The Gospel of Luke 2:1-20, read last Sunday and “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” tell the traditional account of how Jesus came to be born. As kids, we learned by way of our hymns, Christmas storybooks and pageants that Mary and Joseph were compelled to travel to Bethlehem and took shelter in an animal stable. We learned Jesus was born during the night and Mary laid him in a manger, which is basically an open box or trough for horses or cattle to eat from. We imagine the stable must have been a smelly, dank and noisy place in the middle of the night. It was a most undignified start in life for the divine baby and yet “Angels of the Lord” visited nearby shepherds, proclaiming “tidings of great joy for all people” about Jesus and his birth.
There is much scholarly debate about the historical accuracy of Luke’s account. According to Kenneth E. Bailey, who wrote the book “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes”, if Joseph was indeed from the royal family of David, when the pregnant couple came into Bethlehem, known as the City of David, there is no way they would have been turned down for shelter. Joseph would have been well known and welcomed with open arms. But no matter, this moment preserved in religious time is a perfect metaphor for the good and bad we are all subject to in our lives.
Daily, we symbolically face a big old smelly trough and yet may find ourselves suddenly proclaimed by surprising angels! Our modern lives fluctuate between the ridiculous to the sublime often without a pause. Think about a typical public school teacher. Morning after morning the teacher greets kids with runny noses, who may be hungry, feel neglected or are just plain cranky. The teacher tries to teach, but the kids are squirmy and disinterested and little by little they wear away the teacher’s enthusiasm to where he or she feels more like a babysitter than an academic. Suddenly, something miraculous happens. During a teaching session one of the children in the class with a learning issue proclaims, “yeah yes! I know what you mean!” with eyes ablaze. Or another kid walks up to the teacher and says, “hope you have a good vacation” and hands them a hand drawn Xmas Card with a crooked tree and a skinny Santa. In a split second the teacher transcends darkness into light. I am sure you have your own examples of going from the lowest points of darkness into the incredible lightness of being because it is part of the rhythm of life. In any case, we have learned through the ages how the shepherds traveled to see a baby and then were inspired to go rejoice to the world about him. It is a beautiful retelling of a tradition we hold with deep love in our hearts.
But this Eve, I’d like to read another account of “Christmas,” this one from the Gospel of John. The word Christmas comes from late Old English Cristes Maesse or celebration of Christ, first found in 1038. John’s Gospel paints a picture of what Jesus’ birth means: that God’s creativity has come to a renewed sense of life, right here with us on our beautiful planet! Jesus’ birth brought with it a new light to shine in the world representing God’s love for each and every person. Though we may not understand it in human terms, I believe there are no exceptions.
Please listen closely to this NRSV version of Christ’s birth from the Gospel of John 1:1-14.
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.
So, according to John’s Gospel, the divine Christ of Jesus was at the very beginning of creation, right there alongside God and as part of God. “The Word” in Greek is Logos meaning reason, the divine reason implicit in the cosmos, ordering it and giving it form and meaning. John is telling us that at this point in time, God delivered a portion of reason-in-the-flesh to us, which gives meaning to life. I can testify to the truth in that for myself. Does being Christian help you to form a more meaningful life? If it does, I am so glad you are here and I feel a kinship to your faith journey. Continuing with the Gospel..
What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
In spite of all the odds Joseph, Mary and Jesus faced, his seemingly miraculous birth happened and no dark of night, nor lack of welcoming room in the inn, nor braying, odiferous animals kept God from making God’s-self known and present to us humans. In effect, God said “bah-humbug” to those negative attitudes of fear and scarcity and just barged right in. God’s love and desire to be with us broke through without fear and without patience for our prejudice or hesitation. God’s love is one of abundance, that is, there’s plenty to go around.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
The Gospel is talking about John the Baptizer. It’s interesting because at the time, some people believed John could be the divine anointed one, the one to deliver us from evil. They were and oppressed people, looking for a liberator, but John says, no, no, I am not The One! I am just here to tell you about the light that is to come. The Gospel is saying that light is the direct expression of God’s love. It goes on…
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own and his own people did not accept him.
Jesus was an integral part of Creation, according to John, yet when he was born and as he lived, the people for whom he came were skeptical of him and gave him a very rough time of it, as we well know. His anti-government views and his focus on the transcendent was unpopular among people who wanted someone to take them by the hand and save them from oppression.
12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
This is a difficult couple of verses because I sense it can divide us into “believers vs. non-believers.” A black and white distinction like that might be convenient for our linear brains to process, but I am not convinced it is the way God works. Light does not shine on only a select few. Light shines on everything if we are not buried under rubble of our own making. It hurts to see the images of the people of Aleppo, Syria being dug out from under the rubble of being buried alive. Let us keep them in our thoughts and prayers tonight.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only so, full of grace and truth.
As Christians, we have the gift of faith in a God who lives and breathes among us. We have a choice. We can accept the love that God offers us but we do not have to. It is an offering of light, of seeing, of being alive and present for and to the very real presence of God in spite of the times that seem we are abandoned, alone and in the dark. We accept that offering when loving one another, accepting one another in a way many of Jesus’ own people did not accept him. When you accept and acknowledge the life in another, energy is created between you shedding a light on your soul so that you see another person clearly. In faith, you are encouraged to shine and share the light of God with the person who lives outside on the street. That person may seem unattractive due to their environmental exposure, their mental stage or substance abuse. You are asked to find compassion for people who are sick or lack financial resources or suffer a disability. We are asked to do some pretty challenging things we may not really want to do. Are you up for it?
Martin Luther said during a Christmas Sermon way back in the year 1543, “The inn was full. There are many of you who think to yourselves ‘If only I had been there! How quick I would have been to help the baby!’ Luther bellowed out to his Congregation - "Why don’t you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbor. You ought to serve your neighbor, for what you do to your neighbor in need you do to the Lord Christ himself.” It’s not glamorous. Tonight and tomorrow and the next day you are offered the light of God’s Love to have and, most especially, to share. That is the message of Christmas. My prayer is that you will accept it with your heart wide open.