We’ve heard this story a million times, and it can be easy to miss what an amazing story it is. We have heard this enough times to know that Mary and Joseph can find no room at the inn so the Christ child is born in a manger, and there are shepherds in the field tending their flocks when the angels appear telling them of the birth of the Messiah and they go and see the Messiah and they are amazed, and they go off to tell other people and they are amazed.
And if we come here expecting to find what we’ve always found and hear what we’ve always heard, we may not be amazed at this story. We may be content. It’s Christmas Eve and we are here together which we could not be for a while and I hope we are content about that. Or we may be here tonight and find that we are happy, and that’s great because the music at the Cathedral is lovely and flowers look great and the young Dean is going to preach a fairly passable sermon and we are with people we care about, and all of that makes us happy.
But my prayer is that we leave this space tonight just amazed by this story and we find something that touches us and feeds the deep hunger that is within us. Even if we didn’t know we are hungry. We are hungry for God.
I wonder how you pray about Christmas. And I’m not thinking about prayers that the sweaters we’ve bought fit the people we bought them for. Or prayers that Santa brings you that one gift that you really want. But how do you pray about this story of the birth of Jesus and the people who are part of that moment?
Some years at Christmas my prayers revolve around Jesus and his presence as the newborn Christ child. But this year, for some reason, as I pray about Christmas, my attention has gone not to Jesus but to the others in the story. My prayers have been with this little band of those who we find in our creche tonight. I’m not looking at Jesus so much this year as I am looking at them. Sometimes it’s way more interesting looking at people’s responses to things than it is to look at those things themselves.
So what does everyone in this story do in response to Jesus’s birth? At the birth of Jesus the angels respond as angels do – they go nuts, they go crazy – angels singing and rejoicing and flying around and frightening people because they are barely able to contain themselves at the fact that the Messiah is born. I imagine if you were friends with angels, it would be exhausting because they are always proclaiming and exalting. Angels are fun but very intense. And perhaps that is the energy that we’ve come to find tonight, the energy that we need – this manic excitement about God and Jesus Christ. And that’s fantastic.
And with a totally different energy we have Mary who we don’t hear that much about in this passage, but we do know that she ponders all of these things in her heart. Which is an interesting way of describing what’s going on with Mary, because it means that she is not trying to figure all of this out. Because that’s what you do in your head, you try and figure things out. Mary is trying to grasp this all in her heart, which means she is trying to feel it.
Mary doesn’t need to know how this miracle has happened. She doesn’t need to know the specifics of angels and miracle births. Earlier in the Gospel she asked: How can this be since I am a virgin? But here at Christmas she doesn’t even ask that anymore. She has gone beyond these questions to become like a person who is at the beach watching a beautiful sunset or one standing before an exquisite piece of art, or someone doing something which mothers do everywhere, just staring at her baby with love.
As I have gotten older and begun to reflect on my own life on how quickly things pass in these fleeting moments we have, I have become more like Mary here in the creche, pondering these things in my heart and trying not to figure everything out. I think that’s one of the benefits of getting older – you just tend to accept more things as they are. And perhaps Mary’s gift in this story for us is to hold up the value of pondering and considering the incredible things in our life.
Several years ago I read a piece by the author Kurt Vonnegut about how to appreciate life. He said that he had an uncle who from time to time would be in the midst of doing something and he would suddenly stop and say out loud: “If this isn’t nice, I don’t what is.” Which is a way of calling your own attention to the fact that you are happy at this moment. If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is. And I’ve started to do that in my own life and it does help me remember how happy I often am. And I think that’s what Mary is saying tonight as she stands there looking down at God in the form of Jesus: this is nice. And maybe that’s part of what we find tonight, there’s this peace and contentment.
And then there’s Joseph. And I think tonight’s story is not really so much about Joseph. He’s not extra to the story. He’s not window dressing – just there in the creche to make it look full like I think one of the donkeys or one of the sheep are there just to kind of fill up the creche.
