I know that you know tonight’s Gospel pretty well.
You may even have parts of this scripture memorized because you have heard it so many times on Christmas Eve. So when Deacon Linda says that the angels tell the shepherds ‘Do not be afraid,; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the lord.” You can be saying it out there to yourself as I do as the Deacon is reading it aloud, for you know it so well.
It’s like singing the lyrics of your favorite song when it comes on the radio. This story is part of who we are. And if you’ve been coming here for as long as some of our parishioners, 70 years or more, you could just go out there and say the Gospel by yourself, for you know it by heart.
Or perhaps there are those who are here tonight who are here for the first time, for whom this story is new. I wonder if there are people here for the first time, not just here at the Cathedral, but for the first time in a Christian worship service? Anyone who has never been to a Christian worship before?
Because for most of us, this story from Luke is so well known that it is easy to miss the fact that there is a profound truth in the story here among the host of angels and the glory of the birth of Jesus, that there is a profound, not a secret exactly, but a profound message that you may have missed: which is that every human being in this passage, apart from the baby Jesus, every human being struggles or faces a challenge for the sake of that baby.
This story is for most of us a story of comfort. It’s part of the routine that we get at the Holidays, with the music you only hear once a year, with decorating the tree and putting up the lights, and overeating, and coming here on Christmas eve to hear the story of Jesus’s birth.
But if you’re hearing this story for the first time, I wonder do you notice that it’s not a story with a lot of comfort, and that’s especially true for Mary and Joseph and the Shepherds.
It starts with Mary and Joseph being uprooted from their lives in Nazareth and having to go and register for the census in Bethlehem, which is about 90 miles away, on a road that is beset with bandits that goes up and down hills, back when people traveled only about 20 miles a day. So that’s 4 and a half days on the road with Mary who is, let us not forget, pregnant. All of that is to fulfill the prophecy that the Savior, the Messiah, would be born in the city of David, in Bethlehem.
And of course when they get there, there’s no room at the inn. From time to time, as we do ministries with people who are living on the streets, I try and imagine myself out there sleeping without shelter in a tent by the river, or scrambling to find a place safe for my wife who is pregnant. And I can’t imagine that I would be happy not to be able to sleep at the inn. It’s degrading and humiliating to have to look for shelter because you don’t have a nice place to sleep, and it’s below the stature of what I consider dignified for myself. So Mary and Joseph really have to sacrifice for Jesus.
And then picture the shepherds who are out dutifully watching their sheep and making sure nothing frightens the flock. And there in the middle of the night, doing what they do every single night of their life, suddenly appears an angel, with the glory of the Lord surrounding it and they are terrified.
Sometimes when I’m sitting at my desk alone the secretary pops her head in to say something and I scream because I get startled. Imagine those poor shepherds. Their flocks get all stirred up. Their hearts all aflutter. And they have to go to see what the angel is talking about, and find the baby Jesus under that star. It’s incredibly disruptive for their lives.
So in the big picture, the story of the birth of Jesus is good news of great joy. But in the small picture, the story, on a personal level, is all about the sacrifice, discomfort and fear that a few of these ordinary people go through to participate in the birth of God.
Yet not for one moment, if you think about it, do we hear any of the people in the Gospel stop and say no. I won’t go to Bethlehem. I won’t sleep in a manger. I don’t want to have my baby here. I won’t listen to the angels. Who listens to angels? I don’t want to go to see the baby Jesus. Such is the power of the presence of God in the lives of these ordinary people, that they are willing to go to any length to participate in the birth of Christ.
It is that power, it is that presence which brings us here, year after year, to worship at Christmas. We might think we come to this service to find comfort, and fulfill tradition. But I want to suggest that the real reason we come here, even if we come just once a year, is not that this is comfort for our souls, but because it is direction for our lives.
For we need to hear that ordinary people like Mary and Joseph and the Shepherds have had an experience of God, and that experience has changed them. It has disrupted their routines. It has helped them overcome their fears. And that through God’s intervention, we see tonight that ordinary people can do amazing things. They can overcome themselves and face the inconvenience that comes when we try and do something for someone else. They can go forth to do things that are kind of amazing, without fear, no matter the bother.
