In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in the manger, because there was no place from them in the inn. In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord stood before them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see – 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!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Do not be afraid; for see — 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.
In those days Augustus ruled over everything. The emperor of the powerful Roman empire had true and frightening power. His authority was known from the British Isles to Asia and into Africa. His very name meant wealth, rule, and power. His face and title was printed on currency, his decrees spread throughout the lands, and he was known by all. So, in those days, in the days of Augustus, our story begins.
And then one night in a tiny and seemingly obsolete town, part of Rome’s conquest, a baby was born. It was a tucked away village of little consequence to which the mother and her soon-to-be husband were traveling, not by choice, but because Augustus wanted the world to be registered. Both of them were poor, and when they arrived in the town no one took notice of their coming, no one offered to help them find a place to stay, no one even spoke to them. They went looking for space at the Inn, but there was no room, so the only place they could find to stay was a stable; that was where their child was born, a child named Jesus.
We learn then that within the region there were shepherds living in the fields who were confronted by an angel of the Lord. The angel brought great tidings of this new child’s birth, calling him a Savior, the Messiah, the Lord. And so these unnamed shepherds traveled into the city of Bethlehem to meet this child face to face, coming into contact with the incarnate God almighty. They shared their story with anyone who would listen and continuously glorified and praised God for all they had seen.
In those days, when everyone knew and feared the power of Augustus, a baby was born. And somehow, that tiny child born in the most unlikely of places and circumstances transformed the world forever. Augustus is only remembered in history books and lecture halls, whereas that baby grew into the man that embodied hope for the world from the day he was born to this very night. Augustus had all the power and money and influence to do whatever he wanted, yet Rome still fell. But of God’s kingdom there will be no end. Why? Because the power of Christ lives on, his light and love reaches into our very hearts and changes us into something new, different, and wonderful.
This story has been told for millennia. Gatherings of the faithful have taken place over and over again to remember this particular story, this radical moment that changed the fate of the world forever. It has been dramatized in countless films, books, songs, and plays. We, whether we come to church or not, hear this story as children and again and again as we grow older.
When you think of the manger, what do you see? Do you picture the animals lying silently with adoring eyes at the baby comfortably resting in the hay? Do you envision the wise men bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Do you imagine the warmth and the glow from the angelic presence as the incarnate God was brought into the world?
I know this might not be the Christmas message you want to hear, but Luke would have us imagine a very different scene.
The story, as was read for us, is remarkably simple. Besides the appearance of the angels in the fields there is no great miracle or display of God’s power. The manger scene is quite stark, empty, and even frightening. Mary and Joseph were completely alone after traveling to Bethlehem while Mary was pregnant. They had to retreat to a stable at the back of, or underneath, the house (perhaps even in a small cave). When Jesus was finally born he was placed inside of a feeding trough, not the comfortable and clean version we often seen depicted on the mantle. There is a bare and frightening emptiness at Jesus’ birth, while two adults crouched in a cave feeling more alone than ever before.
Luke keeps the story clean of any decorations that would remove it from the lowly, the poor, and the marginalized — the people just like Mary and Joseph.
Sadly, in many Christmas celebrations we have not resisted the temptation to run to Matthew’s gospel where the royal visitors arrived with their gifts, or imagine a soft glow coming from the manger straw, and with the air filled with cherubs and angels. Luke has a glow in the story, but it is shining somewhere else.
So where does the story move? To shepherds who are living in the fields in order to watch over their flock at night. Shepherding was a despised occupation during the time of Jesus’ life. They were a homeless group of ragtag sheep watchers, worse off than even Mary and Joseph in their difficult manger. And for whatever reason the angel of the Lord appears to them in the wilderness — Not Augustus in his palace in Rome, not the chief scribes and the temple priest in Jerusalem, but the lowly shepherds in a field.
“Do not be afraid,” The angel bellowed. “for see – 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 the manger.” And without warning a multitude of the heavenly host appeared praising God and singing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
And so the homeless shepherds traveled to Bethlehem to see this Savior, Messiah, and Lord waiting for them in a feeding trough born to an unwed couple.
So you see, Mary and Joseph were left alone that night — it was from the shepherds that they learned of the angel and the heavenly host. The two new parents, busy with the chores of childbirth in the most inhospitable of places under the most difficult of circumstances, did not get to experience heaven’s visit but instead heard about it from a group of homeless and wandering sheep watchers.
This is an unusual story, but it is precisely because of its strangeness, that it has made all the difference.
“I am bringing good news of great joy for all the people: for you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
For whom is the child born? Not Augustus with all of his power, not the priests and the scribes who ruled the religious practices, not the super elite and fabulously powerful, but for those shepherds in the field, for all of you. For YOU this child has been born.
In that tiny dark manger God was born of the flesh in the baby Jesus. God became incarnate, took on our humanness. Jesus was both human and divine. Born into two worlds, from above and below, Jesus came as a new being in order to reconcile the world back to God. Though he carried the glories of God with him everywhere that he would eventually travel, he never ceased to care for our most basic needs: food, water, relationships. Wherever he went he ate with his friends and the marginalized, all of the shepherd types within the community, nurtured relationships so that all would come to know more about the love of God.
He knew that we could not truly live by earthly things alone… Do you have a Christmas tree at home filled with presents underneath but you cannot find pure joy in your life? Have you raised the perfect family with 2.5 children, a dog, a cat, and a white picket fence, but you feel like something is missing in your life? Do you find yourself searching for meaning, and even when you fill your life with all of the things that the world tells us we need, you never feel completely satisfied? Christ knows our emptiness, God came in the form of flesh to bear our emptiness, so that he could help fill us in a way that we never could on our own.
Haven’t we all had a Bethlehem moment in our lives? A time where it felt that no one knew us, no one understood what we were going through, no one reached out to help us? A period where we carried the weight of the world on our shoulders unable to share the burden with anyone else. A moment where it felt as if the darkness was too powerful for any light to shine forth. In many different ways, we have all traveled to our own Bethlehem.
How perfect is it then, that Bethlehem means “town of bread”? From a tiny manger, from an unwed couple, from the town of bread comes the incarnate God who is the bread of life. It is in this meal he came to bring us the bread of life that can and will sustain us in all things.
Because at this table, at Christ’s holy banquet, we are all invited into that tiny unlit manger, into the darkness and loneliness that Mary and Joseph must have felt. We are incorporated into this story because Jesus has welcomed us in. We are there, but more importantly Jesus is with us here. Christ is with us in all of our brokenness, in all the failed attempts to live perfect lives, in our fears and our frustrations, he is here because God came to be like us to help transform us.
That is Christmas! That is hope! That is grace!
That is the story worth telling over and over again, because the greatest thing to ever be, came to be with us.