Joseph’s presence is that of a person who is here to help and to do the right thing. And I think Rich Simpson said that very well in his sermon last week. So God bless you Joseph. We can thank Joseph for being born of the house of David and bringing his family to Bethlehem to be counted. And we can thank him for not dismissing Mary when he found out she was pregnant.
Perhaps we find tonight gratitude for all of us who are like Joseph upholding the value of being faithful people who further the Kingdom of God. And if tonight you identify with Joseph, I pray that you see how important the role is that you play in this story.
And then there’s the shepherd. We’ll forget about the wise men for now. They’re way over there. It’s going to take them forever to get over here. And we will hear their story soon enough. But as we ponder the shepherds in our Gospel tonight, I want to think about who we are as we’ve come here.
Maybe some of us are angels overjoyed with excitement at the Messiah’s birth. And maybe some of us are Marys pondering the treasures that God has given. And maybe some of us are Josephs committed to helping and doing the right thing. But I think whoever else we are, we are all shepherds.
One thing to know about the shepherds – the shepherds live in a world of darkness. Their story in this Gospel takes place entirely at night, have you ever noticed that? I don’t think I’ve noticed that before this year. I had to reread the story carefully, but it’s true that everything about the shepherds, from the moment we hear about them tending their flocks at night to the moment they go to see the Messiah to heading off in amazement to tell others, everything happens before the sun comes up.
If you were an anthropologist and all you knew about shepherds in Palestine two thousand years ago came from this passage, you might well conclude that shepherds are nocturnal. Or perhaps they are vampires.
All of which is to say that they could use some light. They are living in the time that Isaiah describes in the first reading as a time of darkness with people living in a land of great darkness. The shepherds inhabit that land. And so of all the people in the Gospel tonight, the shepherds have come empty and needing and hungry for God.
Every once in a while someone invites me over to their home for dinner and when they do, I always try and ask them– what can I bring?, because that’s what my mother taught me to ask. And of course I secretly hope they say, “Don’t bring anything,” or perhaps if you’re going to bring something, just pick it up at the supermarket on the way over, which is great. As long as I don’t have to bake I am happy. And I particularly am happy when people say this, “Don’t bring anything, just bring your hunger.” Because that’s pretty easy to do.
And the Christmas Card I want to send next year to invite people to come to church would have a picture of our creche here at the top, and at the bottom, the words printed – “come to Christmas services. Don’t bring anything, except your hunger.”
Because we are, like those shepherds, hungry. But we are shepherds who live in the 21st century in a comfortable part of the world. We are shepherds whose material needs are met. Which means we’ve come here tonight full. We may live in darkness but we are full of things we think are light. We come in here full of answers, we are here full of surety. We show up full of ourselves.
And we would do well to remember that the shepherds go to see Jesus not knowing anything that’s going to happen and what they will find. Of all the people in the Gospel, the shepherds are the only ones who have no clue what waits them in Bethlehem. All they have to go on are the words of angels. And angels are crazy.
And so let’s be unsure about what this moment holds for us. Let’s be curious about how Jesus will be with us this year. Let’s accept that we don’t need to know where this story goes from here and how he will care for us, or by what means he will share his message of love for the world.
Let us just see the light and know that the love coming from this space is for us, and for Mary and for Joseph, and for the angels. And that the love coming from this space is for the world, especially the places where it is the darkest and God’s love shines the least. And that we, as shepherds, have found something amazing.
I don’t think the shepherds knew that tonight their lives would change. I think they just showed up. And there Jesus was. And perhaps tonight we have shown up because that’s what you do, you go to church, you hear this story, you sing these carols. We did not think our lives would be changed. We did not think we were hungry. We did not expect that this would touch us. But it does. For love changes everything.
Tonight I pray that we let this love wash over us and consume us and remake us and revive us. Tonight I pray that we let this light fill our lives with such light that we can see without fail the path the God sends us on now. I pray that we let this scene and these people touch our lives in a way that encourages us find Jesus now and hold onto him always. And tonight I pray that we can enjoy this moment. For if this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.
Merry Christmas. May God love you. May the Holy Spirit support you. May Jesus grow within you. Go forth to share the good news.