The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
December 24, 2019
Good evening, and Merry Christmas to you. What a joy it is to celebrate this great feast with all of you here in this stunningly gorgeous space. Yesterday, as the elves were getting everything ready around here for Christmas, I became entranced with the crèche over here on the Annunciation Chapel altar. From the intricate figures of Mary and Joseph and the angels to the beauty of the candles and greenery – it’s a heavenly scene almost too much to take in. You must stop by and get a closer look after the service. As I was gazing upon the little bitty Christ child, I started envisioning the scene that St. Luke described to us in chapter two of his gospel .
The story begins with Mary and Joseph traveling to their hometown of Bethlehem in order to be counted in the census. This wasn’t a voluntary thing – Palestine was occupied by the Romans at this point, and the Emperor issued a decree that a census should be taken. During this particular census under Governor Quirinius (Kw-ihr-inius, we know that group of Jews rebelled against the Empire and were struck back by the imperial army. The Prince of Peace didn’t come with a sword to bring about the liberation of God’s people, he came as a weak and helpless babe. Mary gave birth to the child and laid him in a manger. A manager is a long open box that is used to hold food for cattle and horses. Luke tells us that she laid him in a manger because there was no place for them at the inn. I’m not sure about you, but I’ve always had a hard time not thinking of the inn as a Homewood Suites by Hilton or even a Motel 6. But the Greek word “inn” is only used one other time in the New Testament during the story of the Last Supper and is translated there “upper room.” In first century Palestine, most of the homes were two story, with the people sleeping upstairs and the animals downstairs. Because of this census, it is likely that there were other sojourners who had arrived earlier than Mary and Joseph and were taking up any guest rooms that may have been upstairs, leaving only the downstairs with the animals for them, and yet the owners of the home did not turn them away.
And yet, nativity scenes are typically in a barn or out under the open stars. The more and more I stared at the beauty of this creche and thought through the story of what actually happened, the more apparent it became that the scene wasn’t as pristine and heavenly and glorious as the scene before my eyes. Jesus was born during a time of intense political and societal unrest amidst the filthiness of cows and goats and sheep. The long-expected Messiah came into a world filled with fear and oppression and sin, much like our world today. God came into the world in the midst of human sin and suffering and met the Hebrew people where they were.
After Jesus’s birth, the angels appeared to bring the good news of great joy of the birth of the Messiah, not to the important people of the day – not to the Emperor, not to Governor Quirinius, not to the Jewish religious leaders – but to the lowly shepherds. Shepherds at that time were at the bottom of the social ladder. They were seen as poor and dishonest people who grazed their flocks on other people’s lands. An example of this in our society might be a loan shark or a convicted felon. These shifty characters who probably didn’t smell so great from living out in the pastures believed the angel and immediately went to Bethlehem to see the child in the manger…the child who came to bring peace to all men and women, but especially to the poor and lowly.
At this point, I asked myself, “why in the world do we clean up these nativity scenes and make them look so beautiful? Why is it that we feel the need to take something so earthy and dirty and unkempt and artificially make it look so heavenly?”
The story we heard tonight was from the second chapter of Luke’s gospel. The first chapter began with an announcement by an angel of the birth of John the Baptist in the place established to house the presence of God…the Temple. The angelic announcement of the birth of Christ that immediately follows was not in “God’s house” but in the fields. The contrast between the two couldn’t be more striking. God came into the world as a human child not in the Jewish equivalent of a place like St. Mary’s Church, but in the midst of the poor and lowly in their everyday lives.
Friends, this is good news of great joy indeed, not only to the shepherds watching in their fields by night, but to all of us gathered here. Note that almost all the Christmas hymns we sing speak of Jesus’s birth in the present tense, not the past tense. “Come and behold him, born the king of angels” not ages ago, but now. Like he did with the shepherds, the God of the universe stoops down and meets you and me where we are in life. God loves even – no especially – those whom our society ostracize and exclude so much that he gave his only Son so rescue us from evil and sin and death. And yet, as Paul says in the second chapter of his letter to Titus, “we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” The birth of the babe begins the process of the redemption of the world, and we rightly rejoice tonight. But we know all too well that this old world is still deeply wounded, and sin and suffering and abound. But with the grace we receive from Our Lord in our baptism and in Holy Communion gives us the strength we need to believe that he truly will lift us out of the mire day in and day out.
As I continued to gaze upon the heavenly nativity scene, I was filled with hope anew. Hope that what was promised to you and me in our baptism will be fulfilled one day. Hope that God can take even the likes of me and make me whole. Hope that God loves you and me so much that he makes us glorious and heavenly and beautiful much like we do with our nativity scenes.
Friends, let us join with the shepherds and go with haste to Bethlehem to greet our Savior with joy, and let us be filled anew with the hope that the God who came to live among us will make all things new in our hearts each and every day.
 See Acts chapter 5.
 Sermon Brainwave: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx
 Keck, Leander E., ed. The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary. Vol. 8. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015, 49.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!