Tonight we celebrate the greatest love story ever told. The story begins with God tenderly creating humankind and calling us good. And tonight we focus on the part of the story where God love us so much, God came down to earth as Love Incarnate.
What strikes me about this part of the story is that God was born not in a picturesque setting but rather in midst of the difficulty of real life. This is what I see in the story of Mary and Joseph.
Initially, when Mary and Joseph found out a baby was on the way, I imagine they started to make plans. A number of my friends have babies recently and I’ve seen many a pictures of nursery preparations and packed bags. I wonder if Mary and Joseph made plans like you or I would? One pastor invites us to wonder: “What did these preparations look like? Did Mary decide to buy a purple car seat to put on a donkey because everyone knows purple is the color of royalty? Did the baby Jesus get Noah’s ark wall paper in his nursery, as many babies do today?” Once Mary and Joseph got past the initial shock, I imagine they likely went through the first century equivalent to our baby preparation.
“Well, this isn’t quite what we planned,” they must have thought, “but we have the nursery painted and the diapers stored up; we’ve got it in hand now.”
Then, in the midst of their careful planning, real life happened. Their Emperor decided to take a census and not the convenient door-to-door type census we have in America. No, Mary and Joseph had to travel all the way to Bethlehem for their census. It was a long trip that gave Mary and Joseph lots of time to ponder: What will we do now? How will this all come together?
When Mary and Joseph finally arrived at their destination, they discovered that in fact there was no room for them in the inn. I can’t imagine how Mary – on the cusp of giving birth – felt when those first pangs of labor began to wrap around her back and it seemed like she was going to have the baby right there on the floor of the inn. Yet somehow they made it to the manger and Mary gave birth to Jesus nearby. This is not a picture perfect birth. I imagine Joseph and Mary wanted their child to born at home, surrounded by family and supported by their community, perhaps wearing one those super cute baby outfits that Mary got at her shower. Yet, here is the new baby, swaddled in bands of cloth, surrounded by donkeys and greeted by shepherds.
(This retelling of the Christmas story is adapted from Marci Auld Glass’ own retelling in her sermon “On the Road to Bethlehem.”)
In the greatest love story ever told, God chose not to be born in a well-choreographed moment but in the heart of the messiness and chaotic-ness of our lives. What we see from this holy birth is that God tenderly steps right into the hardships of our lives, the ones that we don’t necessarily write about in our Christmas cards. God steps into places of darkness and suffering and worry. God steps into places of loneliness and pain and addiction. God steps into the exact places that keep us up at night and trouble our hearts.
The Good News of the Christmas story is that God doesn’t wait until we get it right or until the world gets it right. God comes to us just as we are, where ever we are. God comes to us whether we are Mary or Joseph, shepherds or innkeepers. God comes to us, whether we are hanging out in the fields or whether are in faraway lands. God shows up us and tells us: I love you and I am with you, no matter what life brings.
God shows up to set us free. God as Christ shows up to unbind us from shackles, to teach us and heal us and dance among the crowds. Christ shows up, demonstrating with Christ’s own life, that light is stronger than darkness, love triumphs over hatred and that peace is more powerful than violence.
We gather together this night to celebrate Christ’s birth so that the truth of Christmas might seep into the dark nooks and crannies of our souls. We gather to celebrate the truth of Word made Flesh, of Holy Love embodied. We gather to crowd around the manager with all of creation, proclaiming: “Glory to God in the highest and goodwill to all humankind.” Amen.