LUKE 2: 1-14
In his book Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, Lawrence H. Stookey poignantly captures the idea of what we hear in this season: “Emmanuel: God with us.” He writes:
Imagine a scene in heaven before Bethlehem. God has convened a solemn council of all the heavenly host and now addresses them: “Despite our best efforts to be made known through creation, hard-headed humanity has not gotten the point. The do not understand divine love at work among them and rebel against it at every opportunity, often in the most vicious of ways. Since they do not see the grace we continuously pour on them, we must make our activity more clear to them. If they are to be saved from themselves, it will be necessary for someone to go there from here, to take on human form, to reveal in person what we intend for creation to be. Who will go for us?” There is a great silence in heaven. The angels stand on one foot and then the other, declining eye contact with one another. Each feels a sense of obligation but an utter unwillingness to take on the onerous task of dealing with humanity. Then the voice of God [speaks] again: “Who will go for us? Who is willing to try to make more clear the message of heavenly grace to people caught in their own selfishness? Which of you will take on flesh and be born in their midst?’ Another great embarrassed silence follows. Once again, “Who will go?” No one stirs. No sound can be heard. So God says, “Then I myself will go.” [Abingdon Press, 1996]
When it came to the joy or celebration of the amazing birth of Christ, perhaps heaven wasn’t the place that occurred, at least initially. When it came to Mary, didn’t she have to feel humbled and perhaps frightened as she heard from an angel [which can be a frightful experiences since angels often say “fear not?”] And Mary would have been exceedingly uncomfortable as she grew great with child. No real celebration there. Plus she was going to have a child out of wedlock–that was no cause for celebration. How about Joseph? No celebration there either. He had to swallow a story that must have seemed like a tall tail. To his credit, he went along with the incredible request the angel had for him. But there was no celebration on his part. Was there a celebration in Nazareth where Mary and Joseph lived? Hardly. Murmuring might have been more like it. Was there celebration in Bethlehem? No red carpet there. No one even saved room for native son Joseph. What about in Jerusalem? No way. Herod the Great [Self-named] was so paranoid that he killed some of his sons and wives. He wanted no other king, not even a boy king! And later when Jesus was born, Herod was the one who sought to end Jesus’ life. Hmmm. There was no celebration in heaven, until maybe that night. There was no celebration in hell either because, according to the English carol, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” he was born “to free all those who trust in him from Satan’s power and might.” No celebration there. Who celebrated this wondrous event?
First, if the prophets were still alive, like Isaiah, or Malachi, or Micah, they would have celebrated! It took centuries for one to be born who would be called Messiah. John the Baptist was alive and he celebrated, not with a party but with urgency. It had taken so long for a Messiah to arrive! Did you see the animated film “Zootopia?” One of my favorite scenes depicted a sloth as the clerk at the counter of the Department of Motor Vehicles! How brilliant to have a place notorious for waiting being staffed by a sloth, that spoke and moved with agonizing slowness! That was just an afternoon. Imagine the wait of dozens of lifetimes for a messiah to arrive! The prophets would have been exceedingly glad.
Second, in Matthew’s gospel we find that the Magi, also called wise men, were exceedingly glad. Several years ago we showed a powerful film on Bethlehem’s star, and just last week I heard more convincing evidence of the star that was over Bethlehem. According to Gatehouse News Service, “A researcher for the International Star Bible Society believes he has identified the famous Star of Bethlehem that led the Three Wise Men to the newborn Jesus Christ more than 2000 years ago. [ISBS astronomer Ron Allen says the] location for the Star of Bethlehem is a black hole known as X-1 Cygnus in the Cygnus constellation. Allen said the black hole is the remains of a large nova and can be identified as the Star of Bethlehem.” The Wise Men thought the birth was significant and special so they traveled far and they even brought gifts fit for a king! Oh yes, those men had excitement and joy as they followed the star.
Third, there was excitement with the shepherds in Luke’s gospel. First a single angel speaks to them. And, as always, the angel invites the shepherds to “fear not,” to “be not afraid.” Such an appearance in the dark of night could be terrifying for shepherds guarding sheep against predators. But perhaps even more terrifying, after that a “multitude of the heavenly host” appears! Do you know what that is? It’s an army of angels! This was a big announcement! As shepherds watched the angels go back into heaven, did they just fall back asleep? No! They decided this called for an investigation, and later perhaps, a celebration. So “they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in the manger. In a case where commas matter, my Princeton speech professor always said, “make certain that you always observe to comma after Joseph’s name. Otherwise you’ll get ‘Mary, Joseph and the babe lying in a manger,’ and that would be one crowded baby bed! “So yes, there was excitement with the shepherds!
Finally, as the church was taking root in the middle of the first century, there was cautious celebration of the birth of Christ. But with persecutions of Christians, celebrations were not clearly evident. Celebrations grew in 339 A.D. when Emperor Constantine, encouraged by his mother Helena, built a church over the place in Bethlehem where all Christian traditions said Jesus was born. Since that time, the birth of Christ has caused Christians to celebrate not only with candlelight services and midnight masses, but with timeless carols and the retelling of the old, old story! In the spirit of the magi, there are gifts given too. From 1985 until 1999 my family hosted a Christmas Day service at the church with a volunteer piano player. My wife and three children ushered and greeted, while she and I sang a duet and read Christmas stories. We also made cookies and hosted fellowship hour ourselves! We did that to celebrate the birth of Jesus! And as an offering, we put a slip on paper in each bulletin. At the top it said “My Gift to the Christ Child.” In the spirit of the Christmas song, “The Little Drummer Boy,” we invited people to write down the gift they would give the Christ Child if they could. They then would walk forward and place it under the Chrismon tree. That service had a special and a simply joy about it.
Today, and tonight, and tomorrow, we get to celebrate a birth that was hard on Mary, hard on Joseph, and was hard on God. But through them we have Christ, and through Christ we have Christmas! May you celebrate this day of days, tomorrow, during the 12 Days of Christmas, and beyond!
Jeffrey A. Sumner December 24, 2017