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. 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.
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 shone around 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.Luke 2:1-20
My sermon from Christmas Eve (December 24, 2023) on Luke 2:1-20.
So every year, once the leftover mashed potatoes are finally put away in the fridge and I’ve caught my cat for the twentieth time trying to eat an entire Thanksgiving turkey on his own, I then start to think about where to put all the Christmas that’s waiting to come out. The very first thing I do is compose a spirited motivational speech to inspire my three children to move their toys so that the tree can be put where it always goes. I then dig out said tree from the garage and engage in a modern day archeological dig to uncover which plastic tub under which piles holds all the supports I need. Once that’s done, I begin the many trips up and down a pull-down staircase into my attic to bring down the boxes upon boxes of ornaments that are either ancient family heirlooms or were on sale at Target in 2015. It’s not long until my entire house is overflowing with Advent calendars, nativity sets, fake garland, strands of electric lights, and dozens of school art projects that take over every room. When the inside is done, it’s time to move outdoors and figure out if the trees and shrubs have finally made it impossible for me to safely put out a 12 foot tall inflatable Reindeer and a giant Stegosaurus wearing Santa’s hat. By this point, most of that Christmas has a place where it’s supposed to go since I’ve had the chance to make several traditions while living my life. All the special ornaments and knick-nacks and dancing plastic trees that play the same song over and over again – all of that has become the background for the deep relationships and experiences that define our Christmas story. Yet there’s also a sense that this holiday never really stays the same. Sometimes the change might be small, like buying a new ornament to replace the one you loved after it was torn apart by a cat in the middle of the night. But there are other changes that the stuff of Christmas can’t really hide. There’s the smell of a Christmas cookie that reminds us of the last batch we made for a friend. And there’s that nutcracker that doesn’t seem to sit right since the person who always put it in its place is no longer here. The stuff of Christmas isn’t only the colorful accessories filling our homes, our yards, and our social media feeds. There’s also all that other stuff lurking within our minds, our hearts, and our souls. When it comes to Christmas, there’s always a lot of stuff – and we’re not always exactly sure where we can put it.
Now our story tonight began with Mary and Joseph being, in a sense, put into place. The Roman Emperor, according to Luke, organized a census to discover where all the people were. He wanted to know who he could tax and where he could find the soldiers needed to perpetuate a Roman peace won through violence and war. According to our story, the counting was a bit odd because it asked people to return to their ancestral homes. Joseph, a descendant of King David, was then forced to visit the town of Bethlehem where David had first been identified as Israel’s king nearly 1,000 years before Joseph was born. Joseph knew the importance of where his ancestors came from but it wasn’t his home. He and Mary had grown up 90 miles away in the town of Nazareth, which was located near the Sea of Galilee. That was the place where they had lived their lives while surrounded by parents, family members, and friends. But when the Emperor told them to move, a nearly 9 month pregnant Mary as well as her fiance left their home to travel by foot to a town they didn’t really know. And when they got there, they were surrounded by all the other people the Emperor had put there too. Most, I imagine, found shelter with family and friends while some ended up in the homes of strangers who had embraced the biblical call to offer hospitality to all. A handful of others tried their luck at the few hotels operating in the area while the rest pitched tents out in the cold. By the time Mary and Joseph arrived, their available housing options were limited. So they did what they could and found shelter with a few new roommates who were a bit harrier than we might expect. They, along with everyone else in Bethlehem, did the best they could to live their lives through such a disruptive event. Even though things were different now, life kept moving forward. And when Jesus came, these two expectant parents from somewhere else, swaddled him with cloth and held him close. In the very first moments of Jesus’ life, he was cherished by a teenager who had carried him through thick and thin. And around them both was a guardian who put himself into that family when others would have run away. That whole moment was challenging and exciting, filled with terror and joy all at the same time. But they were both soon exhausted, and it came time for even Jesus’ parents to put them down. They looked around in the space they were in and borrowed an animal’s food bowl to make Jesus a crib he could call his own.
On that first Christmas, over 2000 years ago, Mary and Joseph didn’t spend their time trying to figure out where to put Christmas. They, instead, simply lived through all the change Christmas brings. This wasn’t, I think, what Mary thought her birthing experience was going to be like when she consented to the message she heard from the angel Gabriel. If she could have planned out what Christmas might be, I imagine her close friends and parents would be among the very first people she’d invited to come over and see the new baby that was born. Yet when dawn drew near, her room wasn’t filled with family but with shepherds she was meeting for the very first time. Being there at that moment and at that specific time wasn’t exactly what she would have planned for. But it was the moment when God put Jesus with us. He wasn’t placed where we’d expect the Son of God to be but rather with the people who needed to know that God chose to put on our hurts, our joys, and everything else life brings. It wasn’t the stuff around Mary and Joseph that made their Christmas what it was supposed to be. Instead, it was about how Jesus chose to put himself into all the stuff that Christmas brings. God’s love for you and the world doesn’t depend on how jolly or merry or festive you feel right now. Christmas doesn’t happen because the tree is exactly where it’s supposed to be and you managed to mail out every Christmas card before you came to church tonight. Christmas doesn’t require you to push aside the grief and sorrow that makes this night harder than we’d like to admit. Christmas doesn’t depend on the stuff we bring because Jesus has already decided to put himself with you. The life you live has value; the experiences that made you who you are – matter; and the relationships that gave you so much joy but are also causing your hearts to ache right now – all of that is wrapped up in a love that will never end. We’ll never know exactly where to put all the stuff that comes with Christmas. The lights hanging outside might have their place but what we hold inside might swirl and swirl and swirl with no other place to go. Yet even during those incredibly disruptive and life-changing moments, Christmas comes – because God has already decided to never let you go. As we spend tonight and tomorrow singing and celebrating, let’s be brave enough to be who we are with all our joys, hurts, cares and needs. Let us, together, live the life we’re actually. Let us believe that even though our experience of Christmas might change, the reality of CHristmas itself never will. And that’s because God sees you, God knows you, and Jesus is right there beside you to carry you through.