Preacher: Jennifer Hosler
Scripture: Luke 2:1-20
For those of us in the northern hemisphere, December is marked by short days and long nights. It is an adjustment for everyone, that first troubling transition out of daylight savings time when it just seems so very dark, so very early. I find those first few weeks quite jarring at first so, in order to cope, I try to brainstorm some positives related to spending more time in the dark.
One of the perks of the season is the opportunity to see stars and planets with my tiny person. Typically, he goes to bed when it is still light, but in this season, we can encounter the darkness together. The darkness provides an opportunity to teach my child to look up in wonder at stars and planets far, far away. Last year, Mars and Saturn shone brightly for us as we roamed the neighborhood after daycare pickup.
This year, we have observed Saturn and Jupiter on our long bike ride home from my child’s preschool. I like to ask, “Kiddo, do you see any planets?” He looks around and tries to spot them (he’s getting really good at it). We sometimes see 2 or 3 planets, depending on the clouds or what is hanging out in the night sky on a given evening. The city lights are bright, but I am grateful we can almost always see the moon and some planets this time of year. If we are along the Anacostia River, which our commute takes us by, we can even be amazed by the stars. Imagine – a quiet river at night, in the midst of the city, complete with sparkling planets and a glowing moon. Bright, shining wonder.
Did you know that the Milky Way contains hundreds of billions of stars like our sun? Our solar system lies about halfway between the center and the outer edge of the Milky Way (Nat Geo Kids, 2021). The Milky Way is a broad band of stars that is visible to the naked eye—visible if your darkness is dark enough. Sadly, for two thirds of people in the U.S., there is too much light pollution for it to be visible.
One of my favorite memories of a 2018 trip to South Africa is the time we spent in Saint Lucia, a town just off of the Indian Ocean, on the eastern coast. The skies were quite dark in that area, with very little light to block our view of the stars. What a view it was: the Milky Way was lit up in a bright array across the sky. It was breathtaking to see the treasured galaxy where our solar system resides. We laid on deck chairs with our heads back in wonder at the galaxy we call home. We were in awe at what an expansive universe this is, at how beautiful the stars were, and at how far away those other suns might be. Beautiful galaxy that is home. Bright, shining wonder.
As I mentioned, sometimes light pollution blocks out our view of God’s starry wonders; other times, the difficulties of life can cloud our perspectives and prevent us from seeing the bright evidence of God’s goodness and love. I experienced some of that this fall, as it was (and is) a difficult season for me. Covid quarantining, difficult family schedule to adjust to, hard and unexpected obstacles in my dissertation, toxic relationships rearing their ugly heads, loss of a loved one, and the general stress of 2021 pandemic era urban life. I could also go on. At times, it has been difficult to see God’s wonders around me. I’ve been feeling out of touch with my faith, with the wonder and hope of Advent and Christmas.
So, with fits and starts and hiccups and bumps along the way, I’ve been trying to cultivate a practice of observing places where the Light shines bright. I am trying to observe what around me is whole and good and a beautiful gift from our Creator. I’m trying to keep my eyes open for the God-given pieces of life that are bright and shiny wonders.
Bright, shining wonderous gifts. The list I’ve made recently includes phone calls from a friend, a meal with neighbors, a family bike ride to see the Capitol Christmas tree, a beautiful church sanctuary decorated during the hanging of the greens (and the folks who organized it!), and a kind friend who forwards job opportunities and asks me how I’m doing. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention cats and cardinals and even fluttering bats that come out at dusk, creatures which I find enthralling and wonderful and also a little creepy all at the same time. These bright, shining, wonderous gifts, if I’m paying attention, point me to the beauty of God’s work in the world, in relationships, in this earth, and even in my heart. They are gifts from God, bright, shining wonders, amidst the pain, loss, and uncertainty in this world.
Across Advent and into Christmas, there is a theme of God getting the people’s attention through unexpected and miraculous ways. Our text today, a very familiar Luke Christmas passage, has three vignettes that bring in the mundane and miraculous. First, we see an expectant couple taking a long road trip. Second, we see some agricultural workers taking the night shift. Third and finally, the two stories merge together—those night-working shepherds find the right stable, the one with a baby in a food trough. In each of these vignettes, people marvel at the bright, shiny wonder that is God’s work in this world.
Pregnant Donkey Road Trip
We start, as Luke does, with the expectant couple on a road trip in a remote part of the Roman empire. This was likely not a fun trip. In Haiti, I worked briefly with a mobile prenatal health clinic. It treated women who had traveled for 1-3 hours on either donkeys or motorcycles, just to get prenatal healthcare. When you’re heavily pregnant, it’s often not comfortable to sit. Your organs are getting squished, plus you might be tired and just generally feel ill. Not a nice time of life to travel far, let alone a long way on a bumpy means of transport.
Mary and Joseph live under occupied Roman rule. The Emperor, Caesar Augustus, instructs that everyone should be registered in an empire-wide census. Everyone has to head to their ancestral lands in order to get registered and counted. Mary and Joseph travel from Nazareth, in the Galilee regions. They ride for 90 miles south, past Jerusalem, to Bethlehem, the ancestral lands of Joseph’s family, who descended from King David.
I’m sure it was a long and arduous multi-day journey. One biblical archaeologist called it “grueling,” very uphill, and somewhat dangerous, with lions and bears lurking in some of the more forested sections (Religion News Service, 1995). Another scholar thought that a heavily pregnant traveler probably couldn’t travel more than 10 miles a day. Let’s keep in mind that there were no 21st century-style rest stops for a pregnant woman whose bladder is getting repeatedly trod upon.
