Sermon – December 24, 2005

As we listen again to the first few verses of Luke’s account of the Christmas story we see that this could be the history of everyman.  There is nothing remarkable about it, at least nothing that portends what his to come.

Here in this time, Caesar Augustus is the emperor.  Things were pretty calm under Augustus, all things considered.  He had spent some years quashing civil wars and consolidating his power, but by now, things were relatively peaceful.  Quirinius is his hand picked governor in Syria, which had some jurisdiction in the bureaucratic enterprise to which Joseph and Mary had been called.  He was getting together a census of the folks under his charge so that they could be properly accounted for and taxed.  That registration required everyone to go to their official hometown where the bureaucrats would log them as present and accounted for.  That city was Bethlehem for Joseph, so he and Mary traveled from Nazareth to do their civic duty.  Surely, it was a difficult journey for a woman nine months pregnant, but there is no account of any particular distress.  The place that night is apparently teeming with people, because they could not find a room for a exceedingly pregnant woman.  No real surprise, I guess, since Bethlehem was probably a town of not much more than three or four hundred people.  They end up settling for the meager accommodations of a livestock shed where Mary had her baby boy.

That could have been the ordinary story of any number of folks.  A journey, some civic duties, a busy town, a little bad luck, a birth.

On the outskirts of Bethlehem, the commonest of the common ones are tending their flocks, watching over the sleeping sheep, trying to stay awake, probably picking a few lice out of their beards in their boredom.   This ordinary night no doubt began like any other, but suddenly out of the darkness comes a voice and a shining light.   The shepherds are terrified and wonder what in the name of God could be happening?! 

 Now this night is not so ordinary.  Now things will never be as they once were.  Now something is happening, and it takes the character of an angel of God to begin to explain. ‘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 Christ, the Lord.

 And the word is out.  And a heavenly choir sings out in joyful response and proclaims the peace of God, and the lowly shepherds set out to tell the news.

 Here in the little town of Bethlehem on an otherwise unremarkable night, the most unlikely of messengers proclaimed the long awaited news of the birth of the Messiah.

 Tonight, this night, in this place, among these people, we discover our Bethlehem.  We come to this night living through a year of concrete evidence that things are not as they should be.  We shared considerable challenge, war and terrorism, of tsunami, of earthquakes, of relentless hurricanes, and uncertain leadership. In our private lives, we have seen the challenges of job security, illness, of doubt, of fear, of change.

 Tonight, in this Bethlehem and around the world, the words of the angel speak to us   Do not be afraid.  Hope is born.  To you and to me on this night that hope beckons and calls out to us.

 Tonight we stand in the sandals of the shepherds, receiving this news in our ordinariness and our fear and our doubt, and our simplicity.  Yet, all these the venue of God’s work, so we discover again that there is no other message of Christmas but that of hope.

 It may be that the ordinariness of this time or of our lives has left us empty to the message of Christmas, distracted and unmoved.  Maybe we are here because we said we would be or don’t want to say that we missed Christmas Eve.  Maybe tradition calls us here.  But all come, at least in part, a little afraid for the world and not a little bit empty.   Let’s take this as a good sign.  As Kathleen Norris reminds us, our emptiness means there is room for God after all.

 Tonight God, in this word of hope, is filling our emptiness with permission to live differently than we do.  Permission to be released from the cynicism and boredom and fear of our ordinary lives.   Permission to share with another unconditional love because it has been given to us.   Permission to rejoice that we have been chosen for this news.   Permission to embrace this peace that the angels proclaimed.  And permission to live the next day differently than the last. 

Because hope is born into the world- concrete, living, abiding, hope- we no longer have to stand for the fact that young mothers still struggle unto death to bear their children in the most inexcusable circumstances.   Because hope, alive and concrete, is born into the world, we have permission to reject the ethic that tells the hungry there is no food, the sick there is no medicine, the oppressed that we don’t want to interfere, to tell the poor to help themselves.  Because hope is borne into the world alive and concrete, we have permission to believe that peace is possible.    Because hope is alive, we have it to share with those in despair.  Hope is an elusive tool meant to challenge fear and despair and inertia and cynicism.  It is a gift that God gives us in the Christ child.

 Although they didn’t fully understand, the shepherd knew that something was happening and it changed them and made them better than they were and different than they were.   Hillside shepherds, the lowest among the lot are given the charge, the permission to bring the news of God’s peace and hope in Jesus Christ.

 Something is happening again to night.   Hope is reaching out, darkness recedes, fear is challenged and peace is at hand.

 Now this night is not so ordinary.  Now things will never be as they once were.  Now something is happening.  Listen again as the angel speaks to you.  “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 Christ, the Lord.”

 Tonight, in this Bethlehem, the word is out.   And nothing can stop it.  Not walls, not fear, not despair, not doubt, not cynicism, not the mistakes of our past, not our incomplete understanding, not the extraordinarily ordinary.  In your life, in your family, in your heart, in the world something is happening.  Christ is born.  Do not be afraid.  It is Good News. 

Merry Christmas