Mary was nearly nine months pregnant when she and Joseph set off toward Bethlehem. I remember being nine months pregnant…some of you may as well.The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem is 100 miles…it would have taken at least a week to walk all that way. This obviously wasn’t a journey they would have chosen. It was forced upon them. Governments don’t care, and they never have, about the unique circumstances of our lives. A census was decreed by Caesar…so you went to your ancestral home town, whether it was convenient or not. Whether you were ill, or disabled, or nine months pregnant. And so Joseph and Mary did what they had to…they traveled, along with all the other members of Joseph’s extended family…to Bethlehem. And when they got there, there wasn’t a single place to stay. “No room at the inn”… that’s what Luke says. And I get it. Everyone was showing up in Bethlehem at that time for the census…they were full up. And since Mary probably wasn’t a speedy traveler at that point, they were likely at the tail end of the arrivals. I understand that. But what truly bothers me is that not a single family member took them in. Not one of Joseph’s extended family (who had to have been in Bethlehem too because of the census) offered up their room for Mary, even as she was in labor. Not a one was there to help at the birth. And we don’t know…maybe it was the shame of her out-of-wedlock pregnancy that kept them from offering help. Maybe they felt it just wasn’t their business. But whatever the case, Mary and Joseph ended up sleeping in a barn. Alone.
And this is how the story of Jesus’ birth has been told…for generations and generations. The stage is set by autocratic governments and estranged families. The ambience is all manure and hay. And the main characters are weary and exhausted. And the only supporting characters that show up are shepherds. And we should probably clarify a few things about shepherds. At the time of Jesus, shepherds hovered somewhere below the lowest rung of society’s ladder. They were assumed to be thieves. It was illegal for them to give testimony in court because their word was considered worthless. Nobody trusted them. All the “good” folks avoided them. And, ironically, these men are the only ones invited to bear witness to the birth — people no one would ever believe.
You know…we tend to celebrate Christmas with warm family gatherings, and beautifully lit Christmas trees and festive meals. With good natured Santas who delight our children, and Sunday School pageants with adorable lambs and shepherds and angels. That’s the traditional Hallmark Christmas …and honestly, that’s the Christmas I love. Most of us do.
But that bears no resemblance to the story the way Luke tells it…Christmas is not a story of happy family gatherings… Mary and Joseph’s family are nowhere to be found. And it is not the story of cozy homes lit up with lights and tables filled with food. Rather, it is the story of people who are forced to leave their home and to walk miles, day after day, and find shelter wherever they can. There is nothing in this story that is adorable or delightful…the sheep aren’t cute preschoolers… they are just sheep… loud and stinky. And the shepherds come from the underbelly of society — and are likely filthy and reek to high heaven after being in the fields for weeks on end. Basically, this is the worst Christmas story ever told…
But for many people…this is the only Christmas story that could ever make sense. For refugees fleeing war zones on foot. For families that are estranged and bitter. For people who live on the streets and seek shelter from the cold at Union Gospel Mission or House of Charity. For people who are grieving. For people who are afraid. For people who are struggling. For people who are alone. This is the story of Christmas that matters. It’s the Hallmark version that doesn’t quite jive..
This is the story that matters…because this Christmas story is about God who comes into this world of political craziness, greed and violence… God who comes into our broken families and broken hearts. This is the story of God who comes to people that no one else seems to care about….and stays with them. Gives himself to them. Believes in them enough to entrust himself to them … as a baby.
Tonight, we are reminded that Christmas isn’t about us making something wonderful and warm happen…it isn’t about Hallmark moments. Rather, Christmas is about God who comes to us when life is not wonderful or warm, and insists that we matter. That our lives matter. That there is something holy at work in us and in the world. Christmas is God who insists that this life we live…with all its pain and joy…all its suffering and beauty…all its ordinary-ness and messy-ness…is infused with God’s presence. God becomes human at Christmas. . comes to us as we are. God becomes enmeshed in this messy, ordinary world….with all our pain. With all our struggle. Why? Because God believes we are all worth loving, whoever we are and whatever our circumstances.
Tonight…our job isn’t to feel warm and fuzzy inside. Rather, I think what we are called to do this evening is just to stop for a moment..and pause long enough in the midst of all the business of the holiday…so that we can can hear the angels. Tonight…we are asked to stand beside the despised shepherds…to stand beside Mary and Joseph …and listen to what the angels have to say about Jesus’ birth. Because every time…every single time..they begin by saying–
“Do not be afraid”.
Do not be afraid.
And that is the heart of the Christmas story Luke tells. For Joseph and Mary. For the Shepherds. And for us. When we are anxious and confused and angry…when the world is unfair and harsh…when we are alone…Jesus comes to us — so we do not have to be afraid. Jesus comes to give us courage…courage to keep loving…courage to keep pressing on, even when we are exhausted and our burdens are heavy….courage to keep trusting that this is God’s world after all….the world God so loves…and that we are all held securely in God’s hand.
Do not be afraid, the angels urge. Because God has good news of great joy for all people. Jesus is born. God is not far off. God is here. God is here in our stables and on streets. In our fields and towns. In our hospitals and prisons and shelters and schools and homes.
Do not be afraid. Listen to the angels’ song.
Tonight…we will light our candles and sing “Silent Night’ and it will be beautiful. It will be a Hallmark moment. But then, we’ll head out the door. And it’s going to be dark out there. But that’s where angels are…really.. Listen for them. And do not be afraid. Because That’s where Christmas happens. Out there. That’s where Jesus is. That’s where the holy stuff happens. In real life. In Stinky, painful, frustrating real life. Jesus is there. And it IS beautiful. Do not be afraid. Jesus is born. Jesus is with you. Amen.