In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.
Joseph went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
She gave birth to her firstborn son.
Luke 2:1, 5, 6
I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour…
It is important for us to remember as we hear the story of the birth of Jesus from Luke’s Gospel that we are reading chapter 2. Luke actually starts this story with the priest Zechariah going into the Holy of Holies, in the Temple. He has a job to do but he takes more time than is normal because he experiences the presence of God there. Luke tells us that Zechariah sees and Angel and is told he and his wife Elizabeth will a son. Their son will be a herald for the coming messiah. We know that son as John the Baptist who heralds Jesus as the messiah. So, let’s hold onto that part of the story. We begin at the heart of the place where Jews went for worship, in the Holy of Holies. God is starting something very new.
As we come then to chapter two we hear of the Emperor and the Governor sending out heralds to announce by Royal decree and census. And tied to this Royal decree we hear of Joseph and Mary trudging to Bethlehem where Mary gives birth to Jesus. The Evangelist Luke wants us to hear that while Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius thought they were the ones giving the orders God is the one who has initiated these events.
It’s absurd when you think about it. How can Luke imagine that this birth matters, let alone warrants being placed on the world stage along with an imperial census and other matters of state? In this juxtaposition of the grand and the meager, however, Luke witnesses to the irony, even the absurdity of the event we celebrate this night: that God, creator, ruler, and sustainer of the cosmos would not only notice us – our ups and downs, dreams and disappointments, triumphs and tragedies – but would also care about us enough take them on, becoming one of us and one with us.
Lose goes on to say:
[Incarnational Narrative just means encountering in Jesus both humanity and the divine. In Jesus God has become fully human.]
The implications of this “incarnational narrative” are astounding.
Through God’s embrace of our lot and our lives, we not only learn about God – that God is love, that God will not give up on us, that there is no length or depth to which God will not go to reach us – we also learn something about ourselves and, indeed, the whole creation. That we have worth. That we have dignity. That we and the whole creation is of inestimable value to God. That all those around us are treasured children of God. God came dwell in ordinary human flesh and in this way hallowed it and all creation and so set the pattern for us to similarly honor each other and the whole created order.
In other words, if we really appreciate this amazing story of the birth of Jesus it changes the way we understand God. It transforms our understanding of ourselves and even opens a new way of seeing the earth and the Cosmos as a whole.
Now let’s also recall those shepherds sitting in the fields. We just see shepherds as ordinary working folk, no better or worse than anybody else. But to the Jewish people at the time of Jesus, shepherds were looked down on. They didn’t keep many of the Jewish laws, especially rules on purity. Things really like washing their hands before and after meals or washing the cups and plates they were using. We might think, that is unhygienic but remember they spent whole nights in the field watching the sheep. Anyway, the Jews regarded them as Jews but very ordinary disreputable Jews.
So when we think of them like that it becomes even more significant that Luke tells us it was to Shepherds in the fields that the Angel first announce the birth of Jesus.
In Luke’s Gospel the Angel says: I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour…
The message is for you and me, we might be like the shepherds, very ordinary and even disreputable, but the Good News is for us. And it is not just for us it is good news of great joy for all the people. You and I are invited to join with the shepherds, to visit with Jesus.
What God has done in Jesus is reveal his purpose to us in the only language we really understand: that is the language of another human life. God in Jesus isn’t just teaching us God’s way or God’s law; he is actually showing us God’s love. He is showing us what God is like. And we human beings can only understand love through relationships. That is why God sends a man, not a manifesto: a person, not a statement.[i]
Remember we started with a reminder of the story of Zechariah coming at the beginning of the gospel. His son, John the Baptist was a herald encouraging people to turn from their ways and return to God. Now I don’t expect that we will all rush out and be preachers like John the Baptist but my prayer is that we will all respond to the Good News of the birth of Jesus by telling others.
My prayer is: that as we celebrate Christmas this year we will endeavour to hear the Gospel and to know deep in our hearts that the birth of the baby Jesus is a powerful sign of God’s presence in our midst. I pray that we will welcome the God of love who will not give up on humanity and who will not stop at any length or depth to reach out and embrace us with love. And I trust in that embrace know, we are of worth to God. Indeed, I trust we will delight that the whole creation has worth to God. However ordinary or even disreputable we might think ourselves God loves us. I pray that as we rediscover God in this way we will share this wonderful news with our neighbours, our family and our friends.
[i] Pilgrim, A course for the Christian Journey, Turning to Christ, Church House Publishing 2013 Page 16