I’m indebted to pastor & author Walter Wangerin, Jr. for the title line (which also appears in the text) as well as for the indentifier “the fear-not angel.” I also want to acknowledge my mom for the theological insight she gave me twenty-some years ago…
We’re here tonight because it’s Christmas Eve … because this is just what we do. It’s tradition, after all. And like all traditions, it’s not about any one thing; it’s the whole constellation of things. It’s the memories that are wrapped around the specifics like Silent Night will soon be wrapped around our little candles. It’s the togetherness of family – the memories of being children … then adults … then parents with our little ones. It’s a touchpoint as the year winds down – a night to watch and ponder. It’s a moment of stillness and peace amid the frenzy that is our cultural holiday celebration, a time to relax between all the preparations and tomorrow’s gifting and feasting. And it’s a story.
We are here tonight for the story … so often-told we know it by heart … perhaps best told by the child’s voice of Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas, reciting a part of that story straight out of the good ol’ King James Version. It’s the story we sing in our beloved hymns tonight – the reason why those hymns are beloved. It’s a story of a wondrous baby, stars and angels with a few other characters tossed in like Mary and Joseph and the shepherds out in their fields. So long as Jesus is lovingly tucked into that manger-bed and the angels sing their glorias, then, at least for this night, all is truly right and beautiful in the world.
We need that tonight as much as ever we did – and maybe even more – because so much is not right in this world. Where to start? We’ve seen pictures this year of other little babies washed up on shorelines half a world away. We’ve heard the stories from their devastated parents of the terrible risks they’d taken to find a place of safety after being driven from their homes by war and mayhem.
We know the violence that drives such desperate choices. We’ve experienced the terror such violence produces as it spilled into Paris, France and San Bernardino, California. We ponder the toll this violence takes on families here in our country as our service men and women continue to serve in these war-torn lands, as we add up the loss of lives and the battle damage that never fully heals. We wonder if our military efforts are helping or hurting. Would more troops help or should we just get out?
Military action elsewhere isn’t the only source of violence that haunts us. We’ve seen a number of mass shootings here in our land this year. One of the most shocking was the slaying of nine people in the sanctuary of “Mother” Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The young man did it to act out his racist perspectives, citing the slaying of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman as his wake-up call.
Touching on that subject, we are becoming more aware of the number of people of color, mostly young males, almost always unarmed, who have been killed by police or died while in police custody. We’ve seen it happen recently here in the Twin Cities and yesterday’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations have sought to raise awareness of the struggles people of color face when it comes to matters of justice and equality. A seemingly endless litany of demographic statistics around income, education, housing, you-name-it shows these inequalities are not simply a matter of perception.
Tonight, in our city of Saint Paul, families are doubled up with others or sleeping in cars or huddled anywhere they can be out of the elements for the night. The shelters are full and there is no room to be had. Rents keep rising and housing that’s affordable to low-wage earners is harder and harder to come by. Supposedly our economy has recovered from the recession, but most of us aren’t feeling it.
I know … this is supposed to be a happy, joyous time and I’m really not trying to deprive you of that happiness and joy or to depress you. But this is the situation that surrounds us as we gather tonight to tell that story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. And if that story doesn’t speak into these times in which we live, to the world we know, then it won’t mean much of anything.
So let me tell you another story – a true story. As stories go, it’s neither unique nor unusual. It could have happened five years ago or fifty years ago; it could have happened almost anywhere.
A new grandmother was watching as her own daughter cradled the new little baby boy who had made the daughter into a mother and the mother into a grandmother. “You know,” the grandmother remarked to her daughter, “watching you with him I wonder if this was what it was like to see Mary with Jesus.” “Mom!” the daughter protested, “I’m sure Baby Jesus never pulled his mother’s hair or kicked her when she was trying to feed him.” But the grandmother smiled back with a wry, knowing smile that seems to come with being a grandmother. “I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” she said; “I think he just might have.”
Yes, Jesus just might have done those things. Sure, he was quiet that first night – worn out from the process of being born as any other newborn is … for a while. But he probably wasn’t quiet the next night or for many more after that. As he grew, he was probably as rambunctious as any other toddler … and got into as much trouble as your average growing boy. We know there was some consternation on Mary and Joseph’s part when Jesus up and decided all on his own to stay back in Jerusalem after Passover and not tell anyone his plans.
