Homily for Christmas Eve

Pastor Bill Chadwick | December 24, 2019

Luke 2:1-19

I was talking on the phone with our youngest, Anji. She asked how I was and answered, “Great…except I haven’t yet found a really good story for my Christmas Eve sermon.”

“Well…,” she replied, “You could always tell that old one about Mary giving birth to the baby Jesus.” (Long pause.)

After another week of intermittent searching for that dynamite story, I came to the realization that perhaps her sarcasm was, in fact, a “word from the Lord.”

Let me tell you a story. It needs a bit of an introduction.

Biblical scholar Ken Bailey, who himself grew up in the Middle East, has shown that in several places in the Christmas story it is very likely that some of the old translations, and some of our most cherished traditions, are not historically accurate. So I am going to tell this story as accurately as I can, recognizing that the import of the story is not in its individual facts, but in its overriding Truth, Truth with a capital T.

Our story takes place in a land on the eastern side of the Mediterranean, in a backwater region called Nazareth, populated by Jews, but under the thumb of the Romans.

The final bit of introduction is a thought to ponder. My sister Mary’s husband, Tony, emailed me from California the other day: “Hi. On an internet bulletin board that I frequent, I asked the question, ‘What if the ultimate purpose of the universe, and all its contents and inhabitants, is to be God’s ant farm?’ While my intention was tongue in cheek, I was surprised at the number of responses I got. Nearly all were from people who thought it was a notion worth consideration. When I mentioned it to Mary, she was curious about what your reaction would be. Care to comment?”

Here is the first part of my response: “Hi, Tony. That is a provocative question. Of course, we can’t communicate with the ants in our ant farms…. unless we could somehow become an ant.” End of introduction.

The story: Long, long ago, in a land far, far away, lived a peasant girl named Mary. She was on the cusp of womanhood, probably 14 or 15 years of age. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph. One day God, yes, God, the one True God, Creator of heaven and earth, decided to send an angel named Gabriel to this young girl Mary. Now, as many of you have heard me say before, angels in the Bible are nothing like the angels of our traditional Christmas pageants, you know, adorable little girls. Real angels in the Bible are large, they are male, and evidently they are terrifying, because virtually every single time an angel appears, he has to reassure the people, “Do not be afraid.”

Mary was alone in her family’s house, at the sink drying the last bowl from breakfast, when Gabriel appeared and, looking down from his great height, said, “Greetings!”

Mary dropped the bowl and stood open-mouthed before the awesome heavenly being. Light filled every corner of the normally dark room, and the scent of heaven filled her nostrils. Gabriel did his best to look friendly instead of fierce, and continued, “Mary, you are beautiful, with God’s beauty, both inside and out.” Mary continued to stare in terror, her eyes big as pomegranates, her lower jaw trembling. Gabriel tried again, “God be with you. Mary, do not be afraid.”

She started to edge toward the door. Gabriel spoke again, “God has a surprise for you. You will become pregnant and give birth to a son and call his name Jesus, (which is the Greek version of Joshua).”

That stopped her. Her eyes narrowed and her brow furrowed.

Relieved that she no longer looked like she was about to flee, Gabriel gave her the rest of the story. “Your baby will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary’s mouth opened again, and shut…and opened… “How can this be? I’ve never been with a man.”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, the power of the Most High will hover over you; Therefore, the child you bring to birth will be called Holy, Son of God.”

Mary started backing toward the door again, so Gabriel quickly added, “Did you know that your cousin Elizabeth conceived a son, old as she is? Everyone called her barren, and here she is six months pregnant! You see, nothing is impossible with God.”

After a long minute, trying to take it all in, Mary bowed before the angel and said, “All right. I am the Lord’s handmaiden, ready to serve. Let it be with me just as you say.”

Then it was the angel’s turn to bow. And vanish.

Well, it happened just as the angel had said, and before long Mary could sense life within her womb. Which meant she had to explain her pregnancy to her fiancée, Joseph. Of course, he didn’t believe all this gibberish about an appearance of an angel and conception by the Holy Spirit. He was crushed, confused, betrayed, angry.

Fortunately for everyone, Joseph was a deliberate man. And a kind man. By the laws of that day, Mary could have been stoned to death, but being a good man, and not wishing to disgrace her, Joseph planned to end the engagement quietly.

But that very night, angel Gabriel appeared to Joseph, this time in a dream, and confirmed Mary’s story. So Joseph followed instructions and married Mary.

And things went along fine for a number of months. But then, into this new family’s life came what so often has come to peasant families through the long stretch of human history: a painful decree by an occupying government! In the form of a census. A census? “Big deal,” we might think. “Just fill out a form or answer a few questions from the canvasser at your door.”

