Text: Luke 2:15-20
A pastor in East Tennessee named Dale told about planning the perfect live nativity scene. He found a stable on a parishioner’s farm. A lot of work went into the staging, and everything was just right. It was a beautiful, pastoral scene. He found a great Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus and the costumes looked very authentic. Folks shared their animals for the production and the whole thing looked fabulous. Publicity went out all through the community and people waited in anticipation.
But then there was Reuben. Reuben was the donkey, and Reuben refused to cooperate. He made a lot of noise in the stable. Then the sheep kept getting loose and running out onto the highway. The ground had been wet and then had frozen, and on the big night, shepherds, angels, and wise men had all slipped and fell onto the frozen, muddy mess trying to corral the loose sheep. The angels’ costumes were no longer a dazzling white – they all looked like they had been to an angels’ mud wrestling convention.
Reuben the donkey decided to stand right in front of Mary and Joseph when the lights came on. He was so loud that everybody missed half of the Christmas story as it was read over the P.A. system. Reuben would move away occasionally, only to reveal Mary and Joseph covering their noses with their robes.
From behind the stable, Dale, the pastor, asked Joseph why they were covering their noses. Joseph said the donkey was having some digestive problems. It was cold enough that everyone could see Mary’s breath, Joseph’s breath, and the donkey’s breath. But Reuben’s breath was coming out the wrong end!
After the show was over, and it was quite a show, everything was torn down and Dale left that evening feeling defeated and dejected. This happened several years ago – I was in an online pastors’ discussion forum with Dale – but you have to admit, this sounds exactly like a 2020 live nativity.
Dale had wanted this living nativity to be perfect, just like the first Christmas. But then he remembered that Mary and Joseph shared the stable with real animals that made real noises and emitted real odors. They had to deal with whatever the elements were doing on the night of Jesus’ birth. Mary and Joseph did not inhabit a perfect world by any means – far from it. They did not live in a Hallmark world. They lived in the real world, a harsh world filled with hardship.
And so perhaps, Dale’s church had gotten that living nativity exactly right. Dale said, “I’ll never do another living nativity scene. After all, I got it right the first time.”
Christmas this year is not exactly going to be the Christmas of our dreams. And that’s OK. Perhaps it will help us to reflect more deeply on that first Christmas, and on the meaning of Christmas.
Shepherds in the fields are startled – terrified, the scripture says – by the appearance of an angel announcing the birth of a child, a savior, in Bethlehem. The angel says to them, “Do not be afraid” – and is then joined by a multitude of heavenly host praising God, which while helping to confirm the message, no doubt added to their fear. But after the angels had left, after they get their wits about them, the shepherds decide to go to Bethlehem themselves and see this amazing thing the angels had told them about.
So they go and they find Mary and Joseph and the baby, lying in the manger – a feed trough. This was a place where the shepherds would feel right at home. They tell Mary and Joseph about the angels’ visit, and the message they had heard, and everyone is amazed.
Over these past four Sundays, we have read the Christmas story from Luke, from the angel’s message to Mary to her visit with Elizabeth and her response in song, to Joseph and Mary making the trip to Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus, and now the angel’s announcement to the shepherds and their visit to the manger.
We know this story. We have heard this story so often, and we love it so much. It is beautiful and it is meaningful. And it is a part of our tradition. Whether it is in worship or whether it is Linus reciting the story in a Charlie Brown Christmas, we love to hear the Christmas story from Luke told again and again.
It can be so much a part of the season that we take it for granted and set it next to the tree and the lights and the meals and the presents and the gatherings and it adds up to a nice Christmas. It’s familiar. It’s comforting. And especially this year, we need familiarity. We need comfort.
But the thing is, this is not just a nice story, a comforting and familiar story that has been retold and remembered and celebrated for 2000 years. These are beautiful words, yes, but these are words that speak to us. These are words that challenge us. Christmas calls for a response from us.
At each point in the Christmas story, there is fear. And at each point, those involved choose love over fear. Imagine Elizabeth, an older woman past child-bearing years, and Mary, a young unmarried woman, both carrying a child. They had reason for fear, but they each chose love, and Mary burst forth in song.
Imagine Mary and Joseph, making the arduous journey to Bethlehem. Imagine being close to the time of giving birth and having to walk for miles, for days. They are unsure if they can make it to Bethlehem in time and unsure if they can find a place to stay when they get there. They had plenty of reason for fear, but they choose not to be afraid of the ways their lives had been interrupted and upended.
They choose not to be afraid of the difficult implications of this pregnancy. Instead, they choose love. They choose to embrace one another and embrace this tremendous mystery together.
Imagine the innkeeper. There are lots of visitors in town because of the census. The inns are full. And this desperate couple shows up at his door, the young woman close to giving birth. The innkeeper chooses not to be afraid of these strangers begging at his door and instead chooses love, choosing to make room for them when there was no room.
Imagine the shepherds, shaken from their slumber by an angel, and then by a multitude from heaven, sharing the news that a savior had been born. It was beyond startling; it was terrifying. But they chose to believe the Good News they had heard. They chose not to be afraid of the unknown, not to be afraid of this mysterious announcement from God that had for some reason been shared with them, and they choose to set off in search of the amazing good news they had heard from the sky. And then they shared the Good News with everyone they met. The shepherds chose love.
Again and again, the angels said “Do not be afraid.” We can be unafraid through the power of love. In 1 John we read, “There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear.”
From start to finish, the message of Christmas is about love. And it is not just a passive receiving of love sent our way; it is embracing that love and acting in love.
It all begins in the love of God. A God who chose love. A God who chose to come and dwell among us.
You are probably familiar with the story of the Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur. They were bicycle builders from Dayton Ohio who tinkered with various projects and ideas. They were working on a flying machine. They had gone to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, an ideal place to test out their flyer because of regular breezes and a soft landing surface on the beach.
In December 1903, after many attempts, the Wright brothers were successful in getting their “flying machine” off the ground. Thrilled, they telegraphed this message to their sister Katherine, back in Dayton: “We have actually flown 120 feet. Will be home for Christmas.” Katherine hurried to the editor of the local newspaper and showed him the message. He glanced at it and said, “How nice. The boys will be home for Christmas.” He totally missed the point. He completely missed the real news.
We can miss the real news about Christmas. In Christmas we celebrate the unbelievable love, the fantastic generosity of God. That is the point. That is the real news. Christmas is about the marvel and mystery of God loving us so much that God chose to take on human flesh, to become one of us in order to show us the way.
Many of you know Mindy’s mother, Sally Radke, I don’t know if Sally is here this morning; she sometimes is. In the last year Sally has taken up painting and making cards with inspirational messages and she posts many of these on Facebook. Wonderful art. The last one she posted included a quote, “Each of us is an innkeeper who decides if there is room for Jesus.” And she added the caption, “Be an Innkeeper.”
I love that card. It’s saying that Christmas is an invitation that calls for our response. Be an innkeeper. There is a big difference between remembering a beautiful story and allowing God’s love that came to us in a baby to change our lives. Like Elizabeth and Mary and Joseph and the innkeeper and the shepherds, we have a choice of how we will respond.
Jesus brings us hope and peace and joy and love, and this wonderful gift calls for our response.
We can hold hope, even when times are dark.
We can bring peace, working for justice and for goodwill among all people.
We can practice joy. We can look for what is good and right and beautiful and regularly express praise.
And we can choose love, sharing God’s love that has come to us in Christ. Amen.