Every birth story begins before any one is actually born. Skipping all the gory details, we all begin before we begin - our parents have a story to tell, whether they want to or not. Jesus’ story begins with his mother - well actually Luke starts with his uncle, Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. Anyone listening to Luke’s Gospel has this story, and of Mary’s visit with Gabriel and later with Elizabeth, in the back of their minds. These stories set the stage for what is to come, for tonight, for the mystery of Christmas. Those stories tell us to be ready for this birth because it changes everything; indeed, it has already changed the lives of Mary, Elizabeth, and Zechariah.
Did you notice that Jesus’ birth, his actual coming into the world, is basic? I’m talking about those first seven verses, the ones the lectionary actually leaves us. Notice there’s no snow, no angels, no animals; there’s not even an innkeeper. (Of course, our imagination has already added them in to the scene.) If we were listening for the first time, we might notice that Joseph and Mary are not married yet; that the child is wrapped like every other newborn, in warm cloths to keep him warm; that he is laid in a manger because they are not sleeping in an inn. And, if we were listening for the first time, we might wonder what is so special about this story. It is a story of humble details, yes, and still it is the story of a child being born - happens every day.
Every time I hear this birth story I wonder about Mary. For obvious reasons, yes, and also because I remember Gabriel’s words to her: …you will bear a son, Gabriel says,…He will be great, son of the most high, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob…and of his kingdom there will be no end… (Luke 1: 28 - 38). Did she wonder, like I do, how can this be? How can this child, this story, tell the story of the son of the Most High, of God?
The writer of Luke tells us in small details and big ones. For example, it is no coincidence that Jesus is born in Bethlehem. The Emperor’s census may demand that Joseph make his way to Bethlehem. And God uses that for God’s purposes. The people of Israel know that their king will come from Bethlehem; the prophets have said this for generations. And it is no coincidence that Joseph descends from David. This ancestry links him (and the child) to the great king of Israel. Pay attention, Luke seems to say, these little details matter. They tell us something has happened in this time and place that fulfills God’s promises.
And then, there are the big details: messengers and a choir of angels. They have more to tell us. Emperors and governors expect amazing things to happen to them. Shepherds expect wolves. These messengers, though, do not go to Rome or fancy palaces. They show up in a field; they visit the shepherds. The Emperor and governor are left alone in their palaces. The announcement of God’s life on earth is given to the humble and lowly: The son of God, the Messiah, has come to you, the angels say, go and see what God is doing for the people. Pay attention, the angels say, God is with you, go and see.
Have you ever seen or held a newborn? I hope so. It’s an amazing thing. There are few words, if any, to describe the experience: tiny lips and small ears? There is a quiet peacefulness occasionally broken by the cry of hunger. It is vulnerable and miraculous: life born again and again in our midst. It is wonderful and astonishing.
I have often wondered about the shepherds. Every year I notice that they are not traveling for the census: they live in those fields. I wonder if they count: in the eyes of the governor, Emperor, or even for themselves.
And yet, God chooses them. Whoever they are, they are the first to visit the child; the first members of a crowd that will follow Him. They do not see Jesus walk on water, heal the sick, or feed the hungry. They meet a child: tiny lips, small ears, peaceful sleeping broken by the cry of hunger. They are the first witnesses to the mystery of Christmas: the incarnation, the miracle of God in the flesh.
These shepherds: they expect wolves. Instead, they get a messenger and a choir of angels. They expect to go unnoticed. Instead, God sends them on a journey of their own. They expect to care for their sheep. Instead, they receive Joseph, Mary, and a baby. Nothing is as they expected. Everything has changed. They are the first witnesses of God’s redemption of the world.
If I could have one moment, I would like to see the encounter between the shepherds and Mary: to see the wonder on the shepherds faces; to see Mary’s (or Joseph’s) face as the shepherds tell their story; to hear the shepherds as they head back into the fields.
How did this change them, all of them? Did Mary and Joseph find comfort in the ways the shepherds affirm God’s promises? Do the shepherds comprehend, even for a moment, that God notices them, cares about them, loves them? How does anyone begin to understand what they have seen and heard?
And here’s the thing: they each only have their part of the story. The shepherds only know what they have seen and heard. Mary and Joseph only know what they have seen and heard. Even Elizabeth and Zechariah only know what they have seen. Perhaps Mary was able to gather this all together, to understand and interpret what God was doing. I’m sure these stories followed Jesus everywhere he went. I imagine his mother (like I do to my children) told him these stories on the anniversary of his birth. Eventually, the stories all come together for us. We, the hearers of Luke’s Gospel, get all the pieces in their places to tell the story of God’s work. We are witnesses to the whole story.
I wonder what it means for you? Is there a moment that is your favorite? Or perhaps a moment that we could leave out, as least far as you’re concerned? Is there something in this story that is just for you?
The mystery of Christmas is vast and immense. It can be hard to enter. It is a revelation of God and of who we are. How do we begin to understand God’s self wrapped in the package of humanity? And we know this story does not end with a king, at least not a typical king. How do we comprehend God’s life as vulnerable and humble as a baby’s, or even a shepherd’s? Can we imagine that God notices us, cares about us, loves us?
God’s birth gives life to our lives. God’s humanity gives meaning to our humanity. And our humanity, our lives, gives life to God. Now, God’s love resides and lives in us. Now, we are known to the divine and the divine is known to us. The mystery of the incarnation is God’s self given to us, all of us, through space and time, throughout history. God comes to us and embraces us as we are, God’s very own. It is an invitation to be fully and wholly who God intends us to be. This is the gift God’s life gives to us that we live no longer for our selves. Now, we live as the one God made us to be: lives full of God’s grace, mercy and love.
And now we, like the shepherds and Mary and Joseph and Elizabeth and Zechariah and all the generations that have come before and come after us, we have a story to tell. It is the story of God’s love made real in the flesh, the birth of a child. It is the story of a life lived not for its own sake, for the sake of all creation. It is the story of a son and a king, the Son of the Most High, the glory of God in heaven for all the world to see. It is a story treasure and ponder in our hearts, a story that changes everything.