This is the sermon from our Festival Christmas Eve Eucharist. If you’d like to read the lectionary, you will find it here.
Madeline L’Engle, Episcopalian, poet, author of many books said, “This is the irrational season when love blooms bright and wild. If Mary had been filled with reason there would’ve been no room for the child.” There is something about the image of love blooming bright and wild that resonates deeply. The resonance is amplified when we think of what it is we are celebrating tonight – the inbreaking of God into the world in ways that defy expectation. It is a celebration of grace, a gift freely given and undeserved. The way in which Jesus was born is perhaps the most surprising element of this story, one that his contemporaries would not have expected.
The story as told in Luke is quite simple, really. The emperor issues a decree and “all” do as they are told. As Joseph and Mary do as required, the anticipated baby is born. His birth is handled simply. Mary and Joseph make good use of what is available to them as they care for their child, even though they know he is the most special of children. Mary and Joseph do what they have been called to do, without any fuss or bother. They welcome the incarnate God into the world in which they live, in the ways in which they live.
The shepherds are going about their business in the fields. An angel appears before them and they experience the shining glory of the Lord. Now for us, post-Enlightenment people who are used to logic and data-based evidence, an angel appearing might not seem at all rational or reasonable. But in Jesus’ time, people lived with story upon story of God’s messengers appearing to them, of things like burning bushes and manna from heaven. Jesus’ birth was foretold by angels appearing to Elizabeth, Mary, and Joseph. The shepherds, though fearful and in need of reassurance, may not have been at all surprised by the angel or the multitude of hosts that suddenly appeared. In fact, as Luke tells it, once given the message, they leave what they are doing and go to Bethlehem to see what the Lord has made known to them. After visiting, they return to their fields and share the good news of what they have seen.
And that is what is most remarkable about this story. That is what defies reasoned expectation. Jesus is recognized as the Messiah by a group of everyday, ordinary folks who tend the sheep. If they had held fast to the stories of their faith, they would not have expected the Messiah to be born as he was, even though Joseph was descended from David. Kings were kings and Lords were lords, and everything in their daily lives would have primed them to expect a more regal, more obviously powerful man to be the Messiah. It doesn’t even seem likely they would have had any expectation that they would ever be able to see the Messiah up close and personal. It’s more likely they would have expected more of what they had with Herod and Augustus: decrees and the like. Instead, they are personally invited by an angel to meet the Messiah where he lies in a feeding trough tended by his every day, ordinary parents, people no different than they are.
The Messiah is born in the most common of circumstances. His parents and the shepherds called to meet him welcome the incarnate God into the world in which they live, in the ways in which they live. The “good news of great joy for all the people” is that God enters the world as the world is for most people, not a select few. God does not choose power or money or influence or prestige. God chooses everyday, ordinary people to be the bearers of the news that literally changed the world for ever and for all time.
When I think about that – God entering the world as it is, which means God with me as I am – not as I would like to be – and God in a world that seems so irrevocably broken, I sometimes have to stop and catch my breath because it seems so unreasonable, so irrational, and yet it is the most simply profound, joy-filled truth of all time. This inbreaking of God into humanity, into you, and into me, brings with it the irrevocable, unconditional, eternal promise of God’s love, God’s peace, God’s mercy, God’s justice, God’s hope. It is the incarnation of a love that knows no bounds, that blooms bright and wild. It is a love that defies reason and expectation. This is the sacred gift of God’s truth: that we – all people – are loved fully and perfectly just as we are.
My hope this Christmas is that we welcome fully the love that blooms bright and wild for all of us, in all of us, and that we come to live more fully as God intends, loved and loving. This “son given to us,” the “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” was born into this world for all of us that we might experience the light and embody endless peace. May we have the courage of Mary and Joseph, the curiosity of the shepherds, and the faithful confidence to share this unbelievably Good News with all people.