Todays readings for: The Birth of Our Lord: Christmas Day-Year A 2016 Isaiah 62:6-12 Psalm 97 Titus 3:4-8a Luke 2:8-20
Who has a lovely nativity scene at home? We have a very old book which I bought when my children were small that has a pop-out Nativity scene. It is beautifully painted and really quite tasteful. Here at this church we have a knitted woolen one which is very useful for all the children’s activities, and a porcelain one which you will see set up here tonight because we think that the grownups who come on Christmas Eve can be trusted not to break them. At my last church we also had a very lovely porcelain one which had been donated to the op-shop and rescued by some of the volunteers, and set up in the front of the church. A very uncontrollable two year old came up the front and grabbed one of the three Kings and was about to decapitate him! I grabbed him just in time and apart from the slight tussle and the tears there was no lasting harm done. They are one of the things that church people treasure in the midst of the very secular Christmas decorations that we find dominating our culture. It’s really sad that the whole stable, ox and especially the donkey, are nowhere to be found in the biblical account. Earlier today we sang the delightful Christmas song about the little donkey carrying Mary safely towards Bethlehem with the bells ringing, but even though it is one of the many elements of tradition that have been around for a very long time there is no reference to a donkey in Luke’s account. As for the three wise men, or Magi or Kings or whatever you think they might be who are very often depicted gathered around the manger, they come from Matthew’s account which has no record of the actual birth and the wise men are very unlikely to have arrived until well after the birth. Sorry for spoiling the picture.
But let us have a look at what the narrative actually says and see what that might mean for us.
Luke begins by giving us some historical details, which assert that Jesus was born at a particular time, dated by a census. Now, over the last hundred years or so there has been a great deal of debate as to whether or not that can be substantiated by the other historical records but the current theory is that there probably was a census that took place and that people had to return to their home towns to be counted. And this is fairly important because the fact is that Bethlehem was Joseph’s hometown, even though he had very possibly been living in Nazareth, where they settled as a couple to raise their family. There has been some kind of idea that he only went there because he was of David’s line, but if you read the text it says that it is his home town. And to it he brings his new bride, Mary. Sadly, look how you might there is no reference to the donkey!!! Though of course it is possible that Mary arrived on a donkey, rather than on foot. Now we have this lovely traditional story about Joseph going around knocking on the doors of all the inns asking for a room, but actually the word that has long been translated as “inn” does not mean a place of paid lodging at all. What the word actually means here, and in the one other place that Luke mentions it, is an ‘upper room’. How it worked in Palestinian houses was that there were three floors, the lower one where the animals were kept over night, the main ‘upper room’ and an open space on the roof, which would be in use during the day. In fact there are many houses still made on this pattern all around the world. Joseph would have received hospitality from his family but the problem was that they were already overcrowded and there was no room for Mary to give birth in the upper room so downstairs she went to the space with the animals and put the baby safely in a feed trough.
What difference does this make? Well, I think that there are a couple of things that are significant about this first part of the story. The first is that Jesus was received into a human family, obviously a very ordinary family. The kind of suggestion that he was rejected from his birth onwards and that he was born in poverty makes a better rags to riches version but the truth is much more ordinary. And it is in that kind of ‘ordinary’ that the incarnation of God is so much more telling. God entered a real world, a real family and was part of an ordinary family existence. God was born just like you and me, pushed out of the birth canal by his young mother, helped by a midwife, who was possibly his grandmother or aunty, was greeted, kissed, held and fed just like the rest of us. By being an ordinary story, it transforms our ordinary stories- the incarnation of Jesus tells us that God is with us! With Us! Not special, but ordinary humanity transformed by the birth of the creator of the universe. This is a picture of the ordinary and the extraordinary held together in a way that has become reality for us.
The second thing that I think is important is that in the hospitality shown to the Christ child we have a model for our lives together- we are to be family for each other, we have to make God welcome in our midst and we have to make each other welcome as well. We are part of the same human family that God entered. For me this has a particular resonance as we see the terrible atrocities in our world today, with people fleeing their homes and in need of care and hospitality. God came and lived in a human family, was welcomed and welcomed others, so we have the responsibility to see God in each human that we meet, created in God’s image and offer whatever hospitality we can.
The next part of the story is also a blend of the ordinary and the extraordinary. Here we see shepherds keeping watch over their flocks out on the hills. I have heard a lot of rubbish talked about these shepherds, as well, but having lived in sheep farming country I can tell you a few facts. The first is that sheep smell and people who work with them do as well. These are guys who are employed to look after the sheep- they are very average, quite humble men. And another thing I can tell you about sheep is that they have their lambs in the middle of winter so it is very understandable that they were out on the hills looking after them. Even Australian farmers, who are not quite the same as middle eastern shepherds who had small flocks, spend an awful lot of each winter night wide awake and guarding their sheep from predators while they are at their most vulnerable. Again, we have seen this in a kind of a ‘special’ light- but it is also dead ordinary. There is an extraordinary bit to the story, however. And that is the appearance of an angel and then a host of angels, who terrifies the shepherds with their glory. Again it is God breaking in to the everyday and transforming it. The lives of those men would never be the same again, I don’t think, after the visitation of the angels. The interesting thing is that God’s glory wasn’t revealed to the important, the wealthy or the powerful. God chose a very ordinary group of people and stunned them by God’s glory. God saw these ordinary men just as he had seen the ordinary girl Mary, and her cousin Elizabeth. This should encourage us to open our eyes and look at the ordinary people around us. God transforms that night and every night by the great message of hope. Good news of great joy- a saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. God incarnate, God born in an ordinary house, to be God the saviour, and God with us, transforming the rest of our existence.
‘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 favours!”’ And when the angels left the shepherds went to see the baby- and presumably they crowded into the downstairs part of the house, let’s hope they didn’t bring the lambs that they are so often shown with. And they see the glory of God lying in a manger. This is the wonder, that Jesus, the saviour, was born into our world to share our journey, to transform our ordinary human existence. God could have saved the world in any way God chose, but what God chose was to do it through our humanity. St Paul says, in 1Corinthians 15, ‘For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so will all be made alive in Christ.” This ordinary baby born into an ordinary household, transforms our past and our future.
So this year as you look at the pictures of the nativity, those dear little figures we treasure, we should give glory to God for entering our world for our salvation!