This morning we looked at John’s lofty theological prose about what the coming of Jesus meant for the world. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth, and from his fulness we have all received, grace upon grace.” It is magnificent, it is cosmic, it is inspiring.
Tonight we listen once again to Dr. Luke’s description of the event by which God’s eternal Word became flesh and came into the world. The good doctor has a special interest in details, in contexts, in the people and the external factors which affect their lives. Luke’s is the beloved version of the Christmas story for these very reasons, and is our reading every Christmas Eve. In my reading to prepare for preaching on the story once again this year I have come across a couple of insights that I would like to focus on tonight. One is about the nature of time and the other is about the nature of journey.
Luke starts out talking about “in those days,” but ends up talking about “this day.” Charles Campbell asserts that this is not accidental or insignificant. He writes, “Luke proclaims the odd, astonishing arrival of a new world, a new time…. It begins in the old time, chronological time, time shaped by the ‘powers that be.’ The emperor reigns. Time is denoted by who is in power: ‘Quirinius was governor of Syria’. Here is the story time in which many people live even today: the time of the census and taxes and authoritative orders and pronouncements; time shaped by business as usual, by the world’s accepted power structures; history defined by those in positions of authority. So the story begins in the old time – the old age: ‘In those days…’ Even the words sound tired and hopeless.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, p. 117, 119)
In those days the same old people are in charge, fighting the same fights with each other, continually making decisions which cause suffering, inconvenience, and dislocation to people. Journeys are made to get “real ID licenses,” overcrowded waiting rooms are filled with men, women, and children hoping to get a work permit or green card or medical attention or a disability certification or a chance for a job.
During the census Luke tells about there was a rebellion against it which was brutally put down by the Roman government, and those kinds of things routinely happen “in those days.” One of the consequences of the census was that Joseph and Mary had to make an unwelcome journey at an unwelcome time to an unwelcoming town.
We are familiar with making journeys, and I expect that many of you have made journeys to be in this place for Christmas Eve. Some of you are “from here” and returning home to be with family. Others are here specifically to be with someone for Christmas. You probably have some time honored Christmas Eve and Christmas Day traditions which will bring joy and contentment to your heart.
Cynthia Rigby reminds us that this was not the kind of journey Mary and Joseph took. She writes, “Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and the shepherds do not travel with the anticipation that they will arrive to a familiar, homemade Christmas. They are headed to that which is uncomfortable and utterly new. Mary and Joseph are moving further and further away from their homes as they make the journey to register. The Son has left his place at the side of the Father and gone into the ‘far country’ in order to be with us (Emmanuel). And the shepherds are minding the business of their own familiar domain when they are compelled, by the Good News of the angels, to travel and seek.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, p. 118)
There is so much sentimentality about “being home” for Christmas that I think this is an important insight. Perhaps it is the year when that sentimental picture is absent that we will most clearly relate to and recognize the importance of what happened that night. A soldier in a foxhole in Germany or the Mekong Delta on Christmas Eve; a doctor starting a practice across the country from family and having to staff the emergency room on Christmas Eve; an aid worker answering an urgent request to go to Sri Lanka after a Christmas tidal wave; experiencing a disorienting day in the Atlanta airport during a power outage trying to get home for the holidays; trying to find a new place among the familiar events of Christmas as a recent widow or widower. These are examples of journeys away from home, away from the familiar, into the unexpected territory of unfamiliar faces crowding around us in some Bethlehem.
Dr. Luke tells the story from the perspective of a doctor who knows intimately how his patient would be affected by having to make such a journey nine months pregnant; having to deal with the rising panic of not being able to find a room for your pregnant wife and going from door to door; giving birth in a space reserved for animals, miles from the family and midwife and hot towels that had been in the plan; instead of placing the newborn baby in the new crib lovingly constructed by his carpenter father Joseph, placing him in a manger, which was a feed trough for the animals.
And yet… Luke records no whining, no grumbling, no complaining about all of this. Rigby writes, “Those who assume that being away from home at Christmas would be unsettling might be surprised that the dislocation of the figures in the story does not appear to destabilize them. Mary and Joseph make a home where there is no home; Jesus nestles in the manger and is nurtured in his parents’ arms; the shepherds tell the story of the angels, gathered in the dim candlelight of the stable, as if they are with old friends…. What is right about this is that there is a home – a home whose hearth is Jesus Christ himself. He is the center of Mary and Joseph’s life, the song of the angels, the mission of the shepherds. Where the Christ child lays, the story tells us, is home. This child is born for ‘all the people.’ He is our Savior, our Messiah, the one in whom our unsettledness gives way to great joy and peace.” (p. 118)
In this birth, Charles Campbell says, time shifts away from “those days” to “this day.” The first words said in the story after the birth of Jesus are said by an angel to terrified shepherds. “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.” And so an inconvenient journey away from home at Christmas ushered in a new time, God’s time, which is amazingly even reflected in our calendars in the way we count time. The birth of Jesus was a quiet event, certainly not one that the papers would have covered, but it changed the world. To us was born that day a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift. Amen!
David J. Bailey
Christmas Eve Service
December 24, 2017
Central Presbyterian Church