St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church
Isaiah 62: 6-12
Titus 3: 4-7
Luke 2: 1-20
There’s a wonderful children’s book, which all my own children enjoyed, called “Alexander, and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” Everything seemed to be coming down around Alexander and he just wanted to forget it all and move to Australia. We used to think that was a rather outlandish idea. A bit extreme perhaps…. to move as far away as possible when things don’t work out the way we wish they would.
But that was back when we thought we’d been through the worst of it…when Jack and Bobbie and Martin had long since been buried. But as it turns out in this year of 2016, there is no real escape from the terrible, the horrible, the no good and the very bad days. There are few places in the world where we can consider ourselves immune from the terrible….. or safe from the very bad…..not even in Australia. We are now learning how to defend ourselves in the streets, the malls and even in our churches. And the days turn into months and become years and we grow weary of the terrible and the horrible. And we wonder about how we are to carry on.
We think that our circumstances of living with terrorism, poverty, racial tension, personal threat and war are a product of the modern world. But that is not true. It has been this way since the beginning of humankind. We hear the words of the Prophet Isaiah, written seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, telling of of enemies, fear of foreigners, high courts and the poor.
And yet….it was Isaiah who prophesied about the birth of Jesus Christ, the coming of the Messiah….the one who was to come to save us from ourselves…..come to show us a better way….The Way, The Truth and the Life……God’s way…..the one whom Luke described as a Light to enlighten the Gentiles.
Isaiah speaks of tragedy and of loss, but the prophet also speaks of triumph, deliverance and restoration. And it is to these words, foretold to us, and come down to us in time, that we turn to at Christmas. It is this promise set forth by our ancestors…..by the prophets, by the early Christian apostles and by God…that gives us renewed hope for a better time to come and renewed faith in the possibility of peaceful living.
Mary and Joseph knew all about the challenges of living in a dangerous and troubled world. They knew all about social and racial injustice, exploitation of the poor as the rich became richer, about oppression of the marginalized and danger in the streets. Their world was much like ours in that regard. And rather than romanticize about their journey to Bethlehem, we must pay heed to their courage and their amazing dedication to do God’s will, even in the face of possible social scorn.
Mary is pregnant outside of marriage, a punishable sin or, at the very least, a social catastrophe which could have led to her being cast out on to the streets to try to survive on her own, had Joseph chosen to do so. Joseph was faced with the societal expectation that he should cast her aside, accusing her of adultery, in order for himself to save face in society. Yet, each came face to face with what must have seemed just as impossible to them as it would to us….a visitation from God through God’s angels. Each was given a choice. To choose to live by the world’s expectations and norms or to risk even more public humiliation and scorn by saying yes to God’s request of them. Each, independent of the other, made the decision to risk the censure of the world in order to do God’s will, even though they didn’t really understand it. Both humble people, they were awed and even more humbled to be the ones chosen to by God to participate in God’s plan to become incarnate in the world. Each was chosen for their faith and for their pure desire to please God and, when put to the test, their faithfulness to God was their priority.
So they prepared to make the long journey to Bethlehem to be registered because that was a new law under the Governor Quirinius. We don’t know about what the people in their home town of Nazareth must have thought about their condition as they set off, but there was probably a fair amount of gossiping going on behind closed doors. Yet they kept their vow to do God’s will by staying together to parent this child to come, even though they still had to obey the law of the land and make the journey to Bethlehem in the waning hours of Mary’s pregnancy. And so…. they resolutely began their journey as husband and wife, walking with faith into their unknown future.
Bethlehem was crowded with people from all parts of the surrounding countryside coming into town to be registered and nobody cared about a couple of poor people from Nazareth. Nazareth was a poor town and its people were disliked by most of the rest of Galilee. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” the Galilean, Nathaniel, asked in John’s Gospel. So is it any wonder that a poor Nazarene and his very pregnant partner found only closed doors as they tried to find a room.
They managed to find one innkeeper who agreed to squeeze them in for a few shekels if they would be willing to sleep out in the stable with the animals. We are not told if he gave them just one night, or gave them permission to stay longer, but at least the stable would allow them to rest from their journey and they probably accepted it gratefully. It was a gift of something in a world that would give them little else.
And there it was, amid the animals, for whom it all seemed perfectly acceptable, where Mary gave birth to her first child, a boy whom she and Joseph named Jesus, according to God’s will. The stable was odorous….but warm and filled with the breath of new life. A special life. A life predicted for thousands of years….a life that had existed before the beginning of time as we can conceive of it…..it was the very life of God.
