Apparently, I was yelling last night, but oh well. You can listen to my sermon here. Or, read on.
We finally made it! Christmas is finally here! I mean, the Christmas season seems to have started sometime just after the Fourth of July, but after nine weeks of decorations in Wal*Mart, six and half weeks of Christmas music on the radio, and dozens of parties, pageants, Christmas card mailers, and white elephant gift exchanges, we are finally to that most joy-filled twenty-four hour period of the year. It is finally Christmas, complete with cute children, beloved carols, and candles in every window. I don’t know about you, but I am more than ready for all the Joy to the World, all the Christmas smiles, all the fun and food I can handle, and then some.
Unfortunately, as it happens every year, Luke’s version of the Christmas Gospel is so uncooperative. “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augusts that all the world should be taxed.” Luke picks such a bummer of a way to begin the greatest story ever told: with the story of a great census, where everyone in the known world was required to travel to their ancestral homes in order to be counted and taxed, heavily, by an abusive and oppressive Empire. The story of God’s great plan for salvation begins on such a sour note. We didn’t get all dressed up in our Christmas finery to hear the story of political machinations and rising taxes; we could have stayed home and watched Fox News instead.
The truth of the matter is, however, that the Christmas story doesn’t have a very happy beginning because God’s love enters into a world that doesn’t know much happiness or much joy. The world Jesus enters knows nothing of camping out all night to score a six-hundred dollar video game system or a four-hundred dollar pair of shoes or a sixty-inch flat screen TV at a rock bottom black Friday price. Instead, Jesus entered a world that knew oppression and hardship. And so, the Christmas story begins as a very sad story indeed.
It begins with an emperor forcing people to travel, sometimes very long distances, in a world where travel was difficult and dangerous, in order to tax them to the point that they could barely feed their families. The story goes on to introduce us to a young couple, Mary and her “husband” Joseph, who, though she was nine months pregnant, were on the seventy mile journey from Nazareth where they were just beginning their new life together to Bethlehem, the ancestral city of Joseph who was a descendant of the great King David. The city should be teeming with David’s kinfolk, but as he and Mary arrive in town, it quickly becomes apparent that no one is going to make room for them – better guests are coming, guests about whom questions of infidelity weren’t swirling. As Mary’s contractions began in earnest, a distant cousin reluctantly offered them his stable for a few nights.
Even the moment that should be the cause for joy, the birth of Jesus, is cloaked in simplicity as the newborn child is wrapped in bands of swaddling cloth and takes his first nap in a hay-lined feed trough. The story ultimately takes us out into the hills where the shepherds are tending their flocks by night. Shepherds were a necessary evil in first century Palestine, and like prostitutes and tax collectors, they are considered unclean by the very nature of their occupation. In many places, there were laws against shepherds even entering town, and so, they’ve been outside of the boundary of civilized society for so long they’ve given up on the religion that will have nothing to do with them. And so, as Luke digs a hole for this story to start in, we reach the bottom of our pit of despair, where the shepherds are tending their flocks, minding their own business as the skies lit up with the glory of the Lord and an angel of Lord appeared before them, and they were sore afraid.
But like I said, y’all didn’t come here to hear all this doom and gloom. C’mon Pankey, its Christmas, get with the Joy to the World stuff. We’ll get there, I promise. It just seems so odd that Luke would preface the Christmas story this way, and I feel like we need to pay attention to it. Maybe it is because 2013 has been kind of a bummer of a year for me personally, that I’m realizing for the first time in a while that the blessing of Christmas is that God came into the world in the midst of darkness and hardship and sorrow. He was born in an outbuilding and the first people to hear the amazing news weren’t the local priests or the town council, but the despicable shepherds.
It is no wonder they were “sore afraid.” I love that phrase. I asked to use the King James Version tonight just so I could read it. Of course, being the church nerd that I am, I’ve always wondered what it meant, to be sore afraid. So, like any normal person would, I went digging into the Greek to find out. In its original form, Luke tells us that the shepherds (evfobh,qhsan fo,bon me,gan – ephobathasan phobon megan) – they “feared a mega fear.” That sounds serious to me, but the Angel responds, “Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy…” or more literally (euvaggeli,zomai u`mi/n cara.n mega,lhn – euanggelion umin caran megalane) “good news of mega joy!”
How cool is that!?! God steps into the depths of mega fear on that first Christmas night and offers mega joy, for unto us is born this night in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. That’s the good news of Christmas. Into the messiness of life: families that don’t get along; babies born out of wedlock; high taxes and petty partisanship; and an economic system built on the back of those for whom 9 to 5 Monday through Friday are sleeping hours, not working hours; into that kind of world, God arrives with good news of mega joy. Into that kind of world, God sent his only Son to show us how to live lives of the Kingdom. It is that kind of world, our kind of world, which God cared enough to redeem because mega joy beats mega fear. every. single. time.
And so, despite whatever else we might having going on in our lives this night, we set them aside and add our voices to the angels and the shepherds as we sing, “Gloria to God in the highest!” We join with two thousand years of Christians who have given thanks for the good news of mega joy that Jesus was born to give us hope and courage in the face of fear and sadness. That is, I think, what keeps Christmas so relevant in a world that is increasingly suspicious of the religion follows Jesus. Seeking out hope in the midst of fear is something we can all understand. There is something universal about trying to set aside the frustrations of everyday life in order to have 24 hours of uninterrupted joy. Christmas is the one time each year where everybody gets the chance to smile in the face of a thousand things that would cause you to frown. To quote my favorite Christmas movie, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” Not gifts or lights or food or family, but the good news of mega joy that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life… [and that that Son didn’t come] to condemn the world, but so that through him, the world, the whole wide world, might be saved.”
The shepherds went with haste to find the baby, and when they saw him, just as the angels had told them, they returned to the fields, with hearts full of joy, praising and glorifying God as they went. Let’s follow their tradition. Christmas is finally here, my friends. Thanks be to God! Now, let’s get to celebrating the good news of mega joy, that Jesus Christ is born!
 I’m grateful to The Rt. Rev. Craig A. Satterlee for his image of shepherds as beyond outsiders in his 2012 reflection at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1522
 John 3:16-17 (author’s paraphrase)