Believe it or not, as I sat down to write today’s sermon I found myself at a loss for words. I wrote, and re-wrote and re-wrote. If I had been writing on paper instead of on my laptop, there would have been a mountain of crumbled up paper beside me. How do you put into simple, human words what it is that we celebrate today when we celebrate the birth of the Christ child? How do you convey in the English language the embodiment of salvation? It is at once too complicated and too vast and at the same time so very simple. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16) It’s that simple. Yet there are not enough words in the human language to convey the full meaning. It isn’t found in words, it is found within.
Our passage today is from Luke 2 – and we have been looking at Luke all month. Do you realize that we started in Luke 1 with the story of Zechariah and we have talked about hope and hanging in there when things get tough. We’ve talked about peace and how peace can come in the middle of chaos. We saw that happening in all of the events leading up to the birth of the Christ child. We talked about joy – real lasting joy that can be ours. And we talked about Mary when she heard the angel say to her, “Greetings favored one and she responded, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” We talked about how God accomplishes great things through ordinary people just like us. And we took the opportunity to realize that God calls us as well. And so now we find ourselves remembering, recalling, celebrating, hearing about the birth of Christ.
I think we can start by recognizing that even in Jesus day, the government was involved, it had its finger in everything. In his book, Christmas from the Backside, J. Ellsworth Kalas reminds us that there was a good deal of government involvement even in the first Christmas. “What did you expect?” some might say, “the government seems to always work their way in.” When we look at this passage today, it’s hard to miss it. “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” (Luke 2:1) Now, the Roman Emperor Augustus was not entirely a bad guy. In fact, he was a very great ruler, and he is an important character in our understanding of the Christmas story. He was the sort of leader who chose peaceful negotiation over military action wherever possible and was known as a bringer of peace. But there was a problem with Augustus – he thought his rule was divine and many called him the “savior of the world.” And even though he built Rome into a great empire, his name is most widely known today for this decree, which was the equivalent of implementing a new tax plan. Little did he, or anyone else for that matter, know at the time that he was acting on God’s behalf. For God can and will use any means possible to reach out to humanity. So, God used the reigning powers to set the stage for the birth of the Christ child who is the true savior, the one through whom true peace can be found, the one in whom the good news comes to life, and the one who embodies God’s deep love for humankind. The powers that were in control took the actions they took for self-serving reasons, they never knew that they were God’s unwitting instruments of love. The census, you see provided a means of getting Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. It is easy to think our world is out of control, out of God’s control but it wasn’t then and it isn’t now.
So, let’s go to Bethlehem and see what is happening there. But maybe first we should answer the question: “why Bethlehem?” First, Bethlehem is where the greatest king of Israel was born, David. And the prophet Micah prophesied 600 years earlier that Bethlehem would be the birthplace of the Savior: “But you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” (Micah 5:2) And, it was small and insignificant in that day. God did not choose it because it was a glorious city, but exactly because it was humble. And this is a big part of the entire message of Christmas – God looks with favor upon the lowly, the underdog.
So, Bethlehem. The details of the actual birth of the Christ child are pretty sparse. In the seven verses we just read six of them were about the government, taxes, and Joseph. Only one meager verse tells us about the most important birth in the history of the world: “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.” (Luke 2:7) Of course, there was more to it than that. In high contrast to the wealth and power of the Roman Empire and the Emperor Augustus, this baby, the true Savior was born in the humblest of circumstances.
Have any of you ever had glamor shots? You know, those photo sessions where they make you look really good. They soften the edges of the photos, and you look like you are kind of sitting in a cloud or something and your family looks at the photos and says, “who’s that?” I think that over time we have done something similar with our mental picture and presentation of the events of the nativity. We picture Mary in her pristine, blue robe gazing lovingly at her glowing newborn, Joseph attentive to both of their needs, shepherds gazing on in wonder, the animals are all clean and fluffy in the well-swept stable. I enjoy this image as much as the next person, but that simply isn’t how it was. The angels must look at our vision and say, “who’s that?” Because, the reality is that love came into the world in the body of this tiny baby boy, born under stressful circumstances, in an unfamiliar place, to a first-time mom and dad, and his first bed was not a serta-comfort mattress, but a feeding trough for animals. Humble. Probably didn’t smell too great, either.
I think that we sometimes hold onto our glamour-shot vision of the nativity because we long for beauty and order, we want comfort and soft edges. Aren’t our lives way too full of disorder already? Day to day, we struggle to keep things intact, to stem the tide of chaos that too often threatens to overwhelm us at home or work or in the world at large. We’ve had enough “realism” in the news, thank you very much.
Yet, Luke doesn’t present to us a manger scene that is all sweetness and light. Real life just isn’t like that and what we are given in the manger is a real and living Savior. This is the one who is named Immanuel – God with us. This is God with us in the dirt and mire of our lives, this is God who says that, despite all appearances and our own doubts, we are worthy of love.
And so the Christ child comes – not in a cloud of baby powder and light, but humbly and in a cattle feeding trough. Through the blood, sweat, and tears of the labor pains of a young mother and cry of her infant that God is irreconcilably for us. In spite of those in power in that day and in this day. Even when it looks as though the world is out of control. God is with us.
Friends, I encourage you to accept the story of the birth of the Christ child as a simple statement of God’s love for you, no matter your circumstances. Ponder these things and recognize that God will go to any extent, will persist until each and all of us have been caught up in God’s tremendous love and have heard the good news that “unto you this day is born a savior, Christ the Lord.” Hallelujah! Amen!
As you leave here this morning, my prayer is that you will keep the promise of hope, peace, joy, and love alive and active in your life all year long. That you will remember that Christ is with you always. And that you will celebrate Christ everyday. Go in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit.