Luke 2:1-20; Titus 2:11-3:8
We have two nativity scenes in our house. One is a soapstone carving from Kenya, depicting Mary and Joseph holding baby Jesus. Our other nativity scene has three ceramic figurines, baby Jesus and his parents. Nate gave this to me as a gift in 2008, before we knew that we would be serving in northern Nigeria. These figures, if you look up close, are not wearing traditional Roman era dress as we often see Mary and Joseph. They also do not appear to be of Middle Eastern or European descent. Since they were made in Cameroon, Mary and Joseph look ethnically African and they are dressed in traditional West African garments.
I love nativity scenes like this for many reasons: first, mine is from a fair trade store and supported an artisan in Cameroon; second, its depiction of the holy family illustrates how the gospel message can be made relevant and real for all cultures and all God’s people; and finally, just because it is simply beautiful. Decorative nativity scenes are beautiful. So much about Christmas is beautiful and I often need to be reminded that these idyllic scenes lack the realistic sights, sounds, and smells of the original nativity. In our nativity at the back of the sanctuary, there is no animal poo fragrance, no straw or mud, no woman emitting the growls and strains of childbirth, and no blood or placenta. We don’t see someone cutting the umbilical cord or cleaning off the messy baby. You also can’t tell whether the mother is having any difficulties with nursing or how exactly a first century diaper would have been prepared or changed. So often, I read the verses and I don’t take the time to picture the details that Luke or Matthew decided to leave out.
It’s easy to run quickly through today’s Christmas verses in Luke. Christmas comes every year, so even if we haven’t read much of the Bible, these verses are probably pretty familiar. Angels, shepherds, a manger, Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus. Yet there are significant, weighty, profound, and relevant truths located within this familiar Christmas story—truths that we as God’s people need to focus on and orient ourselves to, if we are to join with the heavenly host singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to all upon whom his favor rests!”
What truths are revealed in this Christmas story? We see that the gospel is provocative, unseemly, not respectable, dirty, stinky, and vulnerable. In the Christmas story, God enters the world in disreputable circumstances; God’s glory comes and shines upon the poor and despised; and God arrives to save us, not as a warrior, but as a vulnerable baby.
God enters the world in disreputable circumstances
A few weeks ago, I was asked to pray, along with Nate, at the National Vigil for Victims of Gun Violence in the U.S. This vigil, held at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church a few blocks away, had a rather impressive list of speakers (us excluded!). When I saw it, I was a bit astounded that we had been invited to pray a prayer. The service took place at an old, historic church on Capitol Hill, next to the Library of Congress. The bishop of Washington, along with one of the closest advisers to President Obama, and the Connecticut delegation to Congress: these were just a few of the notable persons present. There were many people there whom one might call respectable or powerful. It felt strange and odd to be there, since as Brethren we try not to consider ourselves important and we also have a very small congregation here. Yet the organizers requested a Church of the Brethren witness, from Washington City, to be part of the prayers for justice and peace at the event.
This scene—of respectability and power, beautiful architecture and regal vestments—is very different from the setting of our Christmas story. The circumstances of the nativity are far from respectable; they were actually circumstances of disrepute. As readers of the gospel, we know that Mary had conceived through the Holy Spirit, but those around Mary and Joseph would have thought that something pretty shameful had happened. The Bible doesn’t talk a lot about what they encountered during the months that Mary was pregnant and showing. It does say in Matthew that Joseph would have ended their engagement quietly if an angel hadn’t intervened. In that era, it was unseemly and shameful to be pregnant before marriage.
We don’t exactly know why there was no room for Mary and Joseph, why they couldn’t fit in any lodging area or with family. Yes, there was a census going on, so the town was probably packed. But collectivist cultures can often find a way to do hospitality for numerous family members. One of our Nigerian friends had 60 people staying with his family in a three-bedroom home, during the recent crisis where many were internally displaced. This is obviously an extreme example, but it makes me wonder why Joseph and Mary couldn’t find a place to stay. It could be that the family was ashamed or that they were so poor (since Joseph and Mary were also poor) that there was just really no suitable room to give birth.