Not in those days. First of all, the census was not to see how many schools were needed, or how much government aid your town would receive. It was for the twin purposes of taxation and conscription. On top of that, you had to go to your ancestral home and be counted there. Now, the VAST majority of folks lived within a few miles of their ancestral homes, but unfortunately, not Joseph. His family came from “the City of David,” Bethlehem, which name means “House of Bread,” a little town near Jerusalem, 90 miles away! It would be a rugged hike under normal conditions, but Mary was now well along in her pregnancy. It is probable that both walked.

Well, they managed to arrive in Bethlehem. It was busier than New Orleans at Mardi Gras, though the mood was anything but festive. Joseph and Mary were able to stay with some cousins of Joseph, but these cousins were already crowded with their own family and with other relatives gathered for the census, so there was no room in the guest room. (That’s the correct translation of that word that usually gets translated “inn.”) It was actually “guest room.” In the houses of the day, for peasants, the main room was an all-purpose room. And I do mean ALL purpose. At night the family’s animals—and I don’t mean pets like dogs and cats and hamsters, I mean chickens and goats and perhaps even a cow—the animals which had been roaming the nearby neighborhood during the day, would be brought into the house, for safety and for warmth, warmth for the animals and warmth from the animals, for the people of the house. The room would have an indentation cut into the floor to place feed for the animals. This feedbox was called a manger.

Well, in a few days the time came for Mary to have her baby. Some of Joseph’s female cousins helped with her delivery. We presume it was a normal labor and delivery, that is, horribly painful, especially for a first child, and a very young mother. Joseph, listening from outside, was going mad, but eventually he heard the lusty cry of a healthy baby. And it was a boy. As was the custom, they wound long bands of cloth around the baby, quite tightly, to make him feel secure.

Now, some of us in this room were so poor, we didn’t even have a crib, and so the newborn baby was placed in a dresser drawer. Well, Mary and Joseph didn’t have a crib and they didn’t have a dresser, but they did have a manger. And that’s where they placed the child. A rather inauspicious start for one supposed to be called “Holy, the Son of the Most High.”

Meanwhile, Luke tells us that there were shepherds out in the surrounding hillsides, keeping watch over their flocks by night. It that is true, then Jesus certainly was not born in December. For flocks would only have been out on the hillsides at night from spring through fall. Some scholars suggest that these shepherds are taking care of the Temple sheep to be used for the Passover sacrifice, sheep that need to be perfect. It has also been suggested that Jesus’ birth probably took place in late September, and if that is the case, then his conception would have taken place around December 25, a date that the Church commandeered from the solstice festival of the pagans.

Back to the shepherds. Despite our affection for Psalm 23 and the fact of King David having been a shepherd boy, shepherds were not considered to be the cream of society during the time of our story. Shepherds could not keep the Sabbath, of course. Sheep don’t take a day off and neither could shepherds. And other parts of their job, such as touching dead animals, kept the shepherds from being ritually clean almost all of the time. On top of that, shepherds were considered to be undependable, so untrustworthy, in fact, that they were not allowed to give testimony in a court of law. So shepherds were not these romantic, noble characters, they were low-lifes. But that’s who God decides to announce this wonder to, and they play a beautiful part in our story.

(Luke 2) “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them” …and that hillside became bright as the noonday sun. The very air tingled with electricity like just before a lightning strike, and the shepherds were… terrified!

But the angel said to them, “Be not afraid!” But his voice was like no sound they had ever heard. His countenance was like none they had ever seen. And they remained… terrified. They hugged the ground, afraid to look up.

So the angel said it again, “Be not afraid. For behold, I am bringing you good news of a 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… This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

Wait? What? The Messiah, the long-awaited One to deliver us from the bondage of Rome? A baby? A baby… in a manger? What?

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of heavenly beings, a celestial chorus, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors!” And then they were gone.

It took a while for the shepherds to find their tongues, but then they couldn’t stop talking; all of them babbled at once. Some of them said, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, that the Lord has made known to us.” But others said, “No thank you. I have had more than enough excitement for one night. We’ll stay here and keep watch and you guys can trudge off to Bethlehem in the middle of the night to try to find some baby.”

So they did, but they didn’t “trudge,” they skipped and ran as fast as their legs could carry them, and after asking around a bit, they found the house with Mary and Joseph and the newborn child, a child, indeed, lying in a feedbox. And the shepherds told Mary and Joseph, and Joseph’s cousins and all in the town, about the visitation by angels, and what the angel had said concerning this child. And all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.

But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. One of the loveliest sentences in all the world’s literature. “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

I invite you to do the same,


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