I want to look with you at the family in the stable. And I want to see them as they really are, not as we see them on Christmas cards or in ads. Whether the story as the Gospel writers tell it is historically or geographically accurate is not nearly as important as whether it is true. And so I want to hear and see the truth of these people, so that we can hear and see the truth of their story for our own lives.
She is a teenager, maybe thirteen or fourteen. She is strong and well-muscled for her age, for she has carried water and made fires and ground meal and tended gardens and animals all her life. She has calluses. She is wearing some kind of rough homespun dress and head covering, not the pretty blue outfit we are used to. She is not a pretty blonde American, but a Jewish country girl and poor. She is just out of her own childhood.
She is with a man – somewhat older, probably, but not out of his twenties. He’s not impressive by the world’s standards, either. He’s a carpenter, a laborer. These are young people, and about all they have is each other. In a normal situation, they would be at home in Nazareth, preparing for their wedding. But things are not normal for these two. Mary is pregnant, the baby is not Joseph’s, and these kids are not married. The way this baby came to be is a story that Mary and Joseph haven’t shared with anyone but her cousin Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah. Who would believe this story of angels and of a baby who is the Son of God? And, with Mary just about ready to have this baby, they have been forced to take a trip. There is a census being held, and every man has to go to the city of his family. Joseph is of the house of David, and the family city is Bethlehem. It would be nice if Bethlehem were a big city or a resort town, but it is neither of those things. It is a rural, poor town up in the hills, where people mostly raise sheep. So there aren’t a lot of fancy hotels or rooming houses, just ramshackle inns, and not a lot of those.
So there they are, this teenager and her blue-collar husband to be. They have tried to find a room in one of the inns, but everything is booked because of the census. And, when it seems nothing else could go wrong, Mary goes into labor. She is alone, far away from the women at home who could help her give birth, without even someone to act as a midwife. The innkeeper lets them use the stable – probably a cave carved out of the rock. So there – alone, surely afraid – Mary and Joseph do the best they can, and the baby is born. This is not a sweet antiseptic birth, but a bloody, smelly birth among the animals. And then strange things start happening – shepherds who come and tell of angels singing in the sky and a star that seems to sit still in the sky over this dark, dirty cave. Surely these weird happenings only serve to make Mary and Joseph feel more alone and disoriented than ever.
We sing about being home for Christmas, and if we are separated from our families or have no family to be with, it can be pretty lonely. But the feast we celebrate tonight isn’t about being home for the holidays. It is a feast for refugees and the lonely. And we have idealized pictures of families all over the media, with the hidden message that if your family isn’t perfectly happy, there’s something wrong with you. But this feast is about children in trouble and families made the way God makes families – people who try to hang together when life is messy and scary. This is a feast for the frightened and the lost. It is a feast for those who grieve. It is a feast for those who are homeless and poor. It is a feast for people who have nothing left to lose. God comes into the world in the dark corners, and there is not one of us here tonight who has not known at least one of those dark corners.
This is the way God comes into the world. God could have come to us in might and power and thunder, riding through the heavens in chariots of fire. God could have taken advantage of our vulnerability, but he didn’t. God came into the world as a fragile, vulnerable baby, born to people who were afraid and alone.
And that is what we celebrate when we celebrate Christmas. We celebrate God in that dark, dirty cave, and in all the dark dirty caves that we find in our world and in ourselves. God meets us in those dark places where we are most vulnerable and alone. God knows how fragile we are because God has shared our fragility. That is what this festival is really about. Christmas means that we are loved and precious – not because we have money or success, or even happy families (though it is a joy when we have those things). We are loved and precious because we belong to God, And no matter what happens to us, we bear God’s imprint on our souls. No matter how alone we feel, we are always in God’s hand. We are so precious that God came and became one of us to prove how loved we are. The pivot point of the world, the moment when everything changed forever takes place in a smelly stable in a backwater town, and the people who bring God into the world are a teenage girl and her young man.
And, as God comes into the world through them, so God calls to come into the world through us. We live in a world that is desperate for good news. We live in a world still as filled with war and hunger and human pain as it was 2000 years ago. God becomes human in Jesus so that we can carry God in us and bring the message that the world still needs to hear. And when we allow God to be born in us, Christmas comes to our souls, and the universe can be transformed through us.
A poet and hymn writer named Edmund Sears wrote these words in the 1800’s, but they remain as powerful today as they did then:
Yet with the woes of sin and strife, the world has suffered long;
Beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
And warring humankind hears not the tidings which they bring;
O hush the noise and cease your strife, and hear the angels sing.
For lo! The days are hastening on, by prophets seen of old;
When with the ever circling years shall come the time foretold.
When peace shall over all the earth, its ancient splendors fling;
And the whole world give back the song which now the angels sing. Amen.