Gospel: Luke 2:1-20 1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph 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. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And 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. 8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15When 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.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Grace to you and peace from God, our Father, and our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I have a friend who’s a pastor, but he’s working as a financial consultant. I don’t know exactly why, but I have my suspicions! Several years ago, we were visiting and he sheepishly admitted that he liked a new song on the radio by Joan Osborne. I was unfamiliar with the song, and he told me the title, “What if God Was One of Us?” As I listened to the song later, having looked it up on YouTube, I understood his hesitance. After all, comparing God to a stranger on the bus trying to find his way home might be considered just a bit disrespectful.
On the other hand, isn’t that what Christmas is all about? Isn’t Christmas the celebration of God becoming one of us? And didn’t Jesus identify himself with the most needy among us, telling us that when we help one of those, we are helping him? I found myself becoming almost smugly self-righteous. How dare my friend be embarrassed about something with such truth that could reach the masses in ways sermons usually don’t?
Maybe, though, my friend was less unsure about the song than he was about me. Maybe, he wasn’t embarrassed about the song, but afraid that I would judge him to be somehow less worthy for liking it. Now I’m a bit embarrassed at myself.
You see, most of us want to be the best that we can be. We figure out ways to do that, and we strive to fit ourselves into the molds we create. That in itself can work well… unless we create unreachable goals that can be achieved only through dishonest means… Aside from that, though, individual goals that match our skills and challenge us to develop our abilities are good things. It’s very good, until we start judging others by how they fail to meet our definition of the ideal.
We make judgments when the government shuts down because of disagreements over a border wall, and many people are suddenly without a paycheck. We make judgments when schools and churches are advised by some to arm themselves with weapons to protect their people from zealots. We make judgments when retailers struggle to keep their doors open, and people are always looking for a better deal? We make judgments over the way other people live their lives.
What does Christmas mean when we continually make judgments denigrating others?
What does Christmas mean, when one pastor is worried that another pastor will judge him as less than, because of a song he professes to like?
What if God is present in that stranger on the bus trying to find a way home?
I’ve grown older in the years since my friend first shared with me his liking for that song. Often, when one grows older, we become more set in our ways. The world becomes darker, and we despair that others will never see what we’ve determined to be the best way to be. Luke tells us that Augustus decided it would be best to count all the people under his rule, and we continue to count. Sometimes, when we count, we try to make some people worth more than others, distributing power to oligarchs and hoping things will get better.
Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem to be counted. The city was crowded, and they were relegated to the room that housed the animals. They were not counted among the important ones, but at least they had some shelter. They were not out in the hills with the sheep, exposed to the dangers of wolves and thieves and storms.
Yet, it was out in the hills that a bright light began to shine in the darkness. No, it was not the star that disturbed the shepherds that night, it was God’s angel, a messenger, shining with God’s glory, trying to tell the shepherds not to be afraid.
Light shone in the darkness, and that brightly shining angel told them of the savior born that night down in the city, whom they could recognize because he had been laid in a manger. Then the angel was joined by a multitude of shining warriors in the night sky, praising God and proclaiming peace on earth.
When the light of the angels faded, of course the shepherds went to verify the truth of the message, and they told all kinds of people of the angels’ appearing, and the message those angels had shared.
Something changed, then. Rather than being merely unmarried parents relegated to the room where the animals lived, Mary and Joseph became the parents of the one born to save the world. Of course they’d been that already, but most of the people had no idea—and of course Joseph and Mary wouldn’t brag about such a thing… that might sound like excuses!
Now, the miraculous light of the angels had revealed to and through the shepherds a new perspective, and the young parents experienced the joy of many in Israel.
It’s been nearly 30 years that I’ve tried to preach the miracle of Christmas in fresh ways. In those years, I have also been tempted to rant and rail over things that are not as I would wish them to be. It’s easier, after all, to stick with what is tried and true. However, since God is still active in this world, what was wonderful years ago might be less so now. And God provides new light each day, that we may see in new ways, just as the shepherds viewed Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus in ways no one else in Bethlehem had yet deigned to do.
You see, the miracle of God’s light is that it is greater than that which helps us to see merely with our eyes. God’s light helps us to see also with our hearts, and our souls. We can love the stranger on the bus because of God’s light. We can love the person who stinks, and the one whose words we can’t quite understand. We can work for the safety of all kinds of people, as we proclaim God’s love for all creation.
God’s light can help us to see others without judging them according to our own goals. How awful if we all longed to excel at the same skills! How boring if everyone played the flute and no one played the drums! What if everyone created beautiful stained glass windows and no one could build a shelter from the winter weather?
God’s light helps us to embrace differences among all the peoples of creation, that we may be less judgmental, and more loving. Tonight, as we celebrate the birth of Jesus among us, let us pray that God’s light will filter through to everyone, that all may experience God’s love. Let us pray for God’s light to bring peace… for people who live on the borders, or in the slums, and for those who live in the mansions (… and of course for everyone else as well!).
The miracle of God’s light reaches into all places, even those which never see a sunrise. Today, God’s light reaches you. Today, God's light reaches you, in Jesus’ name. Amen