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… (Read the whole Christmas Gospel)
You may be expecting a story tonight.
For the past three years, Christmas Eve has been a chance to tell the story of Christmas in a fresh way, with modern versions of the Christmas story. However, tonight will be a bit different. Rather than something that sounds like a Vinyl Cafe story (Lake Wobegon for American readers), we are going to tell and hear the Christmas story with new ears to hear and new eyes to see. As the angels said to the Shepherds:
Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people
Like a lot of the world, 2016 has been a rough year for us. Politics has been messy and ugly. We have been subjected to constant news of war and violence and terror attacks around the world. There are near daily stories about the effects of climate change. Our culture and society is having conflicts around issues of race, gender, religion, and ethnicity. We never know when there will be another mass shooting, another earthquake or hurricane or forest fire. Any moment, another celebrity death will stream across social media feeds when we least need hear it.
And here at Good Shepherd we have born the weight of more than our share of illness, tragedy and death.
So maybe for you Christmas is just the same old, same old time for family, traditions and memories this year.
But it is probably the case that for most of us, Christmas lacks a little something. It feels a little duller and subdued. The magic just isn’t quite there for all the reasons that 2016 has been so difficult.
And we think that Christmas is supposed to have that special quality, that feeling of being different than the normal and mundane things of every day life. Christmas is supposed to lift our spirits, remind us of better things, be a time for sentimentalism and warm fuzzies. It is like that Christmas Card with Mary gazing lovingly down at newborn Jesus – it should melt our hearts. It should feel like special moment when we all sing silent night to candlelight, – glowing faces all around.
But this year it hasn’t been those things. Maybe tonight was supposed to be the chance to reclaim what Christmas is supposed to be…
So here is the thing.
The Christmas story that we know, the one that goes along with silent night, kids dressed up in cute outfits, family traditions waiting at home and presents under the tree… is not exactly the real version.
At the risk of sounding like the pastor grinch…
All the nostalgia is less about Christmas than we think. In fact, all those things that we listed earlier that made 2016 such a hard year… they speak more to Christmas than we want to think about.
When we hear that familiar story from Luke that we just read… it is easy to imagine the Christmas pageant or TV version.
But the very first line of story takes us to something a little more 2016 than we might be comfortable with.
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.”
We have political leaders talking about a registering certain kinds of citizens, talking about values tests and ways of sorting us into good and bad.
Mary and Joseph were part of that group that was called upon to register, because of their religion, the colour of their skin, because of where they came from – they were part of a group that those in power wanted to track and monitor.
And so, like so many migrants forced to move their homes, regardless of age, health, ability or even whether or not they were pregnant, Mary and Joseph were forced to pack up their lives and move across country.
Perhaps for the first time in decades, we have a better understanding of what the Emperor was doing by announcing a registration, and it wasn’t good.
Like the millions of refugees around the world or like so many who live in poverty on our planet, Mary and Joseph had no safe place to stay. There was no refugee camp or shanty town to go to. There was no kind soul to take pity of them. All they could find was essentially a place to squat out of necessity.
And so Mary gave birth in a stable… but not the sweet and sanitary stable that we might imagine. But probably a cold and dark cave where the animals were kept. Imagine a refugee family hiding in an abandoned building or out in the woods… none of us would consider this a good place to spend the night, let alone have a baby. But this is where the mother of God was forced to give birth.
Then once the ordeal of child birth is over, a gang of Shepherds show up. Not the cute ones wearing bathrobes that we imagine. But shepherds who were the dregs of society, more like drug dealers and addics, not good and polite neighbours bringing casseroles, not well meaning aunts who stop by the hospital with flowers. But the kind of people that most of us would cross the street to avoid…. these misfits are the ones who show us first to worship this new born child.
But just to top it all off, Jesus is born to a teenage mom with an older man looking after her and her child despite not being the baby’s father. Jesus is born into the kind of situation where would we expect child and family services to intervene and remove the child. Yet, this is the family that God chooses to care for the Messiah.
Once the baby is born and somehow the holy family has survived everything from being forced from their homes to register, travelling across country, giving birth in squalor, being visited by the riffraff of society…. Mary and Joseph are left on their own. Left in a world where they have no home, where soldiers would be looking for them soon in order to kill the baby boy, where foreign powers and corrupt kings controlled their lives, where there was no safe place to live or hide, but the only safety was to keep moving out on the open road…
Hardly sounds like Christmas, does it?
Except this is the Christmas story.
And it is important that this is the Christmas story.
Because the warm fuzzy version is not what our world needs. The traditions and carols and movies and light strung up might make us feel good, they may even bring a certain joy and hope to our dark December…. but the TV version of the Christmas story will not save the world. It will not save us from all the things we need saving from.
In fact, in a world where we can name three major tragedies just this week in the Christmas Market in Germany, the war in Aleppo and fireworks explosion Mexico, the fact that the first century world of Mary and Joseph, the world of Caesar Augustus full of registrations and soldiers and refugees and danger…. that this world of 2000 years ago is very much like our world today…
This fact means that if God can be born to a teen mom and a step dad in 1st century occupied Israel, means that surely God can be born in our world.
That Jesus is found in Christmas markets struck by tragedy.
That Jesus is born in the bombed out rubble of Aleppo.
That the holy family passes through fireworks markets while on the road.
As much as we want the magic of Christmas,
The world needs the Messiah to be born,
The Christ who is willing to go and be found in the real Christmas places.
God in Christ is willing to be born among us in order that we can see that God has come near. Near to us in the ways and places that we need most. God comes near, God joins in creation, taking on our flesh to show us that we are not left alone to sort out this crazy world. That we go into the night with God along side us, that God is facing the dangers with us, that surviving our world, that confronting sin and death is precisely where God comes to meet us.
The good news of great joy at Christmas is that the God of light and life has not left us on our own, but comes into our world to live life with us, to give the small but enduring hope found in a baby that changes the world.
2016 might not feel much like Christmas as we know it, but it just might be the closest to the first Christmas we have ever been.
The story that we tell tonight is so much bigger and so much deeper than the feelings we try to recreate time of year. The real Christmas story, the real story of Jesus’s birth in our world is about all the feelings that we don’t want to have this time of year. It is about the fact that God comes to into a world that needs joy and hope and light.
So just as those Angels proclaimed: Do not be afraid.
Do not be afraid if Christmas doesn’t feel like we think if should this year…. because it is precisely into this world of ours full of difficulty, hardship and struggle that Jesus is born. Born in the city of David, born here among us