Whatever the circumstance, God incarnate enters the world. It happens the same way that we all did, by being born, but in dirtier and more disheveled circumstances, in a cave or a stable. Newborn Jesus is laid in a manger, a feeding trough. One commentator noted that it is interesting how the angels trumpeting or singing do not appear to Joseph and Mary. At the actual birth, there is little fanfare; it’s just a poor family trying to make it through a dangerous fact of human life that is complicated by a government census. Amidst the sideways glances and unseemly situation, God incarnate arrives on earth. We learn from Luke 2, from the Christmas story, that God entered the world in disreputable circumstances.
God’s glory shines upon the poor and despised
While sketchy situations are present in the Christmas story, at the same time, we also see God’s glory coming and shining upon the poor and despised—bright lights gleaming on unlikely characters in the midst of the darkness.
We spent part of the last week in Canada, visiting with my family in Toronto. Toronto is different from the District of Columbia, with taller buildings and a large waterfront that borders Lake Ontario, one of the Great Lakes. While we were there, the sun came out very little. It wasn’t very cold but it was grey and cloudy most of the time. One day, the sun began to break from behind the clouds and the city began to change from a drab grey to warmer tones of brown and yellow. Unlike some of my family, I really love winter, cherishing especially the cold and crisp days that are also bright with sunshine. Moving from grey days to sunshine is a little bit like moving from night to day, the world around you seems to change completely. In Luke 2, the gospel writer includes a scene where the dark night has an encounter with the brightness of God’s glory, as the shepherds care for their flocks in the middle of the night.
When studying this passage, I tried to imagine the modern equivalent of a shepherd, working late at night. Shepherding was a low-status, low-paying job. It took a lot of time and energy but didn’t really improve someone’s circumstances that much. Perhaps our modern equivalent would be a security guard; one of our neighbor’s family members works security through the night at an apartment building. From what I understand, it involves a lot of watching, waiting, standing around in the dark. It involves some personal risk, in addition to being a fairly thankless and monotonous job, without much status.
In Roman times, shepherds were not people that anyone respectable would want to hang around with; beyond their status, they probably didn’t get to bathe very much and they hung around animals. It wouldn’t have smelled pretty. The shepherds are watching their flocks by night—consumed in darkness—when, suddenly, an angel appears. God’s glory shines in the dead of night, upon shepherd folk. To readers in Jesus’ time, this wouldn’t really make sense – why would angels come to this “unexpected and even despised group of people – shepherds” (Marshall, 1994, p. 984)? But like many times throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the chosen in the story is the outcast, the despised. A messenger from God tells the shepherds some “good news of great joy,” that a savior, the Messiah, the Lord, had been born in Bethlehem. The savior would be found wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. At this moment, the already-terrifying scene of one angel shining turns into a jubilant, freaky, chorus of angel multitudes, singing exultation for the Christ child: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to humans on whom his favor rests.”
A savior. A messiah. The Lord. This is big news, good news—and this angelic song and dance of God’s glory does not come to priests or kings or even to Mary and Joseph specifically. God’s glory doesn’t come shining upon rich folk or respectable folks. Rather, in the Christmas story, God’s glory shines upon the poor and despised.
God comes as a vulnerable baby
So we see God entering our world in disreputable circumstances, and God coming and shining on the poor and despised. In the Christmas story, we also see that God comes to humanity, not in the form of a warrior or a king, but as a vulnerable baby.
The incarnation is a puzzling and marvelous thing to me. It was a miracle and an act of God’s immense love for us. God had dwelled with Israel before, but never in the flesh. God had come as an other-worldly spiritual presence amidst the people, first in the Tabernacle and then in the Temple. This time, instead of a pillar of fire or a cloud, instead of a whirlwind, or even a warrior with angels, Yahweh comes in human form and in the simplest and least threatening form of all. A baby. Imagine a tiny person smaller than George or Miles, within whom both the fullness of God and the fullness of humanity dwelled.
