The Nativity of Our Lord

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

Joseph went up from Galilee. We might think of Galilee as the Holy Land, but that’s not how first century Jews thought of it. Galilee was just about the unholiest land that had ever been a part of Israel.

Galileans had never done a very good job of keeping the Holy Law, especially not after they seceded from the rest of Israel, which, at that time, was called Judea.

Then Assyria had conquered Galilee, deported all the Jewish people, and repopulated the region with non-Jews. Little by little Galilee had returned to Judaism, but their Judaism, as far as other Jews were concerned, was corrupt and half-hearted. So the people of Judea, the good citizens of Bethlehem, regarded Galileans, like Joseph, even Joseph—a former resident of Bethlehem— with contempt, even disgust.

But, “Joseph went up from Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem.” It was a hard trip by foot or by donkey across the eighty miles of barren, hilly terrain. A few pious Galileans might occasionally travel into Judea on a religious pilgrimage, but otherwise it was pretty much a road not taken. Perhaps it would have made a better story if Joseph had gone to Judea on a pilgrimage but he didn’t.

Joseph went up to Bethlehem because he was compelled by the government bureaucrats. He went for a census—a registration for tax purposes. Joseph’s journey was no pilgrimage. It was secular burdensome business. It was about as holy as an audit by the I.R.S.

“So Joseph went up from Galilee…to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.” Not his wife–but his fiancée, who was with child.

There were prophecies about the coming messiah. There were prophecies about his birth. But one thing was not part of the prophecy. One thing, you can be sure, was not expected of the messiah. No one expected that he would be born out of wedlock—that he would be the illegitimate son of a Galilean woman, no less!

Yet “Joseph went up from Galilee to Bethlehem to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.” In fact, she was near term—nine months pregnant—traveling with a man who was not yet her husband.

Is it any wonder there was no place for them at the inn? The wonder is that Mary had not already been stoned to death. First century Jews weren’t big on out-of-wedlock pregnancies. They took such things quite seriously, and not very lovingly, or charitably.

And so, “Joseph went up from Galilee…with Mary…And she gave birth to her firstborn son and…laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

So it was that this Galilean girl, probably about fourteen years old, gave birth to her son in a stable,
–without her family and friends there to rejoice with her.
–without her neighbors and the village elders there to sing the traditional songs for celebrating a birth.
–without any of the gala that is supposed to surround such a significant moment.
But someone did come to see the baby.

You see, “In that region, there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” These shepherds from the hill country came. But shepherds weren’t exactly the ideal or honorable guests. There job made it impossible for them to keep the laws of ritual purity, and their poverty made them prone to steal.

The presence of shepherds would have been an embarrassment at the inn. Ah, but they weren’t at the inn, were they? There was no room for Mary and Joseph at the inn.

Some people compare the story of our Lord’s birth to legends about the births of other great men. True enough, in olden days, the biographers of kings and prophets told stories of great births appropriate for great men. But this story isn’t like those stories. Jesus’ birth wasn’t just humble. It was downright inappropriate.

But it was a birth that foreshadowed what life held for Jesus. Born in a stable, he lived as a homeless wanderer, was at odds with his family, betrayed by his friends, rejected by his hometown and, finally, after being executed for a crime he didn’t commit, had to be buried in another man’s tomb.

This is our Lord.
This is our Lord as he appears in the eyes of history.
This is our Lord as he appears in the eyes of the world.

But the eyes of the world miss a lot. The eyes of history and ordinary experience miss a lot that can be seen only through the eyes of faith.

As the old proverb says, “It is only with the heart that one sees rightly. The things that are essential are invisible to the eye.”

God touched the hearts of the shepherds that night, and they saw the Nativity with the eyes of faith. They looked upon a birth so lowly and so lonely that no one was there to sing the traditional songs. But the shepherds saw the angels there. And they heard the angels sing “Glory to God in the Highest.”

They looked upon an unwed Galilean mother and they saw the Blessed Virgin; Holy Mary; Mother of God.

They looked upon a helpless Galilean baby and saw a Savior, Christ the Lord.

Since that night the church has spent 2000 years reflecting on what the birth of Jesus meant. We’ve tried to look upon it, as the shepherds did, with the eyes of faith. And we’ve come to believe some remarkable things.

We’ve come to believe that the Son of God was born as a human being on a certain night in a certain place—in the most unlikely of places. We believe that God shared our mortal human nature so that we can be united to him and share in his immortal divine nature.

But Christmas isn’t just about Christ’s birth in Bethlehem long ago. Christ was born once in history, but we believe he is also born eternally. God eternally incarnates Godself in the creation.

We say in our Creed, “We believe in one Lord, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father.” Where then shall we go to see this birth—this eternal birth of the Son of God? It’s all too easy to miss it. And I’ll tell you why.

We all have an image of how our lives should be, and we work terribly hard to make our lives fit that ideal image. This obsession with living up to impossible ideals comes to a peak this time of year, when we try to make this Christmas just right, just like we know Christmas should be, as we’ve learned from Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole songs, and Better Homes magazine, and poems about sugar plums dancing in our heads.

We try so hard, and sometimes we almost succeed. But never quite completely. We always fall short of the Christmas ideal, just as we always fall short of our “ideal” life. Most of our parents were probably not the perfect parents we really needed. Most careers, not all that we had dreamed of or hoped for. Our spouses and friends often disappoint us. We try to give our children whatever it was we didn’t get enough of, and we hope they’ll live out the ideal lives we’ve failed to live. But they never do. And the cycle repeats.

So, we, at least, try to do the ideal Christmas—Norman Rockwell style—to convince somebody (God knows who) that we do live ideal lives and have ideal families, but it never comes off, completely, to our satisfaction. Year after year things don’t quite come together, as we had hoped. And disappointment comes, again. And we miss the point, again.

And so, once again this year, Christ will have to be born in a stable. Once again this year, Christ will have only our inadequate and imperfect lives for his birthplace. Once again this year, the birth of Christ will look ordinary at best, & perhaps a little indecent. (And that is the point, of Christmas.)

The birth of Christ never looks glorious in the eyes of the world, in the eyes of ordinary experience, because, you see, the Father eternally begets his Son in stables, in messed up places, like our lives.

And we can see this birth only through the eyes of faith. We don’t look with faith only at the ancient past. We look with faith at our own ordinary lives, with all their blemishes and failures. And we see and know the miracle and joy and blessing of Christmas.

We look at our own lives this night, and we see angels and we hear them sing:
Glory to God in the Highest and on earth, peace.
For Born to you this day is a Savior, who is Christ the
Lord.
The true gift of Christmas and the salvation of our souls.

In the Name of the father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Amen.

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