Tonight let us hear the story of the birth of Jesus as our story.
This story begins with the census. The Roman has issued a decree that the people must register in their home towns. They are being counted and will be taxed. Mary and Joseph are required to travel more than ninety miles, even though Mary is very close to her due date. Joseph must have been so worried about her. In this last month of her pregnancy, Mary would have been tired, but she had to ride on a donkey, or walk, supported by Joseph. Mile after mile. What a hardship. We see the shepherds standing in the fields. They don’t have an easy life either. They are staying awake, living in the fields, looking after their sheep. These are not the wealthy fancy people of the Roman empire. They are the workers. They are afraid of dangers. What do the people in this story hope for?
My guess is that they hope for peace and comfort. The shepherds want to feel safe and they want their sheep protected. Mary and Joseph want to rest. They have dreams for their child. They want their child to be born healthy, they hope that their baby will have a good life.
And aren’t their hopes and fears the same as ours? When we see that our government, our rulers are doing things that oppress people, we are angry and afraid. We follow the rules, but we long for justice. We want communities that will be safe, free from dangers. We dream about good life for our children.
Where do we bring this longing? We bring this longing in our prayers to God. We hope, we imagine, we listen. Sometimes we cry about the unfairness of life. Sometimes, we are just so anxious. But our hopes reach up to God. And this is just how I imagine Mary, Joseph and the shepherds. Their hopes and dreams, their fears all reach up to God.
And where is the God whom we pray to? God is in the heavens, our God who created everything that is, is looking down at us. The Hebrew Scriptures, the stories of their time would have told them about God’s promises--God’s dreams for God’s people, Israel. God had sent the prophets to give people God’s commandments. God sent Moses to lead the people out of the land of Egypt. God provided food for them when they were in the wilderness, God saved them from the floods with Noah and the Ark. Throughout history, God has hoped that his people would be free from oppression, have plenty to eat, be safe from natural disasters and from pain and worry. I see us reaching up to God with hopes, and God reaching down to us trying to meet those same hopes. God is working through prophets, sending messages with angels, coming to people in dreams.
But God’s work is not completed. People are still in need. We don’t always hear the messages. And sometimes, in spite of the message, we make the wrong choices. Maybe even when God is working in us individually, we don’t see how the systems are changing. The Hebrew Bible calls us a stubborn people (Ezekiel 2:4). But God doesn’t give up, God instead comes to live in our world. And this is the miracle that we witness tonight.
Our longing, God’s longing meet in the birth of Jesus. The words of the Prophets are fulfilled. No more intermediaries. God steps into human form. When the shepherds hear the news from the angel, they are afraid. Mary and Joseph (who got the message from the angels) must have been overwhelmed. What could this mean that Mary was about to give birth to the child of God? But the message comes to the shepherds. And the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of 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."
The light shines around them, and the whole heavenly host begin to sing.
"Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
The shepherds must have still had some doubts, but they followed the star and looked for the baby in the manager. They decided to see for themselves.
What do we do when we get this message. God has come into the world in a human form. God wants to know us and us to know God. All of our hopes, all of our dreams are going to be met, in this person, this baby, born to save us from oppression, danger, sickness. Born to bring us health, comfort, peace and joy. Maybe we are like the shepherds. We hear this message, but we can’t quite believe it. And so, like the shepherds, we must follow the star. We must go to look for the places where God is being born. We need to look for those places of true peace and love. We need to name Jesus as the author of peace, the teacher of healing. God is working today, God has sent a Son to live among us. God has broken into our lives and is not just pointing the way, but is living in us.
It is a miracle. God’s presence here, in the birth of Jesus, the Messiah who came to save us. God’s presence today, working in our families, in our community, everywhere in the world to bring us joy, health, peace and comfort.
Now we must do as the shepherds did that night. We must go back into our homes, our fields, our communities. “When [the shepherds] saw this, [the baby born just as the angels had promised] they made known what had been told them about 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. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” When we tell this story, people may not believe us. When we say that God is in the world, that love and peace will prevail, people may doubt us. But we must glorify and praise God tonight. We must sing God’s praises. We must name the examples, point out the light, lift up the tiny beginnings and celebrate the joy that is real.
Tonight, as we experience this miracle of God coming into our world, we may respond like Mary did. We take in this love, and joy. We hear the angels and the voices of people around us proclaiming God’s presence in the world. And we ponder this in our hearts. Maybe we rest like Mary wondering about our role in God’s saving work in the world. Are we called to be mothers and fathers (like Mary and Joseph) of the light in the world. Mary and Joseph couldn’t have known then what their role would be in nurturing this tiny child who was the Messiah. Maybe we don’t yet know how we are going to nurture and support God’s work in the world. But we proclaim it like the shepherds, and we ponder it like Mary. We hold this tiny light, we worship the presence here and we bring it with us, sharing the miracle.