12/25/2018 12:18:48 PM
Make Known: Making it to Christmas Eve [Sermon Manuscript]
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph 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. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And 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.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “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. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When 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.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Pastor Marc's sermon for Christmas Eve (December 24, 2018) on Luke 2:1-20. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below.
It takes a lot of work to get to Christmas Eve. Over the last few weeks, if you stopped by the church office, you might have run into the pastor, parish administration, and the musicians speaking not-so silent prayers, hoping that tonight would turn out alright. We prayed for weather that was seasonal but not too snowy and for our furnace to not randomly stop working the minute the repair shop closed. And after our old work-horse of a copy machine finally printed the last of tonight’s worship bulletins, you’d swear we celebrated as if it was already Christmas. But it wasn’t only this faith community that needed to get ready to meet Jesus. Each one of us, in our own ways, had certain logistics to work through to make it here tonight. There were kids who, at the very last minute, couldn’t find any of their shoes and dogs, while we were distracted, who ate an entire loaf of bread off the kitchen counter, plastic bag and all. Some of us spent hours navigating the joy that is the Newark Airport so that we could be with our families and friends tonight. And still more are here alone, doing what they need to do as they spend another Christmas Eve on their own. The logistics of just making it to Christmas Eve involves a lot of planning, a bit of luck, and some real, actual, work.
Yet not everyone, in tonight’s reading from the gospel according to Luke, were trying to make it to Christmas Eve. The shepherds, who were spending the night in the hills around Bethlehem, had no idea what God was up to that first Christmas night. They weren’t expecting Christmas Eve. Instead, they were caught up in their daily, tiring, and dirty vocations. By the time night fell, most of the shepherds would have been like we are right now, a bit tired, a tad blurry eyed, and wondering when they could finally go to bed. Yet the beds we might be going home to were not the beds the shepherds knew. They would sleep exactly where they are, far from home. The work shepherds did was isolating, lonely, and dirty. The rest of society viewed them with suspicion, seeing them as no better than the sheep themselves. Yet shepherds knew how to manage the logistics of their everyday lives. When a wolf came by, they knew how to fight it. When a sheep was ill, they knew how to bandage its wounds. And when a mother was about to give birth, a shepherd knew how to coach the lamb and its mom, safely through. A shepherd, lowly, marginalized, and left to work with animals in the wilderness, knew exactly what life expected of them.
And then, suddenly, everything changed. An angel, a messenger from God, stood among them. Now, this wasn’t supposed to happen. No where in the operating manual for being a shepherd was there a section entitled “what to do when an angel of God appears.” They were busy preparing their flocks for the night; they weren’t keeping an eye out for God. But that’s exactly when God came to them. God’s first announcement of what happened in Bethlehem skipped over the rich, the powerful, and those with the power to make everyone move. God’s message about Jesus was first given to those already scattered in the wilderness, caught up in the busyness of their everyday lives. The shepherds expected each one of their days and nights to be pretty much the same. It would be difficult, hard, and they would be far from the halls of power and respectability. They expected to spend their lives living in the margins - and God met them, right there. We can imagine, as the angel spoke, the shepherds rubbing their eyes, wondering if they were dreaming. It seemed improbable, almost impossible, for an angel to show up to them. God, anticipating their confusion and wonder, doubled down on this improbable impossibility by letting the night sky explode with an angelic host, a literal army of angels. Before the shepherds could even process what was going on, the night was filled with a divine choir singing of a child, wrapped in cloth, waiting to meet each of them.
And once this message was finally given, God’s angelic army faded away and the night returned to what it was before. The shepherds were still in the wilderness and their sheep stilled needed to be taken care of. The logistics for the shepherd didn’t end once the angel showed up. But after experiencing the unexpected, they turned towards each other to discern what to do next. They left their sheep, came together, and as a community decided that the only thing they could do was see Jesus. They headed down the hillside, moving into the town of Bethlehem, which did not expect every shepherd in the countryside to show up all at once. And when this host of shepherds finally found Mary, Joseph, and Jesus - they couldn’t wait to share with them what their experience of God was. They told God’s newest family about how God, in a completely unexpected way, used an army of angels to announce how God was entering human life completely powerless. It wasn’t enough for God to merely oversee Creation; God chose to root God’s-self in the logistics of our everyday life. And that kind of life is filled with expectations that are met, interrupted, and turned upside down in the most unexpected ways. So God chose to get involved in the nitty gritty of our lives because God’s love couldn’t do anything less. And when Jesus took his first breath outside his teenage mother’s womb, an army of angels went into the countryside to let the marginalized, the lowly, and those living in the wilderness know that their God was near. The shepherds, living in the fields, didn’t expect to run into God there. But that’s exactly where God chose to meet them because they were worth living, dying, and rising for.
The logistics of our expectations will always be filled with busyness of our everyday lives. There’s always another event to prepare for, another storm to deal with, and we’ll never stop praying for those old reliable machines, traditions, and people that keep our lives on their expected track. Being who we are takes work. Yet through our faith and in our baptism, we discover that God has taken on all our expectations so that we can grow into the expectations God has for each of us. Because the beauty of Jesus’ nativity is that he came even though we had no idea that Christmas Eve could actually happen. And when Jesus showed up, his life of hope, peace, justice, and love wasn’t only for those ready for him. He was here for everyone, especially the marginalized, the outsiders, and those caught up in their own personal wildernesses. The wonder of Christmas is that Christmas comes whether we’re ready for it or not. Because Jesus knows exactly who you are, what your life is like, and how you can embody a life-giving love that turns the world upside down. There is no work we could ever do that would make Christmas happen. So Jesus did the work for us, coming into the world as a newborn baby, needing to be cared for as he prepared to take care of us all. And once the shepherds met Jesus face-to-face, they returned to fulfil the logistics of what they were expected to do. But they now had a message of hope, wonder, and love that they couldn’t wait to share with everyone.