The angel declared that the vulnerable baby born was a savior, the Messiah, the Lord, and that deliverance—good news of great joy for all people—was found in the infant child. God showing love for the world involved being vulnerable: powerless, open to pain, injury, emotional wounds, to being deceived and hated, and even vulnerable to death.
The message of Christmas is that God came to us in disreputable circumstances as a vulnerable baby, that deliverance came through a little one, and that the glory of God shone out, proclaiming a message of peace to those who were poor and despised.
Love is vulnerable. Living as Jesus’ followers, following his example faithfully, makes us vulnerable. Welcoming all people in Christ’s name and showing them kindness, makes us vulnerable. Choosing love over fear makes us vulnerable. As Christ’s disciples, we need to be prepared to follow Jesus faithfully and face whatever that may bring. In June, sisters and brothers at Mother Emmanuel church welcomed a young man into their bible study. They made themselves vulnerable. Though darkness tried to overcome and violence claimed nine sisters and brothers, the love and vulnerability of Christ was preached and proclaimed around the world through their story. Witnessing in life, they also witness still today, as martyrs for Christ’s message of hospitality and love.
This past year, many Brethren in the U.S. have expressed awe and wonder at the faith of our sisters and brothers in Nigeria, EYN. People are amazed that they have continued to have faith in Christ, even under threat from Boko Haram, and that most Christians have chosen not to retaliate. EYN relief efforts provide emergency assistance to both Christians and Muslims. I have heard many U.S. Brethren say, “we Christians here in the U.S. have it easy. It doesn’t take much courage to be a Christian here.” It doesn’t take much courage to be a Christian here. But is that changing? And perhaps for the better?
Reading through a commentary on the gospel of Luke, I was struck by a comment on how Luke understands earthly rulers. One writer (Craddock, 1990) explained that Luke mentions governors and emperors, a census happening, and that Luke understands that these rulers are unwittingly being used for God’s purposes. Caesar Augustus called a census and God was using that census to help fulfill a prophecy that the Messiah, in the line of David, would be born in the city of David, in Bethlehem. Reading this, I couldn’t help but think that politicians and rulers may act today, and can still unwittingly be used for God’s purposes.
What came to mind specifically was the hateful speech against Muslims that is being thrown around in our political sphere and also the terrorism that continues to occur around the world. Christians are being forced to respond. Some pastors are choosing to add weapons alongside their Bibles, while other pastors are speaking out against arming ourselves with anything but Christ’s love. Other pastors are condemning how some politicians are maligning all Muslims. What came to mind for me is that these politicians are unwittingly being a tool used to shape and refine Christ’s church, to awaken us to Christ’s call for courageous loving and a bold welcoming of all people, to proclaim that protection is found in Christ’s salvation and not in a gun.
We see in the Christmas story that God did not come as a warrior. The incarnation is not a proclamation of power, but of the Creator of the Universe building peace through vulnerability. The Creator of the Universe dwelled as an infant: God intertwined in humanity in the body of a baby. Jesus was not afraid to love and preach boldly at great risk to his life. As Christ’s followers, we proclaim the gospel of Jesus, the message of Christ’s death and resurrection, the message of God reconciling humanity, the message of love for enemies. Just as Christ’s birth, ministry, and death, were all marked by vulnerability, by committing to Jesus, we are committing to vulnerability. Are we prepared to follow Jesus, to model the incarnation, in vulnerability?
The message of Christmas is that God came to us in disreputable circumstances as a vulnerable baby, that deliverance came through a little one, and that the glory of God shone out, proclaiming a message of peace to those who were poor and despised. May we live out and preach that message today. AMEN.
Craddock, F.B. (1990). Luke: Interpretation, a Bible commentary for teaching and preaching. Louisville, KY: John Knox.
Marshall, I.H. (1994). Luke. In D.A. Carson, R.T. France, J.A. Motyer, & G.J. Wenham (Eds.), New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition (pp. 978-1020). Downers Grove, IL: IVP.