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.
Our familiar passage from Luke telling the Christmas story reminds me of the one about a Jewish lady named Mrs. Rosenberg who, many years ago, was stranded late one night at a fashionable resort – one that did not admit Jews. The desk clerk looked down at his book and said, “Sorry, no room. The hotel is full.” The Jewish lady said, “But your sign says that you have vacancies.” The desk clerk stammered and then said curtly, “You know that we do not admit Jews. Now if you will try the other side of town…” Mrs. Rosenberg stiffened noticeable and said, “I’ll have you know I converted to your religion.” The desk clerk said, “Oh, yeah, let me give you a little test. How was Jesus born?” Mrs. Rosenberg replied, “He was born to a virgin named Mary in a little town called Bethlehem.” “Very good,” replied the hotel clerk. “Tell me more.” Mrs. Rosenberg replied, “He was born in a manger.” “That’s right,” said the hotel clerk. “And why was he born in a manger?” Mrs. Rosenberg said loudly, “Because a jerk like you in the hotel wouldn’t give a Jewish lady a room for the night!”
There are many elements of the Christmas story that can seem odd to our 21st century mindsets. It is odd that Mary and Joseph had to travel anywhere to register for the national census. In today’s age, the government simply sends out the census form and nags you to death until you send it back. A little annoying but nothing compared to traveling somewhere to get it done. And knowing that it had to be done in such a fashion, it is odd that Joseph and Mary chose to do it in such a late stage of her pregnancy. Surely she knew that baby was expected any day now! Why wait until the last minute to get it done? And if it wasn’t last minute, if they had a few more weeks, surely it would have been easier to make the trip with a newborn baby and a non-pregnant mother. Maybe Joseph’s job didn’t let him get away any other time. The angel appearing to the shepherds in the fields is most certainly odd. Not that angels themselves are all that odd—I believe there are many angels who walk among us today—but that they would appear to shepherds of all people as we heard in the monologue last night. Shepherds were pretty low on the social totem pole, right next to garbage collectors or prostitutes. Why did God choose them of all people to be the first witnesses to Jesus’ birth? And not only witness the miracle but share the miracle with the rest of the world. Who would believe them, the lowest of the low? Speaking of the lowest of the low, it is odd that Joseph and Mary couldn’t find any lodging other than a lowly manger, sleeping with animals. Surely there were 24-hour urgent care clinics or hospitals or even homeless shelters where they could have at least been among other people! I don’t think there was latent racism involved as that opening joke suggests. Many people were traveling to Bethlehem to register for the census so naturally all the temporary lodging was likely to be filled. Still, there are several odd elements to the story that our modern sensibilities must wrestle with.
Perhaps God used these little oddities to enhance the story. Mary and Joseph are young (well, at least Mary is) so they’re going to do dumb things like traveling in late-stage pregnancy. Because they were so young, they probably felt they were invincible and could take up lodging with animals. The shepherds being chosen to witness and share the good news really says more about God than them. God likes to work through unlikely people and unlikely circumstances. It makes for a more interesting story! And God is always trying to get our attention in the best way possible. God loves us and wants to be in relationship with us and He’ll try anything to keep us in relationship, even use an interesting story. I think God uses oddities as a way of building hope. Everyone in the story had hope—Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the three wise men as we’ll hear in a few weeks, even God himself. They all went into the situation with little expectations yet great hope.
Hope is at the root of the season. Jesus is born into our dark world and with him comes hope. Hope is a wonderful gift to receive. The prophet Isaiah says, “but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (40:31) Jesus is born anew today but the good news of that might not be realized for weeks or months ahead. Jesus must work on the hearts of his believers and slowly transform them. Jesus is slow to change hearts and I appreciate that about him. Belief and faith is a process, not a destination. In Jesus , the words of Jeremiah become relevant: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (29:11) In Jesus, we have hope. Jesus will lead us and protect us. Jesus will guide us through the dangers of this world. Jesus will bring us home to our heavenly Father one fine day. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “And hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (5:5) In Jesus, God’s deep and unending love has been poured into our hearts and we have hope for the future.
As we wind down another year of shared ministry, we can be hopeful for what’s in store in the year. Christ is born anew and promises to be with us throughout it all. Let us again take comfort in Isaiah’s word: “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” (43:1-2)
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.