Let’s look for the connections of the people in first century Palestine and the people in our world today. And then let’s see where are our imaginations take us as – like Mary and Joseph and their baby – we look to an uncertain future.
One of the wonderful things about the stories of Jesus in the Gospels is the way at they allow us – with a little imagination – to put ourselves in the stories. One of the greatest opportunities for that is the Christmas story that we hear over and over at this time of year.
It’s beautiful and haunting in its own right, of course. A young couple travels over hard roads, cannot find a place to stay as the mom is in the midst of labor, and then the magical, mystical events that surround them – angels singing, shepherds gathering, wise people arriving from a distant land, a star in the sky, straw in the manger…it all is woven deeply into our beings.
On this night, though, let’s imagine we are there in the role of these various characters. And as we do it, let’s look for the connections of the people in first century Palestine and the people in our world today. And then let’s see where are our imaginations take us as – like Mary and Joseph and their baby – we look to an uncertain future.
Let’s start with Mary, since the story really starts with her. We understand her as a teenage girl living in Nazareth and learning in a rather mysterious way that she is pregnant and that her son will be God entering our world in a very physical form. We have heard the stories of her confusion and her courage.
Imagine if you were Mary. Imagine if you were engaged but had to tell your fiancée that now you were pregnant.
Imagine going to visit your cousin and in the process, telling her your world has just been turned upside down – and the rest of the world is going to be turned upside down as well. The poor will be rich, the oppressive rulers will tumble from their thrones.
How would you react?
We don’t have to look far to find the Marys in our midst today. There are teen girls on our streets struggling to survive, trying to make sense of pregnancies, abuse, exploitation. They need someone to turn the world upside down around them. They need the courage to take steps into a new world.
Now stand with Joseph. Yes, we know he decided to stand by Mary, even though her situation exposed both of them to shame and ridicule. He stood by her on the ride to Bethlehem to register at the emperor’s command. He stood by her as they sought a place where she could give birth.
But who stood by Joseph? If you were in this scene, could you be a friend to Joseph, someone to give him support as he tries to do the right thing, to shun the stereotypes that can attach so easily to men and instead gives strength to his wife. Can you be an ally to those resisting oppression?
And, I’ll imagine, Mary gives strength to him as well. One cannot travel these roads alone.
Looming over them, of course, was that order to register with the empire. It’s an order looming out there in our time as well as – like the people of Bethlehem – we can be leery of strangers in our midst and seek predictability rather than compassion.
So let’s be one of those people in Bethlehem for a moment. Your house may be full of family and friends who have come to register at the empire’s order. Or all your space may be rented out to travelers. Or maybe you just don’t want to get involved with his young couple about to have a baby and create even more chaos in your life.
You don’t answer the door. Or you turn them away. Or you send them down the street. There’s no margin in getting involved.
But somebody got involved. Somebody let them in. This is the unknown hero in this story. Sometimes the good we do goes unnoticed. That does not make it any less good, any less important.
Yes, I know the angels start singing now in the story. And I know some folks here can sing like angels. But let’s stay rooted on earth in our imagining.
The shepherds begin arriving. These are the hard-working people of rural Bethlehem, looked down upon by the city folk, dealing with unruly sheep and unpredictable weather in the hills and fields beyond the city.
Yet they are the first ones there for Jesus. They put aside any resentments they may have felt for that moment. And surely, once they got past their surprise, Mary and Joseph welcomed these rural workers into their space and shared in their rejoicing. There was a new sign of hope for them.
Do you ever feel like those shepherds – overworked, left out, left behind? Can you imagine the boost to their self-worth that they felt that night?
The travelers from the east did not seem to be short of self-worth. They were astrologers, magicians, wise people who traveled in a caravan with gifts of some value. And they, too, wound up visiting Mary and Joseph and their new baby.
Can you imagine being there at that moment?
Can you imagine being Mary and Joseph?
Can you imagine being one of those three visitors?
What does this scene look like? What are the emotions here?
One more character, who really does not show up in our story until next week. King Herod.
He senses that this birth he has been hearing about might indeed turn the world upside down. He’s on top now. He does not much like the idea of being on the bottom.
His actions will lead Joseph and Mary and Jesus to head to Egypt as refugees, just as so many people in our world our refugees today – some 21 million refugees in our world today.
In our nation, we are helping just a handful of them – about 85,000, including the few families that are moving into our community that we are in the midst of helping. Being a refugee is very much a part of the Christmas story – then and now.
Herod took those first steps toward a showdown between those in power and this baby who would become a carpenter who would become an itinerant preacher who would become the hope of the world.
The hope of the world. Isn’t that really the thread that runs through the Christmas story?
At the beginning of the Gospel according to John, the writer does not sketch out a vivid scene like Luke did. Instead, John gives meaning to what has just happened.
“In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.”
And then those words of hope,
the words that underlay the shepherds’ appearance
and the visit from the travelers from the east,
the words that sustained the family in Egypt
and brought people to Jesus’ side as he walked the countryside, the words that have sustained his followers across the centuries and the words that offer us hope this night:
“In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
It’s a light as bright as a star on a silent night. It’s a light there to guide us into our future.