienced by you and how are you responding this Christmas to this incredible and audacious good news? These are questions to ponder, to celebrate and to engage in a deeper way. There is much to be concerned about and process and navigate this year that is coming, know that God comes to us, startles us and makes clear that love will never let us go. It is an eternal gift. Amen.