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 on Christmas Eve (December 24, 2019) on Luke 2:1-20. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below.
As the parent of an almost 1 year old, I often spend my time being awake in the middle of the night. I’m the kind of person who’s jolted awake when my kid lets out a barely audible cry but sometimes need to be encouraged by my tired wife to just get up. Now, there’s something familiar yet also strange about having to navigate your home without your normal lights to guide you. We sort of know where everything is supposed to but not really because a shadow covers everything. I’ve spent the last year re-learning old skills - like how to find a clean diaper that’s hidden in what appears to be a black abyss. And I now know which windows I need to leave uncovered so that the light from street lamps can shine in, letting me see those random toys left behind in my very dark hallways. These skills are not needed every night because sometimes often awake for a moment before falling back asleep. But there are other times, especially these last few weeks, when I watched the night turn into a new day. And that’s always kind of interesting because even though the night is when my life at home slows down, that’s not necessarily true for everyone else. I now know, for example, which of my neighbors leave for work before the dawn breaks and which have to, every night, take their dogs out at 3 am. I get the sense that, culturally, we assume the middle of the night is when life slows down. But for those of us who are awake, we know that the night is filled with action, energy, and so much life.
So as I sat pondering tonight’s text from the gospel of Luke in the middle of the night, I noticed that the word “night” only appears once. But the idea and experience of night shows up everywhere. Our story begins with Mary and Joseph on the move. The Roman Emperor, according to Luke, has forced them on a journey that would take several nights to complete. And that’s not really easy because Mary was almost 9 months pregnant and she would need to travel the 85 miles between Nazareth and Bethlehem via either donkey or by foot. We can imagine that this journey might have taken up to a week to complete. And as Mary and Joseph traveled from Galilee through Judea, they probably spent each day wondering where they would sleep that night. When they arrived at their destination, they would have been two among many who were forced by the Emperor to stop their current lives and return to the place where their ancestors were born. Everyone there, including Mary and Joseph, were to be counted so that the Emperor could figure out new ways to exploit them in his quest for more power. I sort of wonder if, while they were traveling to Bethlehem, if Mary and Joseph found themselves to be awake in the middle of the night. I can imagine them feeling anxious about the baby and everything the angels told them. And they might have asked themselves if any of that actually mattered because they lived in a world where the Emperor had the authority to make everyone move. The Bible doesn’t tell us if Mary needed to immediately give birth once she arrived in the city. Yet with the disruptive shadow of the Emperor hovering over everything - it feels as if another kind of disruption would have immediately settled on them. And so, with Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph found themselves living into their new life - one filled with more sleepless nights than they already had.
Yet it’s precisely at that moment, as Mary and Joseph were preparing to be awake way more often in the middle of the night, when the word “night” finally appears in the Christmas story. But it wasn’t used to describe Joseph bouncing Jesus in his arms while the stars twinkled or how Mary was barely awake when Jesus, at 3 am, was ready to start his day. Instead, the word “night” wasn’t really connected to them at all. Instead, it was used to describe the people in the fields outside Bethlehem who were already awake. These shepherds were not expecting an army of angels to show up that night. They were just doing their jobs - one that took them away from their family and friends. They were busy taking care of sheep - sheep that, most likely, didn’t belong to them. And so they relied on each other for support and to keep watch while others took a few moments to sleep or rest. The shepherds knew that the world didn’t stop when everyone else was asleep. Life still happened in the darkness.
Now we tend to act as if light and dark, day and night, are two opposite poles where life happens on one end but sort of stops on the other. Yet our Bible, while using language that reinforces that polarity, also uses images and stories to show that there’s something else happens in the dark. The dark isn’t always bad nor should we label anything that is dark as something devoid of good. Rather, the dark is part of life. And it’s in the middle of the night when the message about Jesus first came. That message wasn’t delivered to the rich or powerful or even to the Roman Emperor who had the power to disrupt everyone’s lives. The message of Jesus, instead, came to those awake in the middle of their night because even then, God moves.
If I’m honest, I need to admit that there are different kinds of being awake in the middle of the night. And taking care of a healthy almost one year old is not the same kind of middle of the night we all share. Tonight, as we worship in the middle of this night, we might find ourselves living through our night that’s not as joyous as we wished it would be. Christmas Eve can be hard - filled with heartache, pain, worry, anxiety, and loss. It’s possible that we are, right now, living through a disruption that has interrupted our lives and forced us onto a new journey we didn’t expect. And it can feel as if the night controls way too much of our life. Yet on this Christmas Eve, I want you to know that the message to the shepherds is also a message meant for you. The story of Christmas isn’t only for those who are filled to the brim with candy canes, joy, and dress in twinkling Christmas lights. This story is also for those living through the middle of their nights because they were the ones who heard and saw Jesus first. Our good news of our great joy is that the middle of your night will not be the final chapter of your story. Because God came to live out the entirety of our lives - a life that will be filled with joy, laughter, pain, and sorrow. God did not run away from all the different kinds of middle of the nights that show up in our lives. Instead, Jesus was born to lead us through them.
And those shepherds can also point us to something that we might miss. Since they were Jewish, those shepherds kept time in differently than Lutheran Christians do. For us, we act as if a new day really starts once the sun rises and the orange, reds, and yellows of the morning shine through. Yet for those shepherds in the fields around Bethlehem, the new day always started the moment the night officially began. So when you are up in the middle of the night, you are also awake in the middle of a brand new day - one where God, in Jesus, promises to be with you, to love you, and to never let you go.
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