Sermon for Christmas Eve 2021
Long ago, but really not so very long ago, a young woman living in a village in the hill country of Northern Palestine, went to gather water at the well for her family. She was a teenager really, by our modern standards we would expect her to be concerning herself with school work or to be excited about hanging out with her friends at the prom, but in the time that she lived she was marrying age. And indeed, this young woman was engaged to be married, although the ceremony had not happened yet, and she was still living at home with her family. And while she was gathering water at the well, this young woman had the most frightening encounter: this being appeared to her, as if out of nowhere, and greeted her; called her by name “Mary.” It told her not to be afraid. She wondered what on earth was happening, but the more the angel spoke, the stranger the encounter became.
The angel told her that she was favored in God’s eyes, and that she would bear a child that would become a king. But not just any king, a king that will be called the son of the Most High and that would reign over an everlasting kingdom. A king greater than David. A ruler mightier than the Roman emperor who controlled much of the world at the time. Of course, Mary knew that this was ridiculous. She was young, but she wasn’t naïve to the ways of the world. She knew where babies come from. And she knew that at that point she had been untouched by her intended Joseph, at least in that way. But Mary also knew God. She had been brought up hearing the stories of amazing things that God had done for her ancestors: parting the sea, feeding people in the desert, saving them time and again. Mary knew that from time to time this God sends messengers to his people: angels that sometimes look a lot like human beings. Maybe that is what this was. Maybe this story was true. Maybe God was calling her to do this amazing thing. So Mary’s faith moves her to say “Yes, Lord.” Let your will be done. She could have said “no,” but she didn’t. She said yes.
This story of an encounter with an angel at the well, was probably difficult for even Mary to believe, and it had happened to her, her fiancé Joseph understandably would have had a harder time with it. He was clearly a good, honest man, who had love for this young woman even though he didn’t really know her that well yet. So he must have been terribly hurt when she told him this story, hurt because he would have assumed that she had betrayed him and was now lying to him to cover up the trespass. Still his goodness prevailed. He decided to end the engagement quietly rather than publicly shame Mary, which he easily could have done. That is, until he had a dream too. Joseph was also visited by a strange being, only for him it was in a dream and not standing beside the village well. And this being, this angel told Joseph something similar. Mary was telling the truth, as hard as it was for him to believe, this was the truth.
So Joseph weds Mary, and most of the world just looks at them as an average new couple. Only a few people know that there is more to their story. Of course, that pesky Roman emperor gets in the way. He wants a census of this conquered territory for tax purposes. I guess that is just what you do when you take over a country, you take a census to see how much you now own; William the Conqueror did it when he invaded England in 1066, so why wouldn’t Augustus do it a thousand years earlier? So Mary and Joseph had to travel to Joseph’s ancestral home at a most inconvenient time: when she was about 9 months pregnant. Now obviously I have never been pregnant, but I have been around plenty of pregnant women, and they always need to use the restroom. I can’t imagine that riding a donkey while 9 months pregnant was a very pleasant experience for either Mary or Joseph. But they did it. And when they finally got to their destination: the village of Bethlehem a few miles South of Jerusalem, they ended up bedding down for the night in a cave where some of the animals were being stabled. Now this probably wasn’t all that unusual of a thing. There would have been a lot of visitors in Bethlehem, it wasn’t a large village, and there wouldn’t have been much room inside the inner rooms of these houses for guests to stay. There were probably other people sleeping under similar conditions that night. At least this stable/cave was warm and dry with plenty of fresh straw to rest on. It does get cold in Bethlehem you know, especially at night. I have pictures of friends playing in the snow there.
So there, in a little cave in the Bethlehem hillside, Mary gives birth to her child. A little boy. There was a stone trough in the corner of the cave where the animals were fed. The French used to call this type of feeding trough a mangier, but in English we simplified it to manger. A vessel that animals are fed from. That would have to serve as a bassinet. The baby was swaddled snuggly in cloth to help him feel safe and warm. Maybe Mary had some help with this. I hope she had some help. The scripture doesn’t say. We assume Joseph was there with her, but maybe some of the local midwives joined together to help Mary through it. It seems reasonable. Of course, they wouldn’t know just yet what was really happening. It would have looked like just another ordinary birth to them.
But then a few shepherds came in from out in the field. Undoubtedly, anyone helping Mary would have thought: go away! This is just another birth. Women have babies all the time. She needs rest now. Why are you bothering this poor woman? But the shepherds have a strange tale to tell. While watching their sheep they had this mysterious vision, and in this vision this being told them that the Messiah, the long-awaited saviour had been born. They even heard angels and other heavenly beings singing a song of praise to God. That’s what led them here. Bethlehem was a little village, it wouldn’t have taken them long to find out who just had a baby and where. Everyone in town would have known, only most of them would have assumed that this was just an ordinary birth and an ordinary child. The shepherds told people what they had seen an heard, and many were amazed by it, but I wonder how many truly believed the story they were told.
Eventually, a little later some other visitors show up: strange men from the East. Some people call them magicians, some call them prophets, some even call them Kings, but what is clear is that they aren’t from here. They aren’t even Jewish, and yet they claim to have been led to this place by a different heavenly being, a star. A sign for them that something remarkable had taken place. They present gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Odd gifts for a baby. You can’t put those on a BuyBuyBaby registry. I know, I’ve tried. But that’s what they brought. Symbolic gifts that are signs that this baby isn’t just any baby.
When the shepherds have seen the little child they go home. They go home praising God, but they go home. When the wise men have offered their gifts they go home. But Joseph and Mary can’t go home. Another angel had warned Joseph that King Herod wanted the child dead. No big surprise. If this child turns out to be what these angels say he is, then he will turn the world upside down. Herod doesn’t want his world turned upside down. He wants to eliminate this child. So Joseph and Mary take their little baby and escape to Egypt, longing for the day when it safe for them to return home, and pondering in their hearts everything that they have witnessed and experienced.
This is the story we tell tonight. The story of the birth of Christ. The story of Christmas. There are countless reasons why you shouldn’t believe this story we tell tonight. Undoubtedly people have pointed some of them out to you. Every year people trot out some of the same tired old arguments as to why you shouldn’t believe this story. People will say that virgins don’t have babies, as if Mary didn’t already know that. They will say that shepherds aren’t out in the fields at winter time, but I’ve got news for you: they are, I’ve seen them. People will say that Christmas is just a holiday that we stole from the pagans, even though there’s actually no real evidence to support that. People think they are being informed, educated, rational and clever, but they are really just looking for reasons NOT to believe. Because believing this story is a threat. Herod may be dead and gone, but the world is still filled with people that want to make the baby Jesus go away. He’s still a threat. The easiest way to neutralize the threat is just to kill the story. Make it a fable. Make it fiction. Make it a safe, sweet little fairy tale, that nobody actually believes.
But we aren’t here to do that tonight. We are here to accept the threat that Jesus and the story of his birth presents to our lives. The threat is this: that we aren’t in control that God is real and God has power to do things that defy our logic and understanding that the world is more complex and mysterious than we sometimes imagine; that we don’t know everything; that we don’t have every answer. That is the threat. The threat is that truth, real truth, is sometimes completely improbable, unexpected and difficult to believe. If this child truly is the son of God, then his story, his entire story, is going to be a challenge to us. It’s going to be a threat. But as Christians, as believers, it is a threat and a challenge that we accept.
We are here tonight to say, with all of the glory and pageantry and beauty and courage that we can muster, we are here to say something that is both extremely simple and unimaginable profound: this story, which you probably know very well and which the world still doesn’t want you to actually believe, this story is true. This happened.