The birth of a baby in a manger. Alive and he appears to be doing well. A miracle. The miracle of new life being born. Every year we journey to this manger to see the baby Jesus… to see this miracle take place… to stand in awe with the shepherds … to follow the star with the Magi… every year we find ourselves in this place whether we are in this place or in a place unlike this one. Whether we are here with family, here separated from family, here in a familiar place… same people, same faces, or here in treading new terrain- missing faces, new faces, unfamiliar faces.
Some of us have gathered here in this church we call home where the customs and language are familiar, while others of us are here, perhaps for the first time. Some of us are gathered with family– traveling far to be here. Others of have stayed put for the holidays, for whatever reason.
Each journey is a different journey, but we meet again, gathered around this manger. And we hear the story of weary travelers… the story of a dislocated Mary and Joseph. Luke takes the written room locating this story. Luke spends the first five verses of the birth narrative locating the story. And Luke locates this story in the shadow of the Roman Empire—in the darkness of Roman oppression. A forced registration has a very pregnant Mary and Joseph traveling to a land surely unfamiliar to her. They travel from Nazareth to the City of David called Bethlehem to register with the Empire because Joseph is a descendant of the line of David.
A birth in a manger gives us an idea of Mary and Joseph’s social status and the busy inn tells us of how this forced registration disrupted life for many, not just Mary and Joseph. The registration was usually used for taxing purposes of ordinary people like Mary and Joseph. Matthews Gospel, however, tells us of a terrified King making plans to murder all of the newborn sons. As Mary is pregnant and now registered, an Empire makes plans to systematically murder those who might disrupt. Systematically silencing the voices of those in that dark, dark shadow of the Empire.
And in a far off dark corner, right in the middle of the shadowland, a baby cries, a mother’s blood sweat and tears fill the space, a placenta lies in the dirt, and the overwhelming raw immediate joy that comes with new life stops the world’s spinning for just a moment. A boy. A baby boy.
And it’s a miracle. It’s always a miracle. The baby seems healthy. Mary seems to be recovering from the unbelievable physical experience her body has just endured. Joseph breaths deep that he’ll get to see them both through to more days.
Meanwhile off in the fields outside of the city, shepherds are doing what they do. They fight sleep as they keep watch of their flocks by night. Dirty and despised, they know their place in the world. Some even call them shifty. From time to time, they allow their flocks to wander to graze other lands.
It’s a night like any other. Dark. The town has gone dark, burning the last of the night’s oil. The town feels dark under the shadow of Empire. The shepherds allow their eyes adjust to the darkness when suddenly, a stranger approaches. The dark alone is terrifying, but when an unexpected visitor joins you. Anxiousness floods your bloodstream, you prepare for anything. But the stranger immediately urges: Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy!
Maybe it’s the way of angels—that they are always dropping in on people, but their first words are always “Do not be afraid”.
The shepherds recognize that their nighttime visitor is an angel of the Lord. It all seems so unrealistic to them but is so viscerally real all at the same time. The angel goes on to tell them a Savior has entered the world. The Messiah. Someone has come to save all people. And this is how they would know they’d found this Messiah: they would find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger.
And then the light came… Overwhelming light flooded them as a multitude of heavenly hosts joined the angel. Overwhelming light. They are flooded with the overwhelming, raw, immediate, stomach-churning joy.
And then just as suddenly as the light flooded… the angel and the heavenly hosts were suddenly gone. They looked at each other and knew they had to go to see this thing that was told to them.
So the dirty, despised, lowly, shifty shepherds made their way into the city to look for a manger and a baby. And sure enough, just as they were told, they found Mary and Joseph and their little baby wrapped in swaddling cloth. And between the two Gospel accounts, Mary and Joseph both have their own angelic encounters so when they hear these strangers tell of their Holy encounter, they’re surprised, but not shocked. It’s extraordinary. It’s terrifying. It’s amazing.
And after some time sharing stories, admiring the baby, the shepherds head back to their fields. Overwhelmed with the joy of this unbelievable thing they stop everyone along the way to tell them of this amazing thing.
In the darkest corner of the shadow of the Empire, deep in the belly ….there is a light.
When God enters the world, the God of the Universe, the Creator of the everything seen and unseen, the one who pulled the mountains out of the seas, separated the waters from the waters and placed the stars in the skies, the most powerful of powerful… when that God puts on flesh and bones and dwells among us, it is not through the systematic power and might of the Empire, it is right in the heart of the darkness. It is in the underbelly of oppression. It is in the dark and dirty corners of the shadowland of our world with a scandal of a pregnant unmarried Mary and her faithful spouse, Joseph.
God breaks into the world in a different way.
Luke’s gospel places this birth story in the belly of the beast. Luke paints the scene and locates Mary and Joseph in a larger story. Luke paints the Empire, the oppression, the forced registration, the plight of the poor, the status of the shepherd, and then….. points to a baby in a manger.
Luke says this is how God chooses to rule the world. Luke flips the narrative and says the façade of the Empire will fall away and Kingdom of God will be brought about by this baby. The messengers of the Kingdom will be the most unexpected cast of characters– shepherds, women, tax collectors, prostitutes and fishermen—not princes, and kings, and the rulers of the world. The first messengers of this gospel “Good news” are dirty and despised shepherds. They are in the center of the heart of God . The ways of this Kingdom are upside-down, the opposite of what the powers of the world would urge you to believe.
God breaks into the world in a different way. Through the ordinary birth of a baby– the extraordinary can happen.
So in the midst of the madness of this world.. where we find ourselves located… in the belly of the beast—in the shadow of Empire– we make our way here. We travel with the dirty and despised—some of us travel as the dirty and despised who are also God’s favored… We travel from fields, distant towns, and some of us come down from the castles of the Empire—and we’ve all traveled here to gather around a manger. We look on with new parents down on this baby. And as the ordinary fills the room—the blood, sweat, tears the first cries of a new baby—we feel the overwhelming joy. The raw, immediate joy.
It’s a boy. A baby boy. And this baby boy has been born to offer new life to all.
God’s way is a different way.
May you be filled with new light in the familiarity of this story.