Preached by the Rev. Thomas McAlpine.
“Be not afraid” the angel of the Lord tells the shepherds. “Be not afraid,” for by all accounts the appearance of the angel of the Lord and the glory of the Lord “around them” would fill anyone with fear. “Be not afraid” also speaks to us as hearers, for after the first two readings and the psalm, so full of joy and good news, our Gospel reading opened “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…” and we fear that the party’s over before it started. We’re back—we fear—to the real world of governments, bureaucracies, taxes. (Those of us looking at our year-end financial situation with an eye on April 15 are participating in a not entirely welcome way in the Christmas story!) But no: God’s plan continues, and it turns out that God has used Caesar’s decree to place Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem—to make good on that promise through the prophet Micah. “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…” but that year is soon remembered not as the twenty-somethingeth year of Augustus’ reign, but as the first year of our Lord Jesus the Messiah. Back then the smart money would have been on Augustus rather than on that Jewish couple and their yet unborn child en route from Nazareth to Bethlehem. We may periodically fear that God’s promises are too weak to survive what we’re taught to call “the real world.” At such moments we can remember and be strengthened by the beginning of this Gospel.
Luke doesn’t tell us much about what Mary and Joseph made of all of this. But if they had their share of normal human hopes, fears, and doubts, then it was probably all a bit much. It was enough to deal with Mary’s premarital pregnancy. Would they have even tried to explain it to any of their neighbors? Then there was Caesar’s decree, so they’d be traveling in Mary’s ninth month. They arrive in Bethlehem and of course all the inns are full. The imperial census takers and their assistants need to stay somewhere, of course! So Mary gives birth in a barn. I suspect that she and Joseph looked at each other at multiple points and wondered if they were both delusional. That’s one of the reasons, I suspect, that God sent the shepherds to the barn. No, Mary and Joseph, you’re not delusional. You’re both tired from the journey, Mary beyond exhausted from giving birth, you’re in a barn, and God is more than well-pleased with your faithfulness. We sometimes look at our circumstances to determine whether God’s well-pleased with us. We need to remember tonight’s Gospel: they’re tired from the journey, who knows when they’d last bathed, any motel would be a step up, and God’s pleased enough to have sent out the whole heavenly host to celebrate.
We’re gathered here because of what happened some 2,000 years ago. It happened once—and forever changed our world. But the patterns in the story: these reflect the God we serve and the world we live in, and there’s more than a little to learn.
One more example, this time with the shepherds. Did you notice the seemingly extraneous phrases Luke throws into his story? “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” Luke could have left that last bit out and we would never have missed it. Or at the end: “And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” Luke wants us to notice, I think, how the life of faith works. It’s not a spectator sport. The shepherds are given the news—and they have to act on it. When they act, they see—as promised—and are in a position to glorify and praise God. Many times it’s like that with us. God’s word comes to us. We’re not sure what to make of it. It calls on us to act. The action may sound odd: Look for a babe wrapped in cloths and lying in a feed bin! Love your enemies! But if we do it, we discover reason to glorify and praise God—to rejoice.
So rejoice. This day is more than a match for the Roman Empire, for any empire. Whatever our circumstances we are not alone, and God will mobilize the entire heavenly host if needed. As with the shepherds—as with Mary and Joseph—the faith we’re called to is not a spectator sport. Hear the word, act on it, and you set yourself and the world on a trajectory that ends in joy. The most merry of Christmases to you.