Mary and Joseph are likely achy, tired, smelly, and generally uncomfortable when they arrive in Bethlehem. Yet they don’t have lodging sorted out. We don’t know if it is because no one wants them or because there is literally no room anywhere, in a town packed with David’s returning descendants. But likely, considering the ancient near eastern emphasis on hospitality for guests, there is in element of shame and marginalization here. Turning away any guest, let alone family, is likely unheard of in their culture—unless there is some type of stigma, shame, or shunning going on. The inn has no place for Mary and Joseph, so they find a safe and warm (or warm enough?) place with the animals.
Luke, even though apparently a physician, then just uses the sparest text to describe what likely took hours of laboring—the painful and difficult process of Mary delivering her infant child. It doesn’t say if there were birth attendants, midwives, or extended family members who looked on with sympathy to help Mary out.
After hours of contractions and a time of pushing, Mary’s infant slips out into the world and into someone’s hands. The baby is then wiped off, wrapped up in bands of cloth, and nestled into Mary’s arms. A tiny life, brought by a miracle. This was the fulfillment of a promise told during a bewildering encounter with one of God’s messengers just nine months before. I’m not sure what exactly Mary thinks, but I’ll bet she looks at the infant Jesus in wonder and awe. A tiny life, a fragile baby, and the promise of God’s deliverance through this special child. Amidst the exhaustion, the sadness, the pain (both physical and emotional), and the uncertainty of what lies ahead, here is a tiny precious gift: a bright, shining wonder.
After Jesus is placed in a manger, an animal food trough, so that he and his exhausted parents can rest, our narrator quickly switches to the fields outside of town. In that region, Luke says, there are shepherds living in the fields, taking care of their flocks by night. In our culture, farmers do typically not hang out with their sheep at night. It’s not clear whether this is just the night shift or whether these shepherds were nomadic sheepherders like the Bedouin that still exist in the region today. Either way, the shepherds we see here are “keeping watch over their flocks by night.”
For these shepherds, the night is dark. There might be a fire or some type of lantern, but they can’t see much beyond their camp. There is likely a sense of vulnerability as they remain alert to protect their flocks from wild animals or even bandits in the darkness. Some shepherds might be awake, some might be napping, when out of nowhere, unexpectedly, an angel of Yahweh appears. A messenger from God, bringing a message and also bearing the bewildering, blinding, bright glory of the Most High. The glory of the LORD shines brightly around the shepherds and, Luke says, “they are terrified.”
The angel recognizes their fear and says, “Do not be afraid – I bring good news of great joy for all people. Today, in Bethlehem, the city of David, a savior has been born, a deliverer, who is the Messiah, the promised one from God. You will know it is him when you find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” I suppose it was very uncommon for babies to be in feeding troughs, since that was one of the guaranteed signs described by the angel.
After the angel finishes speaking, a whole legion of angels bursts forth into song. In their dazzling brightness they sing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors!” This is a message for everyone, for the shepherds outside with their flocks, for the unwed couple with their new baby, for you and for me. A message that God is not standing far off, aloof, and distant, but God has come to dwell. God with us. Immanuel. Bright shining wonder.
God as Baby in a Food Trough
As quickly as they came, the bright shining angel choir is gone and the darkness resumes. The shepherds are pretty resolute and say, “let’s go and see what God is doing, since it has been revealed to us.” The shepherds go quickly, “with haste,” leaving their flocks behind (maybe unattended?). They find Mary and Joseph and the child, just as the angels said, wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. The shepherds start telling everyone they see; people are amazed. Luke’s text says that Mary is left thinking about what all this means.
From what is available in Scripture, this is the shepherds’ only encounter with Jesus and the holy family. Despite that, we read that they become bearers of the good news. Before this week, I’d never thought about what happens to the shepherds. It may be that the shepherds only get this one gleaming episode of God’s miraculous goodness—of the angelic messages. The rest of the time onward, they are left with just memories – and the need to have faith and to trust. They need to trust that what they saw was not a dream. The shepherds need to remind themselves that they did not have a sleep-deprived delusion in the fields, that there really was a bright, shining wonder.
We do not have the privilege of an angel visit or an angelic choir. Moreover, we are unable to make haste to find the babe in the manger, wrapped in bands of cloth. And yet—we are called to trust in the hope and wonder and miracle of the angelic choir and the tiny God-in-the-flesh baby. We walk in faith, not by sight. In hope and faith, we can look around this beautiful earth and even across the galaxy, to see how God is revealed in bright, shining wonders.
Sisters and brothers, what bright, shining wonders has the Creator, the maker of the universe, placed in your life? In the midst of the bleakness, pain, loss, and uncertainty in this world, God is still at work. The light of the Christ child continues to shine in and through our hearts. We proclaim the song that the angel choir sang out long ago, “Glory to God in the Heavens, and Peace on Earth to all on Whom God’s Favor Rests.” Bright shining wonder. AMEN.
Sisters and brothers, empowered by the Holy Spirit, let us embody the Christ child to all around us, and let us look for the bright, shining wonders that surround us this Christmas and beyond. AMEN.
National Geographic Kids. (2021). Milky Way Galaxy. Retrieved from https://kids.nationalgeographic.com/space/article/milky-way
Religion News Service. (1995). A Long, Cold Road to Bethlehem. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1995-12-23-me-17102-story.html