Isaiah 9; Luke 2: 1-20
Lilly Pell, who is 8 years old, just decorated her Christmas tree yesterday. She and her father, Louis, had to leave their home because of the California wildfires that have spread so quickly in the past few weeks. They’ve been staying with friends, and this past week they were able to return to their old neighborhood. There are no homes there, now, but their neighbors began putting up trees anyway. Lilly’s Dad thought it was kind of morbid at first, but he says it’s the most cheerful he’s seen people in weeks. Looking at their tree, a ten foot noble fir, Lilly said that it helped her to see that something beautiful could be there in the middle of the destruction. A disaster relief group even brought in snow so the kids could have snowball fights and play. Sometimes it’s the simple things that remind us of the presence of love in our lives— of the presence of God.
A tree; a field; a bush; a donkey; a cave. Do you know what they have in common? How about an oil lamp; a fish; a loaf of bread? It may sound like a joke or a riddle, but it’s not. These are all common things that God has used in the past to show up in peoples’ lives. You might have your own list: a chair in your house that holds you when you’re tired; a Christmas ornament someone special gave to you that you’ve saved for years; a movie stub in a pocket from a time with a friend that gave you laughter and hope when you most needed it. As much as we focus on shiny items at Christmas— on the glitz and the glitter and the new toys to tinker with— Christmas is as much about the ordinary as it is anything else.
Think about the story that you hear once again tonight from the Gospel of Luke. Luke starts out with a lot of glam: “In those days a Decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered”— cue the trumpets, the costumes, the regal picture of Emperor Augustus hung up in the local pub. Highly unpopular among the poor, the rich and powerful would’ve been salivating at this decree because it is their pockets that were getting lined with the increase of taxes that would result from registration. And all went to their own hometowns to be registered— line up the crowds; show the masses of people that Emperor Augustus and Quirinius, governor of Syria, can control people just by making this decree.
But in the next sentence, we switch. Gone are the flashing lights, the great banquets of food, the servants running to and fro. Instead, we begin to hear a story of a man named Joseph. A humble man who, though coming from the line of David, a line of Kings, is really just an everyday guy, traveling with a woman he is engaged to— a woman who is already fully pregnant. A woman who is immensely vulnerable and not in a good state to travel the four day journey it will take to get from Nazareth to Bethlehem. These are not glitzy folks. There is not an entourage to make them comfortable. These are the poor ones, the ones who will be walking that long journey and have no one to make arrangements for them or find a loophole that will keep them home for the birth of their child.
And we are told that while they are in Bethlehem, the time comes for her to have her firstborn child. And instead of the nursery full of toys and cuddly blankets and diapers that many parents bring their child home to, these parents have nothing to offer their child. So they wrap him in bands of cloth, and lay him in a manger— a feeding trough— because there’s no room for them in a proper home, so here they are, welcome where the animals stay.
The contrasts are big— power, glam, fame, fortune; versus poor, nobodies, alone, helpless to even clothe their child. And yet, Luke tells us, God does not choose the comfortable, safe, cushy, plentiful home to arrive into. God shows up in the manger; the wilderness; the forsaken places.
And if you don’t think that’s a common enough place, a lowly enough place, well then just keep reading because in the next breath, Luke has God showing up to the shepherds. This is not an accident. The center of power in Jesus’ day, was similar to ours— it was in the city; in places where money is made; but that is not where God chooses to go. God goes to the country— to the fields— to the individuals who have nothing except a few sheep. And it is here in the fields that angels arrive by the dozen. And all of a sudden Emperor Augustus’ power looks small; and tarnished; and greedy— when contrasted with the heavenly host— the thousands of angels that have come not to take from the poor, but to give. “Do not be afraid” the angel says, something the powers of this world rarely say, “for see— I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” And there is light— more light than you’ve ever seen before. And then the angels call to the shepherds:
“Hey you guys! We’ve got good news for you— great news, in fact. Because today the Messiah is coming.” And the shepherds, once they have gotten their bearings again and after the angels have left them, understand this as such good news that they want to go see what it’s all about! And all of a sudden you’ve got shepherds leaving sheep in the fields so that they can willingly run into town and see what God is doing. We started with everyone moving under duress— parents and children and grandparents being forced to go and be registered; under pressure; under the decree of the powerful. But here in this place we see people willingly running— leaving behind even their responsibilities— going to places they may not even be welcome— because God’s news is that good.
God has come to earth to meet us wherever we are— even in the dullest most mundane of places like a muddy sheep pasture; even in your basement on the hide-a-bed that your little cousin will be sleeping on tonight. God comes to us where we are, because God is not interested in the kind of power that manipulates and cajoles and forces people out of their homes. God wants us to know that in God we can find refuge; peace; hope— and the true gift of Christmas— God’s abounding and steadfast love.
Whether we feel worthy of God’s love or not; whether we are sure God’s love exists or not; whether we can see God at work in this world or whether we are still searching— tonight is about what God has done and continues to do for us.
After the birth of each of my daughters, I made up a song that told them their name, told them that they are a part of us, that they are loved, that they are a blessing. When Jesus was born, I can imagine that Mary sang her song— a song of all that God has done for us; a song of blessing and hope; a song of love to Jesus.
And that’s how this crazy thing called faith works. God sings to us a song of love, and we sing one back. God tells us to find refuge in God— to trust in God’s love in our lives, and then, on a night like tonight, we find an amazing truth— that God took a risk and came seeking refuge in us. Not because we’re perfect; not because we’ve got it all together; but precisely because our God is a God who continuously invites us to be a partner in creating, in loving, in participating in God’s Kingdom— a Kingdom of common, ordinary, and yet deeply holy things. A Kingdom that will last far beyond the powers of this world.
In this season of Christmas, may we remember to trust in God as our refuge; our strength; our courage; our joy— to know that God comes to us in the dark of our lives and that God’s light is never extinguished. And may we also remember that God still seeks refuge for God’s people in our vulnerability; in our courage; in our kindness, and in our compassion to welcome the strangers and the children among us. May we be witnesses to Christ’s light; may we be bearers of peace for this world; may we create places of refuge for those who like Mary, and Joseph, and Jesus, do not have a place to call home.