Isaiah 9:2-7+Titus 2:11-14+Psalm 96+Luke 2:1-20
A long time ago in a backwater area of the Roman Empire far, far away….
A season of darkness and suffering has descended on the people of Israel. The Emperor has demanded that everyone return to their ancestral land to be counted in a census.
Joseph, a carpenter, must travel to Bethlehem, the ancestral home of the house of David, with his pregnant fiancée, Mary, a hard and treacherous journey. It is time for the child to be born, and they are desperate to find suitable lodging.
A small and unsuspecting band of shepherds in a field just outside of town have no idea that this baby will restore a spark of hope and bring freedom to people everywhere.
George Lucas could not have come up with a better story.
It was a dark time then. It is a dark time now.
Methodist pastor, teacher, and author Will Willimon tells of a Florida newspaper that made an editorial decision to, on Christmas Day, publish no bad news on the front page of the paper (this was when there were such things as print editions of papers). So the headline and cover had heart-warming stories of good Santas and people helping other people and a picture of the pope, while buried inside were the stories of murder and fire and pain and loss. Willimon writes, “the well-intentioned newspaper editor missed the point of Christmas: “Jesus, the Son of God, wasn’t born into a sentimental, good-news-only fantasy world. He was born into this world, our world, which was evil and dangerous then just as it is now.”
While it may not sound like it, this is really Good News for us. It was into this world that God came as one of us. We are no better now at making peace and relieving oppression and ending economic injustice, yet still God comes. Our failures and limitations, whether in how well or how poorly we make our Christmas preparations, or in how broken our lives or our relationships might be, still God comes. It was not The Ritz. It was what shelter was available. It was not perfection; it was horribly imperfect, just as it is now. Yet still, God comes.
Yes, into all of this the Christ child comes to dwell, so perhaps you’ve come here with a deep, deep longing to know that the story is really true – that the child wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger came…for you.
The story itself is so warm and familiar and coated with a veneer of nostalgia and the accumulation of secular myths and stories that the shock-value has dimmed. Yet his is an astonishing claim: God chose a young woman to give birth to God’s very self in an insignificant little place in a corner of the empire. The first to know about it were shepherds, those on the margins of polite society. This child grew into an adult who engaged in a brief public ministry, spent his time with outcasts and ne’er-do-wells, announced God’s forgiveness of sin, and in whose death and resurrection, we are made worthy to stand in the presence of God
And it doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done or how big your bank account or how small. We are given love, we are given life, completely unearned and unmerited.
Now that is astonishing.
Because the world would have you believe that you are not worthy, that you have to earn what you get and that if you succeed, you’re in God’s good graces. That’s just not how this Good News works. This Good News is for every single one of us.
Several years ago, I did some work with the Reconciliation Ministry at Coventry Cathedral in the Midlands of England. It is still a place I hold in great affection because of its commitment to healing the wounds of history and reconciling across borders and difference. Recently, they placed a new welcome sign just outside the cathedral. They claim not to have created it but to have adapted it from elsewhere, so here is my own adaptation of that welcome:
We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, widowed, straight, gay, questioning, well-heeled or down at heel. We especially welcome wailing babies and excited toddlers.
We welcome you whether you can sing like Pavarotti or just growl quietly to yourself. You’re welcome here if you’re ‘just browsing,’ just woken up or just got out of prison. We don’t care if you’re more Christian than the Archbishop of Canterbury or haven’t been to church since Christmas ten years ago.
We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome keep-fit moms, football dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems, are down in the dumps or don’t like ‘organised religion.’ (We’re not that keen on it either!)
We offer a welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or are here because granny is visiting and wanted to come to Church.
We welcome those who are inked, pierced, both or neither. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down their throat as kids or got lost on the turnpike and wound up here by mistake. We welcome pilgrims, tourists, seekers, doubters… and you!
It was to such as these, meaning all of us, that God took on human flesh and became one of us in a backwater village oppressed by empire. The world was a mess then and it’s a mess now, and still God comes. To you. To me. To all of us.
Merry Christmas to you and all those you love.