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 the family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
It doesn’t get a whole lot better than this. No matter how old or jaded we may be, regardless of whether or not we deserve coal in our stockings, Christmas Eve never fails to work its magic.
Maybe it’s the hymns or the candlelight or the knowledge of what awaits us when we awake – there’s something different about Christmas that makes all the difference.
And here we are! Some of you were raised in this church and wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else. Other made plans weeks ago and are perhaps here for the first time. Some of you are here with questions, while others are just waiting to get home to finish all of the other items on the to-do list. Some of you made a last minutes decision and are still wondering if you made the right choice.
Some of you were brought here against your will…
There are some here tonight for whom there are more Christmases ahead than behind, and there are those for whom there are only a few Christmases left.
Whoever you are, and whatever feelings, thoughts, and questions you’ve brought, I’m glad you’re here. For, it is to you and for you that the great Good News rings loud and true – An angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Luke’s Gospel opens like a movie. We begin with the movers and shakers of the world. In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augusts that all the world should be registered. This took place while Quirinius was governor or Syria.
We’re brought behind the scenes of the power brokers and we are provided all the details we need at the beginning of the story.
But then, very quickly, the director of our film, Luke, draws our gaze and attention somewhere else. He wants us to see behind the curtain of the cosmos, where all the real moving and shaking takes place, a sleep little town called Bethlehem.
Bethlehem, from which King David hailed, from which a new shepherd King is born to us us free.
In a few minutes, we will have the whole thing acted out for us with word and voice and characters and costumes. We will encounter the story as has been done for centuries. But sometimes, if we’re able to take a step back from the whole thing, we can see how unexpected and bewildering the whole thing really is.
According to the strange new world of the Bible, the birth of God is the manger comes in less than one verse, and then the story just keeps going.
The details, of course, are important. We are rooted in a time and a space, we are introduced to all the important characters, but when it comes to the moment for which all of us are gathered here, it comes down to this: While they were there, the time came for Mary to deliver her 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 for them in the inn.
That’s why we’re here right now.
God, light from light eternal, is born into the world as us to save us.
Sometimes it can feel as if we’re just playing at Christmas – we dress up the house, we dress up in costumes in the sanctuary, we put on a feeling of joy even if we don’t really feel it deep down.
We hang the lights and come up with perfect dinner menus. We buy the just the right presents and we send all the Christmas cards with a picture of color-coordinated outfits taken by a semi-professional photographer.
And why do we do all of that? Perhaps we do so out of habit, or tradition. Or maybe we do all of it because we think we’re supposed to even if we’re unsure of why.
The Christian proclamation is that we do so because God is born to us and for us.
And that is such a confounding claim that we can’t help but try to act it out year after year.
Christmas Pageants are always a strange enterprise. The story our children will shortly bring to life will be cute and faithful and a little bit awkward. But the story to which they point is full of fear and pain and hardship. There is a seriousness to the story that can never fully understand.
Particularly when we dress up our children to act it all out.
I experienced a pageant one year in which one of our shepherds, having executed all of his lines appropriately, decided to turn his shepherd’s staff upside and whip it around the chancel area like a light saber looking for someone to cut in half.
I experienced another pageant once in which the little Mary grew bored of having to cradle the plastic baby Jesus, grabbed him by the ankle, and began smashing his head against the altar.
And still yet there was a pageant one year during which one of the wisemen, no doubt tired from having followed the star, decided to fall asleep on one of the steps in the chancel area and remained there until the very end of the service when he woke up to a bunch of people waving candles around and singing silent night.
There was nothing silent about his terror of waking up to that scene.
And you know what? I find all of those moments to be nothing but grace upon grace! Why? Because there is nothing perfect about Christmas! We have all of our anxieties even today about this time of year which is fitting because of the plight that fell upon Mary and Joseph and Jesus.
We can dress Christmas up as much as we want, but it will never cover the truth of who we are and how we experience the world.
You see, it’s not just that God was born into the world as Jesus. It’s that we desperately needed God to be born into the world as Jesus.
And that’s why we keep retelling the story. Not to retreat away from the harsh truths of the world for a little while every year, but to remember that God chose to be born into our broken and harsh world to shine as the light in the darkness.
God breaks into the world in order to make all things new, even us.
Therefore, when we say Merry Christmas, we are also saying, “Do Not Be Afraid.” We needn’t be afraid because this story is in fact our story. God has not abandoned us to a life of merely doing one thing after another. God has arrived in the world to show us the wonderful good news that no matter what we do or leave undone, God is still for us.
God makes a way where there is no way, bringing us grace and truth and mercy. This gift isn’t cheap, and it isn’t even expensive. It’s free.
Which is why, in the end, we don’t need to worry about whether or not we’re just playing at Christmas. We may think we’re only pretending year after year, dressing up with the same trimmings and trappings, but, by God’s grace, God makes us what we pretend to be!
This is Christmas! Rejoice! From our fears ands sins God has released us!
This is the time, the sacred time, to meet the One who comes to us, the One who lives, dies, and lives again that we might do the same.
That is the good news of great joy for all people that the angelic host shared with the shepherds, and it is the good news of great joy that our children will now share with us.
To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.