And, perhaps the most amazing part of this story, is that there does not seem to be any interest taken in this birth by any of the local people of Bethlehem, or visitors from around the area. No-one seemed to notice an abnormally bright aura shining across the fields where shepherds kept watch over their flocks because they were used to ignoring shepherds. And the shepherds were used to being ignored. They were probably just as despised as the people of Nazareth, being the poorest of the poor. So the shepherds were shocked by the bright light of the heavenly host suddenly visiting their fields and telling them Good News about this very special birth. And in faithful humility, they believed the angel voices and hurried to the place where they would find the Messiah…..the one they had prayed for so long…….come at last to deliver them. And excitedly they run toward the stable. “Let us go now to Bethlehem, and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”
Just as the faithful Mary and Joseph were chosen by God to be the parents of Jesus, the shepherds, filled with faith, have been chosen by God to be first to hear the Good News of Christ’s birth. While the rest of the world kept warm with good food and drink and friends, in congenial inns and guesthouses, the shepherds crowded into the stable to gaze with wonder upon the new born baby they knew to be their long awaited Messiah. Their hearts were filled with a kind of indescribable joy, such as they had never experienced before. They knelt in awe at the feet of the child as Mary and Joseph looked on, themselves filled with overwhelming love for what had come to pass.
It is the same love we feel as we enter into the holiness of this night, this night of God’s ultimate miracle….God’s ultimate gift of Self to the world. It is awe inspiring. It is filled with wonder. And, just like Mary and Joseph, and just like the shepherds, we sense the stirring of new possibilities….of renewed hope, new opportunities for reconciliation, love and peace.
As faithful Christians, we share the same story with Mary and Joseph and we share the same story as the shepherds. We, too, want to nurture and protect all that is Gods and seeing and knowing the Glory of God, we, too, want to kneel in wonder before it. Their story is our story and they have unabashedly, and with deep humility, shown us the path to joyous acceptance of God’s word. It is in the Word made flesh, that we find our very real joy. It is in the Light of the world, that we find the meaning of renewed hope….a true way out of the darkness with which the world would enshroud us….a way toward peace.
We can’t change our world circumstances any more than could Mary or Joseph or the shepherds, but they have all shown us the way in which we can change what we feel in our hearts and what we know to be true in our souls. We can be awed and humbled by the extravagant love of God, shown in the birth of His Son, Jesus Christ. We can bow down on our knees to worship our King, as did the shepherds and we can fiercely defend him from those who would seek to destroy him, as would Mary and Joseph.
We all have to journey to our own Bethlehems…all have to answer to the call of the world, but we go with a certain strength and courage that comes from faith in the miracle of the manger, the birth of the one we call Emmanuel.
For all the sins of the world, God will have the last word, and the word will be Love. Love was born in Bethlehem and as it made its impact then, it makes it now. Even this skeptical, unbelieving world shows cracks in its armor now and then. Here is a message that I received from one of our more affluent grocery stores, which stopped me in my tracks. You may have received it, too.
It starts out saying: “Much love to you.” And here is what the message says.
Now more than ever, we are focused on love. In fact, we’ve made it our mission to fill our little corner of the world with joy, and love, and hope. Every day. Because we believe that it’s out there. ….
And it continues to talk about how they want to do and serve us in the best way they can. Earlier this week, we talked about radical hospitality….and here is an example. The message rings less of commercialism and more of a genuine desire to simply be as much for the other as possible. To offer an experience of love, joy and hope in everything they do. But it is much more than that….it is a call from the world out into the world…..a call for hope and peace….for the safety to laugh and feel joy.
When I received this message from a business in this year of 2016, I was as awed as the shepherds when they were visited by angels.
It is the message of Christmas…..a message from the manger and beyond. To love one another and to fill each little corner of the world we inhabit with the kind of joy and love and hope that comes from believing, not in magic, not in fleeting moments of happiness, but in the awesome power of God’s arrival in human form one night in Bethlehem just two thousand years ago. Within the reality of God’s time, we are not too far removed from that night. And just as we do not romanticize the world of Mary and Joseph, we do not romanticize the message of Christmas. It’s message of Love come down to dwell among us is not only real and true, it is critical to open our hearts to receive it because the world is in as much need of it today as it has ever been.
The world is in much need of Emmanuel, today just as it was two thousand years ago. The world’s poor, marginalized, homeless, war-torn and tired are in need of the hope Emmanuel brings. And, just like Mary and Joseph we know what we are to do. Like them, we all know there will be more to the story, and we do not know where God will lead us. But this is where the story of hope and possibility starts, and like the shepherds so long ago, we too are chosen to hear the words, “Be not afraid…..I bring you good news of great joy…..” We are to make known to all what we know of this child, and to praise God for all that we have seen and known to be loving, hopeful, and peaceful in our own lives.
And when we do….into the heart of the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, will enter joy. Joy that reaches far beyond the sweetness of Christmas Eve and Christmas morning……far beyond the moments of kindness that humankind finds deep within itself for a moment in time……into the possibility of fulfilling hope that never ends.
Just when we thought we might have lost it, Love has come among us again bringing God’s endless possibilities for finding our way to joyous reconciliation in the world. The joy of peaceful possibility has come to enter into the heart of the world’s consciousness again to find a foothold there. It is ours to run with wonder to embrace and it is ours to help it to find a way to stay.
Written to the Glory of God
- J. R. Culver+
December 24, 2016
 Judith Viorst, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, (Alladin Publishers) 1987
 John 14:6
 Luke 2:32
 John 1: 45-46