And perhaps we can see that we too, in our own way, can do the same. That in Christ and for Christ we have been given a mission to do great things. You think great things are reserved for Joseph, Mary and the Shepherds? I have no doubt that each of us has, at some point, been touched by God to do great things. That we too can go to lengths to nurture and support Jesus Christ.
We see great things, for example, in the sacrifice that parents make for their children, or children make when they care for their aging parents. We see great things when someone calls on their sick friend, or visits their neighbor in need. We saw something great in the way the community came together after the hurricane in Puerto Rico and we helped raise money for medicine and water.
We see great things all the time in the way we give out coats, clothes, food, and work on building relationships with those who are in need. The greatness of God, the presence of Jesus Christ was not just born in Bethlehem 2000 years ago but it exists in a million little things we do today
And if someone asks you: why do you do these things, for example why do you give time to that church to sing in its choir, or serve on the altar guild or the flower guild, or one of those church committees, or why are you an usher or acolyte, or Why do you work for the protection of the environment? Or for social justice? Why do you help people out there? Isn’t it all sometimes inconvenient and doesn’t it sometimes put you out?
And so you search inside yourself, and perhaps you find that inside there’s no hero. There’s no extraordinary human being at the center of your soul. There’s just an ordinary Mary or inside you or an ordinary Joseph or just another Shepherd.
But when you’ve talked with a lot of these ordinary Marys and Josephs and Shepherds, you realize that what is within them is this direction in which they point their lives, guided not by the fear they have or a need to avoid being bothered by the needs others. But they are guided by that star, in search of the goodness of Jesus. And incarnate within them is love. Greater, giving, sacrificial love.
Godly love made incarnate in the presence of Jesus Christ in the lives of those who follow. That’s what Christmas is. And it can and it should and it will disrupt our lives and should from time to time frighten us beyond measure to realize that God loves us so much and wants to be with us. It should confuse us and beguile us, because we say: we are not worth such love. And many reject it.
Someone sent me an article last Summer from a research group studying religion and prayer in the United States. And they reported on what they found to be the most and least prayerful parts of the country. And it turns out that the most prayerful community in the US is in the south, as you might expect, in Augusta Georgia where something like 98% of those surveyed said they had prayed at least one time in the past week.
And the least prayerful cities in the United States were none other than Springfield and Holyoke Massachusetts, where only 53% of those surveyed – just over half - said they had prayed in the last week. I’d like to think it’s all Holyoke’s fault, but I’m sure we are right up there with them.
So of course that doesn’t include any of you, because I know you have all prayed at least once tonight, at some point, and perhaps you prayed that you would find parking when you got to the Cathedral.
But in light of that report, I would like us to marvel at the fact that we do not have to do this. That our culture does not demand it, the community around does not expect it, and it’s not necessary for us to be good citizens in the greater Springfield world to have faith. But we do it because of him: the Messiah, the Prince of peace. That love which we call Jesus gives us purpose, and in him we find there is more to life than simply tending the flock with the other shepherds in the field, or settling comfortably in the house like Mary and Joseph really hoped to do.
For we have been called to see and participate in the miracle. For unto us is born in the city of Springfield, tonight, a savior, who is the messiah.
And as we lay our heads on the pillow tonight, this Christmas Eve, my prayer is that we will see that instead of just a story we come to hear once a year, that we really are playing a huge role in the ongoing drama of God. That as we come to honor Jesus and remember his birth, we share as helpers in this birth, being ordinary people who are extraordinary because of his love.
May Jesus Christ be born again in you to guide and direct your hearts always to the good. May you see the obstacles before you and with Christ overcome them. May you know the fear and simply move through it, for it is nothing to God. May you live lives that are great addressing the needs of the world which are mighty with the power of love which is mightier still, filled with hope and conformed not to the darkness but to the justice, love and mercy of Jesus. And may he bless you always. Amen.