Theme: Love in an unlikely setting
Let us pray.
Most holy, Lord God, we gather this night in holy awe as we remember the time when you came to us as a baby in a small town so far away and so long ago; may we celebrate this time pondering the unity between heaven and earth made visible in the birth of your son, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we pray. Amen.
Scenes of love happen in some very unlikely places and in very unlikely circumstances. Take the nativity story. By the way, the movie of the same name isn’t bad, a surprise for something out of Hollywood. Rather, what I want to share with you is the unlikely in two stories.
The first story is very familiar to you. It is the one that we hear every year at this time of the year. Because of its familiarity, it is challenging for preachers everywhere.
I want to focus this year on Mary. Many people say she was a teenager, because, in her culture, teenagers were typically betrothed, though we have no proof one way or the other whether this is true. Joseph is assumed to be an older man, perhaps because he is not mentioned when Jesus begins his ministry and is assumed dead, though he probably was not much older than Mary.
Luke tells us that there is a census, though there is no record of a census that he describes. This makes it difficult to date the year of Jesus’ birth. So we guess. Maybe 7 BC to 4 BC.
Mary and Joseph take a trip, only in Luke, from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Joseph’s hometown. There is no donkey. Mary likely walked. Women had to be hardy in the ancient world. Those who survived the harsh conditions were more likely to married in a time of arranged marriages. They passed those genes on to their daughters.
Mary made the trip pregnant – not only pregnant, but very pregnant. She was due at any time. She was, technically, an unwed mother. Joseph and Mary are engaged, not yet married. It was not unusual for engaged couples to set up a home together before the wedding in those days, especially since engagements were legal contracts. While they were in Bethlehem, Mary went into labor.
The small town of Bethlehem was unprepared for all the visitors. It is and was a very small town. We need to remember that hospitality was and still is very important in the Middle East. Having a relative, like Joseph arrive in town and not be offered lodging by some relative would be a major social offense.
Luke says there was no place for them in the inn. Only, Bethlehem had no inns. It was a very small town. They now have hotels there, because I will soon stay in one. It was very likely that there was no room for them in a typical Jewish house. People stayed in the second floor of a two story house.
In the winter or in times of danger, the most valuable animals were kept in the first floor, where the animals were typically fed. Mary and Joseph were sent to the first floor, where a messy delivery would be more convenient for everybody. There were likely female relatives present to aid the delivery.
The baby was wrapped in swaddling clothes, as all babies were in those days. They still are in Russia and other countries. When the wrapping was all done that baby wasn’t budging. And the baby makes no peep – snug as a rug. The baby feels warm and secure like it was in the womb. So, a baby in swaddling clothes is very comfortable. There being no bed, a feeding trough was filled with hay and the baby was placed there.
In the City of David, which is Bethlehem, a newborn child is there who is the saviour and the Christ. The term saviour was usually reserved for the Roman emperor. This child is wrapped in swaddling clothes and lies in a feeding trough, surrounded by peasants. The Roman emperor sits on a curule chair surrounded by a praetorium guard.
Mary said yes to a God ready to redeem the world. Mary risked alienation and death to bring Jesus into the world. Mary’s faith and love overcame the hostility that must have accompanied her pregnancy. This is why we revere this courageous woman.
In this season of gift giving, Jesus comes to us as a gift – both expected and unexpected. Expected, because we may plan for this time for months. Unexpected, because what Jesus’ birth means is to turn our world upside down. And God’s power comes to us in weakness.
The scene in Bethlehem is and was repeated time and again. A mother gives birth to a child. Not very exceptional. But if this particular birth was not exceptional, we would not be observing this birth year after year, for centuries, across the world. It is a divine birth. Humanity and God are united.
Our second story comes from a short devotional for Christian Standard magazine, where Paul Williams writes about an unusually bumpy flight he once had from Philadelphia to Long Island. Being a frequent flyer, Williams wasn’t all that concerned as the plane was batted around in the sky. Others, however, were grabbing onto their armrests or steadying themselves on the seat back in front of them.
While observing the reactions of his fellow passengers, Williams took notice of one young mother caring for her baby. He watched as she “wrapped her arms around her infant and pulled the child very close to her breast. Then she dropped her chin, rested it on the back of the child’s head, and began to sing ever so quietly, ‘Hush, Little Baby.’”
The moment caused him to reflect on Christmas, of all things. He writes: Helpless fragility is the lot of the infant. Those early days leave a lasting impression on the human psyche we never really resolve. That vulnerability stays with us all of our days, reminding us of the seemingly capricious nature of things—a bitter world that does not care if we exist.
But then God came—as an infant, unable to reach out and steady himself on the seat back in front of him, fully trusting a human, fallible mother to pull him close to her breast through the pitching, shaking nature of things.
What an extraordinary risk, to trust the infant of God to a frightened young girl. But then again—watching that new mother sing to her child all the way through the turbulent skies to the welcoming runway—I realized God knew good and well what God was doing. The power of love trumps fear, rewards risk, and brings meaning and life to an otherwise frightening world. Over and over again.
For a God who would become powerless for love, and to a mother who sings softly in her infant's ear, I give my heart for Christmas, wholly amazed at the wonder of it all.
We now pray: Gracious God and giver of all good gifts, thank you for the gift of your son, through whom we gain your favor and the promise of being with you as heirs of you through your son, Jesus Christ, whom we celebrate this time with joy, peace, wonder, and prayer. Amen.
Text: Luke 2:1-20 (NRSV)
2 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 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. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 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.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 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: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah,a the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,b praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”c
15 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.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.