No, Jesus wasn’t a perfect angel baby. Jesus was a human baby who was born as all of us are, who grew as all of us do, who experienced human life in all of its complexity and messiness. That’s the whole point of the incarnation. God was rolling up the holy sleeves and plunging wholeheartedly into human existence and all that life in this world involves. Jesus didn’t come because we finally got it all together or fixed ourselves up enough that all we needed was a slightly better model of perfection. God broke into the world in Jesus because it’s a mess, because our lives in this world are a mess.
So let me tell you another story … one that might be a bit different in the telling, but familiar nonetheless. It did happen a long time ago, but within a span of years we can reckon. It did not take place in some galaxy far, far away but in an area we still map today. In the days of the Roman Empire, when Augustus ruled as emperor and decreed a census, and so the whims and the demands of the empire set people moving about.
That’s why Joseph had to travel south, from his home in Nazareth to a city called Bethlehem, because his ancestral roots ran there. But over the many years between the time of David the Shepherd Boy who became king and the time of Joseph and Mary and Augustus and Quirinius in neighboring Syria, Joseph’s people had been moved about by exile and return and other needs. Hence, it wasn’t just Joseph; a lot of people were having to move about to satisfy the demands of the empire.
Joseph had to leave his home and he took his very pregnant wife with him. Why? Who knows! Maybe he didn’t want to miss the baby’s birth. Maybe he wasn’t sure how long it would take him to return from Bethlehem (especially if he spent all the little money he had for that initial trip). Maybe Mary having her baby away from their hometown would blunt the counting of the months between their hurried-up wedding and the birth of her child and allow the local gossip chain to settle down.
In any case, Joseph took Mary with him to Bethlehem and there she gave birth to her baby. Like any mother, she wrapped him tight in what cloth she had to keep him snug and warm. Then she laid him in an animal’s feed box for a bassinet because there was no shelter for them, except with the animals. No one took any notice. People such as these don’t really matter in the overall scheme of things.
Now somewhere outside of town, there were some working stiffs up on the night shift. It was to them that the angel of God appeared as the stars overhead seemed to explode into a myriad of heavenly beings. This messenger of God said to them: Don’t be afraid; I have good news that brings great joy – first to you and then to everyone else. To you a Savior has been born in Bethlehem. This is the messiah, the one sent by God to put the world to rights. You’ll find the baby wrapped up like any other, but this one is lying in a feed box. Then the angels sang their glorias and the working stiffs went to see. And when they had seen, they told everyone they met about what they’d seen, what they’d heard. Maybe a few listened … maybe.
What God did some two thousand years ago, God could do again. God broke into this world then and God can break into it now. After all, you really didn’t think God went through all that coming in Jesus just to leave us all on our again, did you? Of course not! In the incarnation, by coming to us in Jesus, God has demonstrated a dedication to this world that God made and continues to love. In Jesus’ living and teaching, in his dying and his rising, God acted to put the world back on a course toward the dream God has had for this world and life in it from the moment of creation. God is still at work in this world to bring that dream to life in the here and now. You just need to know where to look.
What does the story tell you? It wasn’t to the big names like Augustus or Quirinius and their wives that Jesus was born. Instead, the holy child was born to a peasant couple whose names would otherwise have been completely lost to history if not for this story. It wasn’t in the halls of power in the palace or the temple where the messengers of God sang the glorious good news. It was to no-name laborers out in the fields, outside of town and society. If you want to see what God is doing, look there … among the forgotten, neglected, and rejected, those at the margins and on the outside. There you will find Emmanuel, God with us – for God has come to us.
So sing your glad songs. Gather around the table; eat the bread and drink the wine. Take the real presence of Christ into your own flesh and bones. Light your candles and sing the sweet song. Then blow that small flame in – not out, in – into you, God’s love now made flesh in you. Then go out like the shepherds and tell all you meet what you’ve heard, what you’ve seen. Go out as fear-not angels, singing out the good news of great joy which is for all the people, for you and everyone else. Christ is born. God is with us.
Good tidings, dear people, one more time. Amen.