2The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-on them light has shined…. 6For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
Gospel Luke 2:1-14
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 swaddling clothes, 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 swaddling clothes 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.
This is a crazy story we’ve just read together. It’s even crazier because somehow, even in our increasingly secular society, millions of people hear this story every year. Those of us who grew up in the church can even forget how amazing the story is because it’s so familiar. It’s a story we keep coming back to for many reasons. We come back to this story because it is familiar: it feels good in difficult and changing times to be with people we know in a safe place hearing this wonderful story in words and music.
We come back to the story too because it is comforting: God’s love and hope breaks into a dark and cold world in the birth of this special baby. New babies always remind us of hope for the future, and this baby’s arrival in a stable but still surrounded with love and protection is hope itself.
We come back to the story because there’s just something about it that is compelling. Some of us wrestle with institutional religion; some of us wrestle with ideas like resurrection and miracles. But there’s something about Jesus that just feels right and true, something that calls us even if we can’t figure out why. His teachings cut through all the nonsense in his world and in ours; his words of welcome and challenge ring down through the ages. There’s a sense in the Gospels that Jesus is speaking right to us, because he is.
Even here when Jesus isn’t saying anything, the story still speaks to us. We think about Mary and Joseph, newly married and full of hope. We think about them having to travel for this census when Mary is nine months pregnant. We imagine them far from home and without family or friends to care for them when it’s time for Mary to give birth. Soon after their son is born they will have to flee the country to save him from King Herod’s persecution. They will have to pick up their lives and start over again. In a year like this one that story speaks to all of us.
But even in the midst of all that uncertainty, in the middle of a strange town full of people they don’t know, they find a way to keep Mary and the baby safe. They find a warm place with hay and some protection from the elements. And in that stable filled with amazing love, they bring a new life into the world. In that stable they became a crucial part of bringing God’s hope and promise into the world in a new way.
We come back to this story because it’s our story. It’s a story for everyone. Mary and Joseph are regular people chosen for the incredible ministry of raising God’s son. The shepherds are regular people working overnight to make a living. Many people wouldn’t want much to do with the shepherds, covered with mud and worse from their weeks of sleeping in the fields with the sheep. But the angel makes a special trip to tell these shepherds the good news of Christ’s birth.
They might not have been famous or wealthy, but God wants the shepherds to be the first to hear the news. On that night that seemed like every other night the shepherds’ routine was interrupted by an angel bursting onto the scene. The angel announces good news for the shepherds, good news for everyone. The angel announces that a child has been born in David’s city, a child who is the anointed savior of Israel and the whole world.
Those shepherds not only are the first people besides Mary and Joseph to hear the news of the Messiah; they also get to be the first people to share that news. When they hear the angel’s message they rush off to Bethlehem to see the baby king. They arrive to welcome Jesus into the world and they tell the gathering crowd that this isn’t just any baby. They proclaim that this child is the savior they’ve all been waiting for. Then they go back to work singing praise to God all the way home.
So much about the story, the angels, the miraculous birth, most of all the incredible fact of God choosing to become one of us, make this an extraordinary story. The shepherds remind us that it is also an ordinary story, or at least a story for ordinary people. When the angel says Christ’s birth is good news for all people he really means just that. The shepherds remind us that there is a place at the manger for us.
God came to earth as a person, as a baby, to reach out to us again. God’s love for us is so powerful it can’t be trapped in heaven. Instead God reaches out to us again and again in Jesus. So every year we come back to this story, back to the story of love made flesh, of good news for everyone, of a place at the manger for you and for me.
It doesn’t matter where you’ve been this year; if you have spent the last year feeling out of step with God and out of touch with your neighbors, Christ’s birth is calling you back now. If you have felt out of place in church before, the shepherds remind you that there’s a place for you here now and there always will be.
You don’t have to have it all figured out; you don’t have to have all the answers; you don’t have to look or act a certain way. Just listen to the angels and shepherds saying there is good news for you. Watch Mary and Joseph faithfully following a difficult path without knowing where it leads, but knowing that God has called them. Most of all, look at the baby Jesus. God gave up his heavenly glory and power to become vulnerable for you and for me.
There may not be room at the inn; the path ahead may not be clear, but God is with us. For us a child is born, for us a son is given. For us a savior, Christ the Lord has come into the world. In the end everything will be well. The shepherds are here bearing witness while the angels sing praises to the ends of the earth. Hope and love are born again for us, for everyone.
Thanks be to God.
Gospel John 1:1-5
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.