First Reading Isaiah 62:6-12
Psalm Psalm 97
Second Reading Titus 3:4-7
Gospel Luke 2:1-20
“See, your salvation comes; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.”
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
We have arrived at this most holy night, and the lectionary gives us the Gospel according to Linus. This insecure, blanket bearing boy responds to Charlie Brown’s plea, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” Linus boldly recites a section of our reading today from the King James translation of Luke. Charles Schulz debated with the show producer and animator about including the scripture reading. They argued, “It’s very dangerous for us to start talking about religion now.” Schulz answered, “If we don’t, who will?” The year was 1965.
It is the greatest story ever told. It is also a dangerous story. It was dangerous when Luke compiled the gospel. It was dangerous for early Christians to share. People have been persecuted for the sake of Jesus Christ for centuries. Today, we practice relative freedom of religion, but the story is still scandalous.
Luke situates Jesus’ birth amid the imperial edicts and oppression over an occupied Israel. The named characters, an emperor and a governor, represent the common understanding of the seats of worldly power. In the Roman registration or census, humans are trying to wield that power and create order over a world they think they control. Meanwhile, God is continuing the work of creation, entering the world and acting in it. What seems to start on the political "world" stage of the Ancient Near East leads to God’s activity on the side stage, in lowly places, over in a corner. The seat of power in the world is being turned upside down. All the political powers can yell and scream and demand all they want; they are no longer the ones shaping the world.
There is no grand parade for the arrival of the newborn king. It seems the world literally has no room for Jesus, no room in the inn. But the in-breaking of the kingdom cannot be thwarted. "The time came for her to deliver her child." Though the origins are clearly divine, Jesus comes into the world in the usual way. Mary gives birth and lays her newborn child in a manger. Our Lord and Savior begins his humanity in a feeding trough. God’s message is clear. All the trappings of earth or even heaven are held at arms length so that Jesus can be who we are, but who we often refuse to be, fully human and ultimately dependent on God the Father. This kind of humility is to be the source of our new life, if we are humble enough to accept it. The manger is not meant to contain God’s glory, but to display it. Our nourishment lies in the animal's feed box. This is the bread of life!
And who should witness this glory but lowly, ordinary shepherds. The gift bearing visitors from far away lands will come later. First, God chooses shepherds in the field, doing what shepherds do, to reveal God’s plan. The glory of the Lord appears as a blazing light, shining around the announcing angel and all those in its presence. There is a multitude of heavenly hosts. I don’t know how big a multitude is, but I’m pretty sure it’s more than two. The scene is impressive, other worldly, and divine. And there is a great announcement. The Messiah is born! The shepherds could not stay away. They couldn't not go and see. Make no mistake, as impressive as all this is, it is only a sign pointing to the savior. The baby in the feed box is our salvation!
God has come to dwell among us. Emmanuel. God with us. God incarnate. Priest and missionary Charles Freer Andrews writes, "I now look at all of life and human history more from the central standpoint of the Incarnation. I think more of the extension of the Incarnate life in wider and wider reaches of humanity, till all is summed up in Christ himself."
"The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them." This is what happens when the transformative power of God comes into the world. This is the transformation that happens when Christ comes into our hearts. The human expectations of power in the world mean nothing. The glory and salvation of God means everything. We can assume the shepherds returned to their flocks. We can assume they are changed. One cannot encounter and experience the living God and not be different. No matter the response, it changes a person.
What shall be our response? What shall we say? What shall we do? Perhaps we begin with Mary’s response that first Advent, leading to the first Christmas, when the Angel Gabriel announced the impending, divine birth. Mary was forever changed. Her response was simple, faithful, and certain. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Perhaps we turn to John the Baptist, who prepared for and proclaimed the coming of the Messiah, until his last breath. Perhaps like the shepherds, who have only a small voice in society, we glorify and praise God. And you know they told the story to whoever would listen. Perhaps like Charles Schulz, against the pressures against public religious talk, we demand that God’s story be told, in words and actions.
We have journeyed through Advent with great anticipation and expectancy, preparing room for Christ in our hearts and our lives, preparing the way of the Lord. Tonight we come face to face with God in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. How can we help but rejoice? How can we respond but to praise God without ceasing? How can we keep from singing? It is as we have been told!
After the holidays, we will all return to the various flocks we shepherd and go about our business. But in our encounter with the living God we are forever changed. The greatest story ever told continues, and we are part of the story. We are both characters in the story and storytellers. We are both participants and partakers. We are both part of salvation history and simultaneously saved. Let us join with the saints that have gone before, shout it from the hilltops, and go tell it on a mountain. Jesus Christ is born! Amen.