Surprise: It's God With Us - Luke 2:1-20

Christmas Eve - December 24, 2016

In those days a decree went our from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But 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. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!" When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child laying in the manger. When they saw this, 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.

What a beautiful, life-changing, world-changing story.... except, sometimes it is hard to hear it that way, isn't it? Because this story ,in these words, is so familiar that it can be hard to really hear it. If we have lived our lives in the church, we have heard this story every Christmas Eve; and even if church has not been as much a part of our lives, we have heard it from a Charlie Brown Christmas! And that kind of familiarity can make the story… a bit flat. There is no surprise anymore, no shock about the conditions in which the King of Heaven came to earth, or who was there to greet him when he came. And that’s a shame, because that surprise, if we can rediscover it, can reform our lives.

There is surprise ALL OVER this story. Let me walk you through just a couple of examples.

  1. The mother of God is not who we expect.

Mary may be as familiar to us as the Christmas story, but try to forget all those sanitized nativity scenes for a minute and just see Mary.

  • She’s so young – maybe 14 or 15, maybe even younger. How was her body even strong enough to carry this child through nine months of pregnancy, ending with a long, uncomfortable journey?

  • She’s also poor. She’s wearing a rough home-spun dress, probably cut and patched on the side for make-shift maternity wear. Now she will need to re-sew it again… not to mention trying to wash out all the sweat, and blood, and mess that comes with a birth in a stable.

  • She has just given birth. Far away from her mother is back in Galilee, with only her new husband to help her through that terrifying experience. She’s exhausted, and messy, and probably crying from the pain, and the post-partum hormones.

She looks so vulnerable – but there is a fire in her eyes that burns if you look in them too long. After all, this is the same Mary who sang the Magnificat in Luke chapter 1.

By any reasonable standard, Mary was totally unprepared for this, but she said “yes” anyway. She had no status, or privilege, or comfort to offer a God who shows up as a vulnerable baby, except the willingness to believe that God can use the vulnerable.

2. (second surprise) The place God is born is not where we expect.

We’ve all probably heard about how there was no room at the inn, but I’m afraid that story comes from a mistranslation. The Greek word (kataluma) usually translated in this passage as “inn;” actually means guestroom – and it reflects the basic architecture of 1st Century peasant homes in Israel, which were constructed on 3 levels:

  • The top was an open-air roof, which could be used in hot weather.

  • The middle was the living quarters, with space for cooking, eating, and sleeping – for the family and for any guests.

  • The bottom floor was reserved for the animals, which is why we have always heard Jesus was born in a stable.

The statement that there was no room in the guestroom means that Mary & Joseph had found hospitality with a local Jewish family, who were already hosting other guests and couldn’t squeeze any more bodies into their living space.

And this changes the story. No room at the Inn is a story of transactions – other travelers had already bought up the available rooms, because welcome has to be paid for, and it is limited by the number of rooms that can be rented.

But no room in the guestroom is a story of finding a way for hospitality. Even when resources were stretched to the max, a simple Jewish family found a space to accommodate a young mother who needed a safe place to give birth.

The king of the Jews was not born in a palace, nor was he born in an inn, or even the rented stable of an inn. He was born in the only space left in a peasant home offering generous hospitality.

3. (third surprise) The first people to get the news are not who we expect.

We might know the angels appeared to Shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks by night – but our picture of shepherds is probably sanitized by Sunday School images of Jesus cuddling little wooly lambs.

This was not the life of shepherds in 1st Century Palestine – shepherds lived on the margins of society – and not just in a geographic sense of being out in the wilderness.

Shepherds were on the margins socially and religiously:

  • Shepherding was a “forbidden occupation”[1] considered “unclean” by the religious purists of the time.[2]

  • Shepherds were associated with robbers, for letting their sheep graze on land that did not belong to them;[3] and

  • They were ineligible to be witnesses in legal cases, because they were not considered trustworthy.[4]

These are hardly the kinds of people we would expect God to recruit as messengers of the good news that the Messiah had been born…. But this is who the hosts of angels serenaded; and this is whom they told that a Savior has been born “to you.” God came as a gift to the despised and unclean people on the margins.

Like I said – LOTS of surprises in this story, if we have the ears to hear them.

But, if all you hear tonight is a new take on a familiar story, you didn’t hear the gospel. This story is the gospel only if you hear in it a promise that can change your life. What I most want you to hear tonight, the promise that whispers through all of these surprises, is that God shows up in the least likely places, which means that God shows up in YOU!

To be clear, God doesn’t show up in you ONLY if you meet all the pious requirements. God doesn’t show up in the Hallmark-Holiday-Special-version of your life as you think you SHOULD be. God doesn’t show up once you have everything together and know exactly what to do.

God shows up in the sweaty, tired, terrified young mother; and in the over-crowded, uncomfortable, animal-filled peasant home; and in the unreliable, sheep-dung-smelling, social-outcast shepherds. God shows up where we least expect, and then says “I have a job for you.”

Which is good news, for two reasons.

  1. First - God is not looking for the right qualifications:

We don’t have to know what to do, or have available resources, or be the kind of person other people listen to in order to be used by God. God chooses the least likely people.

Which could sound like really bad news, except for one thing:

  1. The people God chooses in the Christmas story rejoice.

This congregation have been singing Mary’s celebration at our mid-week Advent services for the last four weeks – despite the danger and shame of Mary’s pregnancy she can not help but sing out her joy at what God is doing through her.

The shepherds rejoice as well: “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.”

We don’t hear anything direct about the family that hosted Mary & Joseph, but “all who heard” the shepherds’ story were amazed, and who would that be if not the people in the house?

God chose the least likely people to be part of the story of God come to earth, and that experience was amazing.

So are you ready to be amazed? What would it mean if the God of the universe were to show up in the place you least expect and say: “you – I chose you. I choose you to be my nurturer, or my place of safety, or my messenger. I am a God who is present in vulnerability, and I am showing up right now in the vulnerability you can see.”

There is vulnerability all around us. It is in our world, and in our families, and in ourselves, and it is into that vulnerability that Christ is born.

Christ is born tonight. Christ is born in the child sleeping in the shelter, and in the grandfather alone in the hospital. Christ is born in the immigrant fearing deportation, and in the white supremacist whose heart is scarred by hate. Christ is born in the soldier deployed in Afghanistan on Christmas, and Christ is born in the alcoholic struggling to stay sober one day at a time.

God is in all of it, because that’s what God did on Christmas night. God took on the most vulnerable form of humanity, and called on inadequate people to offer nurture, and shelter, and to share the good news that God is with us.

They felt scared at first, but the angels said “do not fear,” and look what happened then. God made them part of the greatest story ever told, and they got to welcome God to earth.

We can be part of the welcome too, because that is what God does in us when we see the need of a vulnerable world. God is with us, and through us God is with our broken world.

Today Christ is born. Alleluia, alleluia!

[1] Barnard Brandon Scott, Hear Then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus, 1989, p. 405.

[2] Klyne R. Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, 2008, p.102.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

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