Text: Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 2:1-14 We have a friend in Illinois named Frances. She is 95, still living alone, still at home, although she is slowing down. Every year, around Thanksgiving, we will get our first Christmas card in the mail - from Frances. It is kind of a marker that the season is officially here.
The Christmas card tradition is changing, as people increasingly go digital. Letter writing in general is kind of a lost art, with Christmas being perhaps the one time folks will send a Christmas letter along with their card or family Christmas photo.
But while some are sending emails or posting their Christmas greetings on Facebook, others are taking it to another level. Some people are creating complex, choreographed family Christmas videos – there was one with a family dancing in their Christmas pjs making the rounds this week. Some folks will even build elaborate sets in order to film their spectacular family Christmas video. It can be pretty impressive, but for those of us who can barely find time to send a few cards, it can make us just feel more inadequate as far as our seasonal preparations go.
Everybody wants Christmas to be picture-perfect. For most of us, that doesn’t go as far as learning dance moves and building a set and filming a video, but think about the scenes depicted on the Christmas cards that we send and receive.
Christmas cards can be very different, some with scripture and religious sentiments, others more of the Winter Wonderland variety, some with Old St. Nick and others with a puppy and kitten on front. But different as they may be, every card is cheery. Every outdoor scene is peaceful. Every home is warm and cozy. Every Santa is jolly and every tree is beautifully decorated. Everyone gets along, including children and animals. In every nativity scene, the humble stable is beautiful. Mary has a glow about her and looks remarkable for someone who has just traveled a long distance and given birth out in a barn. Baby Jesus is always happy and cooing and the animals are all quiet and reverent. Our Christmas cards represent a kind of alternate universe in which everyone is doing well. There is no wrenching poverty, no substandard housing, no hurting families. Everyone is pleasant; there are no Charlie Brown trees, no worn out mothers and no crying babies. And to judge from Christmas cards, you’d think people would be clamoring to have their baby born in a barn, with a bunch of animals all around – it looks so wonderful. Obarnacare, we could call it.
Let’s face it: the Christmas you will find on Christmas cards is not very real. Whether it is a contemporary scene or a Victorian Christmas or a depiction of that very first Christmas, what we see on cards is not very realistic. But those are the cards that are made and those are the cards that we buy because we all long for that picture-perfect Christmas. Nobody would want a card that shows a modern family fighting on Christmas morning, we want a scene of domestic bliss. Nobody would want a scene of an ice storm with damaged trees and power outages, we want gently falling snow. Nobody wants a card showing a poor family with an empty cupboard, eating spam and macaroni for Christmas dinner. And nobody would want a card that shows Mary and Joseph looking scared and haggard or the shepherds as hard-living guys you would be afraid to have live in your community, much less visit your home. We want beautiful people on our cards.
Christmas cards may not exactly convey reality, but they do convey our hopes and dreams and aspirations. And we all aspire for a warm, wonderful, joyful, happy, perfect Christmas.
Some will go to great lengths to insure such a Christmas. Professional decorators will come to your house and do your decorating for you. They will set up the tree, decorate your home, put up your lights, the whole bit. Brite Ideas Decorating in Omaha has over 300 franchises nationwide. It’s a booming business. To decorate your home for the holidays, prices start at about $1200 with no real limit to speak of. I checked their website and unfortunately, they are sold out of their 10' Cherry Blossom Tree with Color Changing Iced Trunk, which retails for $5,272.50 – which I assume that does not include set-up and take down. Fortunately, their 12’ LED palm tree is still in stock, and it’s a bargain at $2747.25. (I love their precise pricing.)
It’s not cheap, but a lot of people find this very attractive. No more second-rate decorations, with homemade ornaments and chipped pieces from years past. These trained professionals will set up a perfectly coordinated holiday masterpiece, and you can have a light display outside that will have cars lined up around the block to see.
It’s not just our decorating that may be lacking. Who has time for baking? And let’s face it - some of us are not that good in the kitchen. Why do it yourself when you can go down to the bakery and get all kinds of wonderful Christmas goodies. Or, you can rent a baker to come to your home and do your baking for you – that way you get the great smell of fresh-baked cookies in your home. And of course you can also hire someone to do your Christmas shopping. Doing all of this would make things easier, and the end product might be a lot better than if you were doing all of this yourself. You would be one step closer to that perfect Christmas.
But let’s face it – you could have someone else doing all of these things, and the people you hire could all be models of efficiency and artistry, but it still would not be a perfect Christmas. There is something about our participation that is far greater than having things just right.
The second chapter of Luke is one of the best-loved chapters of the Bible, telling of the birth of Jesus. The words are beautiful and moving and poetic, but we can lose the power and the surprise of what is being said.
Luke reports that angels – messengers from heaven – announce the birth of a Savior who is Christ, the Lord. We’ve heard that so many times that we can lose the revolutionary, audacious quality of the announcement.
