Luke 2:1-20; Titus 2:11-14; Isaiah 9:2-7
I must say that I’m weary of the way Christmas has been domesticated. I’m tired of how the birth narratives have been sanitized and sentimentalized. They have become so cute, warm and cuddly that they have been stripped of power and meaning. Let’s take a step back and take another look at the story of Jesus’ birth as it is given to us by Luke.
Of course the story begins back in the first chapter with Gabriel’s visit to Mary (Luke 1:26-38). We see here that God chose to enter into human life not by some miraculous, earth-shattering theophany. Rather, God chose Mary of Nazareth a young woman, little more than a child, to give birth to God’s son. God came into the world in the ordinary way; growing nine months in his mother’s womb to be born through labor pains, blood, and water; entering the world through Mary’s birth canal greeted by her cries of pain, relief and joy.
When we see that God chose Mary of Nazareth we see that God chose to come among humankind as one of the poor and oppressed people of the world. God chose Mary of Nazareth, a Galilean. God chose to be one of a people who have known slavery, oppression, humiliation, and poverty. God chose Mary, the girl betrothed to Joseph the carpenter. It’s important to notice that God did not choose the fiancé of the rabbi, scribe, Pharisee, or priest. Nor did God choose the family of a Roman governor, senator, or the Emperor. God chose Mary and Joseph of Nazareth. The place about which it was said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” God’s son would be born and raised by the family of a lowly carpenter in a backwater village of a district of Israel known for producing trouble-makers and rebels.
The son of God, the savior of the world, the one whom Isaiah named “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6) was born to Mary and Joseph of Nazareth who were forced, along with all their fellow Jews, by the Empire, to report to their home town to be counted and taxed. After the long, uncomfortable journey, the couple find no room for them in Bethlehem. They are forced to spend that night in the equivalent of a barn.
Have you ever been in a barn? If you have you know the smells and sounds. It is not the place you’d want to experience labor and give birth. And yet, that is where God’s son came into this world through the blood and water of his mother’s womb. With all the pain, crying, grunting, and loud breathing involved with the birth of a baby. And after all the crying, shouting, pain, and bleeding were over, the young mother and father laid their newborn son in a feed trough. He occupied the place where the livestock were accustomed to finding their food. I imagine the scene was nothing like the nativity scene my family has in our living room.
After Mary gives birth to Jesus, God’s angels announce the birth to the shepherds. It’s important to notice that the angelic choir did not announce the birth of God’s son to the religious leaders in Bethlehem or Jerusalem. Nor did the angels appear to the regional governor in Jerusalem or the emperor in Rome. God sent his angels to the shepherds in the field with their flocks. God brought the good news of the in-breaking of God’s reign on earth as in heaven to some of the poorest of the poor—the shepherds. Because they worked with animals they were virtual outcasts and seen as unclean among polite society. It’s important to notice that God announced the good news of the birth of Mary’s son to poor, unclean, outcasts caring for sheep in the field that night.
What does this mean? First, it is good news! This story is good news because it confirms what John told us when he wrote: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). God loves the world so much that God risked everything by becoming one of us, one with us, beginning as a tiny, helpless newborn infant son of a young Jewish girl and her carpenter husband. The child grew into a boy, an adolescent young man, and finally a man known as Jesus of Nazareth who traveled the land proclaiming the good news of God’s coming reign on earth as in heaven. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, and ate with sinners. He preached good news to the poor, release to captives, recovering of sight to the blind, set at liberty the oppressed, and announced that the time had come when God would save his people. In Jesus God shows the world the way of life in God’s kingdom. In his love and justice God provides all we need to claim our place in God’s household and to help prepare the world for his coming reign.
Second, this story tells us that God has a preferential option for the poor. God is God for the poor, the outcasts, and the oppressed people of the world first and foremost. God comes to the world through the lives and witness of the poor. He does not come through the wealthy and mighty of the world. In the birth narratives of Jesus we see that God turns the world upside-down. God’s power is revealed in what and through those the world regards as weak and of no-account. God’s power is revealed in love, not domination, violence, or threat. Therefore, if those of us who are wealthy, comfortable, and powerful want to live a citizens of God’s reign we must align ourselves on the side of the poor, outcast, and oppressed peoples of the world that God loves. If we who are wealthy and comfortable in this life want to be among God’s friends, we must be friends with the poor.
Finally, we see in the story of Jesus’ birth that salvation is available to all. There is nothing anyone can do to earn God’s love or favor. God does not regard our piety, achievements, wealth, or worldly power as any sort of merit. Rather, the story tells us that if we want God to come to us, if we want to be open to hearing and receiving God in our life, we must become like Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zachariah, and the shepherds. We must be friends with the poor, oppressed, and outcast peoples of the world.
This is a challenge to most North American mainline congregations. How many members can say they know a poor person or family by name? What are they doing to be advocates for social and economic justice for the Marys, Josephs, and “shepherds” of our world? Have we repented of pride, idolatry, self-centeredness and our complicity in the powers and principalities that contribute to poverty, homelessness, violence, and oppression?
The story of Christmas is beautiful and powerful when we strip away all the sentimentality. It is a story of God’s love for the world that comes through the most unlikely, surprising people and places. It is a story that turns the world as we know it upside-down. And it has the power to set us free for lives of love, compassion, and justice as citizens of God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven.