by Rev. Priscilla Paris Austin
Text: Luke 2:1-14
Christmas Eve for most preachers will have us struggling with a message that is true to the radicalness of the gospel while tending to a sanctuary filled with visitors who we haven’t seen since last Christmas. For the preacher who feels compelled by the message of justice that is spoken through Scripture, days like this can be challenging, … or maybe, it’s just me. Personally, I feel the tension between a desire to DISRUPT WORSHIP and a responsibility to care tenderly for families, visitors and seekers who have wandered into our midst seeking a pretty Christmas story.
The problem is, that the Christmas story is not a pretty one no matter how much we want to make it so. Set in a context of oppressive occupation, Joseph is compelled to leave his home and his business as part of a government round-up.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 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.
Joseph doesn’t know it yet, but it will be many years before he can return to Nazareth. He chooses to bring with him the young woman, Mary, to whom he is engaged yet is pregnant, with a baby that is not his. Mary, is 9 months pregnant, making this journey, not in a comfy SUV with reclining seats, but instead probably walking or riding in a cart.
He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
I wonder if Joseph utilized his carpentry skills to fashion a wagon that would be comfortable for her, or if they simply used whatever he had on hand to transport his goods to market for sale. This is far from a picture perfect honeymoon.
I think about the Rohingya families fleeing Myanmar, hoping that their journey is only a temporary departure, navigating dangerous terrain littered with land mines placed by both governmental and rebel forces. All the while they are wondering will they make it safely to their destination? Will there be a place of refuge when they arrive? Will they ever be able to go home? And if they do, what will be left when they return?
No this is not a pretty story.
Joseph and Mary are not able to find comfortable shelter in a home or an inn. Instead, they are relegated to cave where the livestock are kept. And it is in this place, that Mary gives birth to Jesus, away from her family and the women who should have surrounded her and lovingly coached her through this birth. Somewhere between the cows, their food and their manure, on the dirt floor of cave, Jesus entered the world.
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’s really not a pretty story at all and yet, this is the beauty of it.
God, creator of the universe, with an intense devotion for the world to establish justice and righteousness (Isaiah 9:7) chose to come into the world in the same messy way each of us enters it, birthed from the womb of a woman. God did not choose a powerful family with wealth, super fast internet and political influence. God did not show up in a palace, a 2-story suburban home or even a birthing center with a doula and an herbalist on hand. God in flesh, is birthed into the hands of a refugee carpenter and his unmarried bride. Jesus is born in Bethlehem, a land that is foreign to his mother. He has no citizenship or status, yet the heavens cannot help but to rejoice.
Christmas Eve worship will be filled with the echoes of songs of the angels and one may think this is where the story gets pretty. But God disturbs our sensibilities yet again. The angelic voices are not sung in the the Temple on the Mount or anywhere near the seat of power, whether it is Jerusalem or Tel-Aviv. The angels do not come to the rich & famous or even in the public square of the Twitter-verse.
No, Scripture sets the scene and context again for us with some field hands, share-croppers if you will, working at night, while the land owners sleep in their comfy beds.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.
I think of nurses and hospital staff, firefighters and police, the public servants working on our behalf while we go merrily on our way. I think of low wage workers and day laborers who on this very night are working in restaurants, fields and stores to support our capitalist Christmas whims. Who are the people of your congregation or community who cannot join you for worship because of the economic slavery that shackles them?
It is to these forgotten people that the angels appear. Like the sirens of a raid on a factory in the garment district. Shepherds. Terrified.
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!”
And again, in this mess, we find the good news. God is with us in our loneliness, isolation and distress. God moves those marginalized people to the center of the story. The presence of Jesus invites us into a new way of understanding power, joy, love and “favor”.
This is the true prosperity gospel. It is an in breaking of God’s presence into the mess of our lives and calling it holy.
So my fellow preachers, I pray you will find the broken bodies of your community. Center their story this Christmas Eve. Sing with the angels, telling them to Fear Not. Remind them that they are the ones whom God favors. Disrupt their worship. Disrupt our worship. When they are free, we too, will be able to rejoice, for we will be free as well.