1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And 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.
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
I want to welcome you all again in the name of Christ. There’s maybe no more beautifully nostalgic yet always changing event in the year of the church like Christmas. It’s all about God’s love, it’s all about God’s grace, and the cultural practice of exchanging gifts certainly doesn’t hurt its popularity. But it’s more than just a pretty story. It’s more than just nativity scenes and travel plans. It’s more than gifts and trees and lights and family meals. And it’s more than simply a combination of different traditions that have been coopted by Christians throughout the centuries.
This night, this birth, is about something much deeper, much more cosmic than anything we have the right to understand. I often joke that when I read
“In those days a decree went out”, I really want to read “A long time ago in a Gallilee far, far away.” This night is more than a pretty story. It is a beautiful beginning.
Until Jesus was born, people knew God through laws and regulation – good rules that guided community that were intended to show God’s love through right living – but now people would know God through the life of this man. Until Jesus was born, the mysteries of God were left for priests and rabbis, but now we see God in the face of a baby, in the teaching of a wandering preacher, and in the community of faith that declares that this baby, who will grow, live, die, and rise from the grave, is Emmanuel. God with us. God with skin on.
The fancy churchy word for this is “incarnation.” Jesus is the incarnation of God. If you know any Spanish (or like to eat Mexican food), you know that “carne” means flesh or meat. Literally, God is enfleshed and became one of us. A human. And by doing so, humanity has been redeemed.
Jesus experienced what you and I all experience – hunger, pain, joy, laughter, sorrow, regret, anger, fatigue, relationship, and warmth. He was named a human name. He was raised by human parents. His life wasn’t easy. It was human. His birth was just that, birth. Ordinary. Human. Lowly. He didn’t ride to earth a chariot of fire to conquer and bring order. He entered life the same way all of us did.
And the company he kept in this story is a microcosm of the kind of people that we would draw together. Shepherds were not extraordinary people – many did not choose the life of a shepherd. They were isolated from family, nomadic, couldn’t take time off to worship, so they were considered unclean and, well, they weren’t the most savory of characters. If God wanted Jesus’ entrance into the world to be impressive, the angels would have appeared to someone else and Jesus would have been born somewhere else. But that birth wasn’t meant to be impressive with some fairytale quality to it. It was supposed to be real, ordinary, and human.
If that doesn’t shock us, we aren’t paying attention. If that doesn’t do something deep within us, we don’t understand the depth and beauty of this moment. The angels are fancy. The shepherds seem romantic. The manger feels nostalgic. But this isn’t a celebration of the scene, but of the baby. God took on flesh and walked among us. God chose to feel the pain we feel, the hunger we feel, the joy, the fellowship, the work and by doing so, redeemed it. The ordinary has become extraordinary.
And all of this happens without our asking for it or our deserving it. The shepherds were doing their work when suddenly they heard angels telling them that God shares their lowliness, their humanity. They’re shocked. They’re frightened. And they go at once to see what has just happened. Can it be true? Would God really come like this? And they see with their own eyes that it has happened and we understand that what has happened for them has happened for us. That God has entered your brokenness to bring healing, the light is shining in your darkness, that by no work of your own, the new kingdom of heaven is upon you and among us. Though the world is not a perfect place, we know through Jesus’ birth that God is not done yet.
So today we gather with the shepherds to see if it’s really true. We gather with our questions and our hang ups and our burdens and our hopes and our dreams and we lay them at the foot of the manger. We gather to celebrate that God took on flesh and knows us, frees us, and will never stop bringing in the kingdom of heaven. We gather with the shepherds and, like the shepherds, we will leave here rejoicing. We will leave and maybe gather with friends and family, but Christmas is more than that. It’s more than a celebration – it’s a practice. We leave here and we will go back to our everyday lives – the farmers back to their farms, the nurses back to their hospitals and clinics, the students back to their schools, and the shepherds go back to their fields.
But we remember that by Jesus birth, the ordinary is extraordinary because God knows the ordinary. We will eventually be stuck in the doldrums of winter and routine. But Christmas isn’t just right now – Christmas is anytime we see the kingdom of God breaking into our lives. Christmas happens every day that someone offers forgiveness, works for peace, gives to others, spreads joy, practices love, and experiences the relief of knowing that God’s love will never stop.
Jesus Christ came in the form of a baby in a small village in modern day Palestine not because it’s extraordinary, but because it was ordinary and unexpected. It’s not about fulfilling a law, it’s about experiencing grace. It’s not about giving gifts, it’s about receiving the gift of life. It’s not about making yourself better, but about realizing that Christ came to earth for you, just as you are – ordinary and loved beyond your wildest imagination.
As you celebrate the sparkle and bright of this season, remember that God is always with you, shining light into the darkness. As you leave here, regardless of where you go or what you do, remember that Christ is with 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 the Messiah, the Lord.” Never will he leave you. Never will he give up on you. The light shines in the darkness. Hallelujah and amen.