Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: angels, Christmas, Jesus, manger, salvation, shepherds
Tonight we gather in darkness, after four weeks of anticipation and promise. Tonight we declare that God has sent light into the darkness. God has come to and for us. Jesus Christ, our Savior, has been born in Bethlehem. Because of this birth, we are welcomed, claimed, loved, and forgiven by God today.
God comes into our world in a new and complete way in Jesus Christ. Picture a new young family, an infant’s first screaming breaths, a crowded town and a tiny room housing this family as well as livestock. This is the picture of God come to us.
God took great risks to come to us in Jesus. God set aside the power and glory belonging to divinity and put on the frailty and humility belonging to humanity. In God’s coming to us, God is working towards the promise of a healed and whole creation. Instead of using power to accomplish this, as God did in the flood, to drown the sin of the world and begin again with the one family spared: Noah and his sons, God uses a relinquishing, a giving up, of power to bring salvation to the world, to save us.
The risks in this plan of incarnation, the Word of God taking on flesh, being born a fragile infant, were many. The great plan of salvation could have been derailed by any of the dangers of being an infant among an occupied people. The greatest risk God took was in the very source of the good news: in coming to be fully among the people who most longed for a savior: the oppressed, impoverished, and outcast. The risk in the incarnation is that no one would recognize that it truly is God who has come in this unexpected way, and that no one would trust this good news, spoken on the lips of the untrustworthy.
Tonight, we hear the familiar Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke. As we enter this familiar story, I invite you to hear again the great risk God has taken in these events. God chooses a particular way to enter this world, and particular people to be witnesses to this great event. God’s risky, unexpected actions reveal God’s favor extending beyond our boundaries.
The story opens by placing Jesus’ birth at the same time as the rule of the Emperor Augustus, the ruler who claimed to bring peace. The Roman empire is requiring all the ruled peoples to return to their hometowns for a census. So Joseph and pregnant Mary go to Bethlehem. Although we would assume all of Joseph’s extended family traveled to Bethlehem, and that many still lived there, they have not been welcomed anywhere. Could you imagine returning to Ayr/Page after a time away, pregnant, and being turned away as you looked for a place to rest? Mary’s premarital pregnancy has strained Joseph’s family relationships. The young family are even pushed out of an inn. Unexpectedly, God has chosen to be born into an estranged family. Jesus is born in a room shared with livestock, the divine birthed in a room fit only for a peasant.
The scene shifts and we find ourselves among the shepherds, watching their flock. Our image of shepherds is not the same as that truly felt during the time of Jesus’ birth. Shepherds were not welcome people. They were seen as wandering thieves, dishonest, and immoral. Yet it is to these outcasts that the messengers of God appear. These men are the first to hear God’s good news: “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the messiah, the Lord.”(11). They hear a whole multitude of angels singing God’s praise. They follow the angel’s news to the manger, where they find all as God said it would be. There, in front of them, crowded in with animals and people, was the baby Jesus, the one born for them. God chose to reveal the good news of Jesus’ birth with the most unlikely crowd. Shepherds were unlikely witnesses because they were labeled liars.
One advent, I heard a college professor sharing at chapel. She was a professor of classical languages, and shared of her surprise and dismay when she first translated these verses from Luke. Unlike the holiday cards emblazoned with “peace on earth and good will to all”, the words of the Gospel record the angels declaring “on earth peace among those whom God favors.” She felt this was a limitation of God’s bringing of peace, given only to the few who please God. But I would say that Luke’s Gospel expands God’s good will and peace to more than a generic “all.” Luke helps us understand that God doesn’t just act for the bland “all,” but especially for those we’d prefer to leave out of that all.
The whole Gospel of Luke declares to us that God will upend our expectations about how God will act and whom God favors. The Gospel opens with births to a barren woman and to a virgin. Jesus is born into an estranged, working class family, whose people are under occupation. The first witnesses are unreliable shepherds. In adulthood, Jesus ministers not only to the likely, but to the unlikely. He eats with tax collectors and sinners, calling one among them to be in his trusted circle of twelve disciples. He calls blessed those the world rejects. He not only lets a sinful woman touch him, but grants her forgiveness. He dies as an enemy of the state, hung between two criminals. After the crucifixion, God chooses more unlikely witnesses. It is a group of women who first encounter the good news that God has raised Jesus from the dead. Two angels appear to these women at Jesus’ tomb, declaring, “Jesus is not here, but has risen.” The women run to the other disciples to witness to this good news, “but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” (24:11).
At two central points, at Jesus’ birth and at his resurrection, God takes the risk of entrusting the good news to witnesses the world would not believe. Because other people couldn’t recognize that God’s priorities were other than their own, this good news was almost lost. But that very risk was at the center of the whole point of the incarnation, of Jesus’ birth. Jesus has come to not only declare but to enact God’s favor not only upon those the world favors, but upon those the world does not favor. God’s love is for all people. God is so concerned with making sure that love and favor are for the outsider that God is willing to risk the entire message rather than have love and favor be declared only to those who are assumed to be loved and favored by God.
God takes a great risk in love- entrusting the good news and God’s favor to those the world doesn’t believe or favor- because this news is first and foremost for them.
God has come, in unexpected ways that turn on its head our expectations about who it is whom God favors.
On this special night, it is with great joy that we welcome Bode into the promise of God in baptism. In this sacrament, Bode will be united with Jesus and sealed with the Holy Spirit and the sign of the cross. God claims Bode as God’s own child, today, in his infancy, before Bode’s shown any sign of commitment or holiness. God promises to always be with him, to have already given him the gift of resurrected, eternal life. This sacrament is yet another way that God takes a great risk in gifting love, declaring favor to one who has not shown any sign of deserving it.
The baby Jesus has been born so that you, no matter how far you find yourselves estranged, how many wrong decisions you have made in your lives, you are favored, you are loved by God. It doesn’t matter if other people judge you as worthy of this good news, God has declared that it is for you. Jesus was born for you, Jesus has died for you, Jesus was raised for the dead for you, and Jesus will come again, for you, so that each of you would know that you are most favored by God.
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