Jesus was born in the midst of Roman occupation. The backdrop of Jesus’ birth was an empire in which the emperor was worshiped. Kurt Willems writes about this:
Caesar Augustus was called the “son of god” who was the great “savior” of the whole earth through bringing “peace” to Rome. The announcement of this was heralded as “good news.” (These) themes are examples of the propaganda that was spread via the media of the imperial religion. What is quite interesting is that these are the same themes that permeate the birth narrative in Luke’s gospel.It is not Roman soldiers making the announcement, it is angels, messengers from God, who bring the news:
I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’The Son of God is born, the savior, bringing peace – and this is good news. Jesus’ birth is a complete counter, a complete repudiation of the power structure of the world. It is not just the announcement of Jesus’ birth that stands as a challenge to worldly power. It is also seen in who the announcement is made to.
Most of us have little acquaintance with shepherds or shepherding, and certainly not as it worked in ancient Palestine. These shepherds were in the fields, with the sheep. At night. Living in the fields, or as the King James puts it, “abiding” in their fields. You didn’t just check in on the sheep every once in a while, provide food and water and let the sheep go. Sheep could wander, there were predators, there were dangers. Maybe they took shifts, but if they did, a night shift shepherd was not what you would call a status kind of job. In fact, it was even lower status than you might imagine. It is not simply that they were on the lower rungs of the social ladder, unkempt, unclean, working with dirty animals. Shepherds and other “people of the land” were beyond the pale of religious respectability. Their occupation and way of life made it impossible for them to follow the prescribed rituals for religious purity. They were ceremonially unclean and could not participate in worship at the temple.
The announcement that the Son of God, the Messiah, the Lord, was entering the world, bringing peace, bringing hope, bringing Good News, is made not by Roman officials, but by angels and heavenly hosts. The Savior of the world was not Caesar, but a baby born in Bethlehem. And the announcement was made not to the elite, not to the power brokers, not to the wealthy, not to religious leaders or even to those who were thought of as religious people, period, but to shepherds – socially outcast, economically disadvantaged, religiously ostracized. In Jesus’ birth, absolutely everything is turned on its head.
And there is more: the shepherds are told that this child who is the Savior is born in Bethlehem. Not Jerusalem, the Holy City, the center of Jewish life. But Bethlehem, a nearby town with an inferiority complex. Luke points out that Bethlehem was the City of David and that Jesus was a descendant of David, and for Jews with a sense of history, this was important. But don’t get the wrong idea: Bethlehem was anything but a glamorous sort of place.
Bethlehem was the “City of David,” and I imagine that it put that tag line on its municipal sign the way every town tries to make itself look good. Mason City – the original River City. Grinnell – Jewel of the Prairie. Winterset – Birthplace of John Wayne. Sheldahl – the biggest little town in three counties. And Bethlehem – the city of David. OK, it had been awhile, about a thousand years since David had lived, and it was not exactly a bustling metropolis. It would never amount to much in the shadow of Jerusalem, but King David had been born in Bethlehem.
Jesus was born there. Not at Bethlehem General, not in a family home, not in a nice home, not in a home period, not even in an inn, but in a stable, a place for animals. He was set not in a crib, but in a feeding trough.
All in all, it was pretty much the opposite of what anyone would plan in order to impress. And yet because of all of this, the message is absolutely, undeniably clear: this is a birth for everyone. God is not bound by nation or wealth or power or privilege or notions of piety or religious correctness. This child, this savior, will be for all people. What did the shepherds do with the angels’ announcement? They did not just sit back and feel hope and gratitude. They did not pass the news on to other, more appropriate people who might go and visit the child. They went themselves. They got moving. They participated in the experience.
When it comes to Christmas it is easy for us to become observers rather than participants. There are plenty of people who can do Christmas better than we can. There are homes that are better decorated, cookies that are more perfect, gifts that are more tasteful than what we give. For that matter, we could find a beautiful midnight Mass on TV and just skip going to the Christmas Eve service.
We could do all these things, but we don’t because we want to experience all of this for ourselves. Like the shepherds, we want to go and see the baby for ourselves. We want to be a part of the Christmas story.
And the wonderful thing, the incredible thing, the message of Christmas is that this is all for us. This child, absolutely, was born for all people. This child was born for us. Christmas does not live up to whatever ideals of perfection we may see in Christmas cards and viral videos. There are families where not everyone will make it home this Christmas, because someone is in jail, or someone is in Afghanistan, or someone is in the hospital, or someone doesn’t want to be there, or someone can’t afford traveling, or someone isn’t welcome. There are families that have suffered loss, and will have to face an empty seat at the dinner table. This can be a lonely and stressful and hectic time. The reality is that Christmas can be messy.
Just like that first Christmas. Ideal is the last word you would use to describe it. Mary, about to give birth, making a long journey. The couple was not yet married, and tongues wagged. She and Joseph traveled to his ancestral home for the census. Their nation was occupied by a foreign power, and the trip was all so that Rome could collect taxes. They arrive in Bethlehem, and there is no place to stay, no room in the inn. They wind up in the stable out back, with some animals.
And then who shows up to welcome Jesus’ birth? The grandparents are not there in the waiting room. Excited friends do not arrive with “It’s a Boy” balloons. The only visitors are strangers – rough shepherds.
It wasn’t pretty. But if we think about it in another way, Christmas is beautiful. Because it says to us that God comes to us in all of the messiness of our lives. God does not wait for us to clean things up, to get our life together. God does not wait for us to make ourselves presentable.
One of the names for Jesus is Emmanuel, God With Us. And more than anything, the birth of Jesus says that God is indeed with us. A child is born – for us. Thanks be to God. Amen.