The Nativity of Our Lord
The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Luke 2:1-20

 


Once upon a time, a carefree young girl who lived at the edge of the forest, and who loved to wander in the forest, became lost. As it grew dark and the little girl did not return home, her parents became quite worried. They began calling the little girl, and searching in the forest, but there was no sign of her, and it grew darker. The parents returned home and called the neighbors and people from all over the town to come and help them search for their daughter.

Meanwhile, the little girl wandered about in the forest and became, herself, very worried and anxious, because she couldn’t find her way home. She tried one path, then another and became more and more lost and more and more tired until, finally, coming upon a clearing in the forest, she lay down by a large rock and fell asleep.

Her frantic parents and neighbors scoured the forest. They called and called the little girl’s name but to no avail. Many of the searchers became exhausted and returned home, but the little girl’s father continued the search throughout the night.

Early, in the morning, the father came to the clearing and saw where the little girl lay sleeping. When he saw her, he shrieked with delight and ran toward her making a great noise as his feet crushed the dry leaves and branches beneath them. The little girl, startled by the commotion, awoke, and seeing her father, with a great shout of joy, exclaimed, “Daddy, Daddy, I found you!”

And so this is the heart of the Christian, and Christmas, message. That God has found us, lost, alone, and virtually directionless, in the unprecedented and unrepeatable event we herald this night. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have everlasting life.” The glad and glorious news this night is that we have been found by God when we encounter this squalling newborn whose name is Jesus. This is the good news that occupies the central facet of the Christian faith.

But our human response is: We have found him! Even in our telling of the Christmas story. We have found him!
The angels said, “You will find the child . . . lying in a manger.” But did the shepherds find Jesus, or did God find the shepherds? Did the wise men search out the Messiah, the Christ Child, or were the wise men found by God and led by a guiding star? Even today, evangelical Christians proclaim, “We have found the Lord!” But the Lord was never lost! We were. But Alleluia! We have been found by God. “You did not choose me but I chose you,” says the Lord. And so it is that the Incarnation is at once a message as embarrassing and humbling as it is exhilarating. For while most of us are ready to affirm and celebrate God’s acting in the world, we have a harder time with God’s actually entering into the world – which is what Christmas is really about.

We are ready to affirm God’s handiwork in creation.
We are eager to recount the Lord’s spine-tingling power in the Exodus, freeing the Hebrew slaves from the most powerful nation on earth.
We are happy to accept God’s giving of the Law as the revealed pattern in which we are to relate to God and our neighbor.
We are ready to say that God acted to bring water out of rocks, to split apart seas, and to bring quail and manna out of nowhere to sustain the Hebrews in the desert.
We are pleased to see God’s hand at work in the ordering of a new society around the judges and kings of Israel.
We affirm the might of the Lord in the pronouncements of the prophets. And we readily assent to the Holy Spirit speaking to us through the scriptures, and in prayer and worship.

And that isn’t all. We are delighted to wonder at God’s grandeur in a sunset or under a microscope, or in a vision, or in a goose-bump experience, or in countless other ways.

But when it comes to the gospel—the incarnation, of God’s coming among us in flesh and blood, in all the vulnerable wrappings of a baby, to live among us, as one of us, to die for us and rise again for us so that we might have everlasting life, to entrust us, in our own frail flesh and humanness to be his body and continue his mission in the world—of these things, we, like the shepherds are “terrified.” We are “sore afraid.”

Of God’s acting in the world, we are awed and amazed. But as for God’s entering the world, that for us is almost unbearable! And so we keep Christmas wrapped up—the world does—in ribbons and bows and pretty paper, and our minds filled with visions of sugarplums, so that we’ll be sure to miss the wonder and miracle and truth of this most holy event. What a shame. Out of fear and trembling, our tendency is to gloss over this “Christmas difference” between God’s acting in the world and God’s entering in the world. And as a result, we can easily miss—tragically miss—the “scandal” that this silent night, this holy night unwraps.

And the scandal—the difference—is this:
At least at first, God’s entering into history has nothing to do with a religious figure at all. The process unfolds in far off Rome, where a pagan imperial power, Caesar Augustus, orders a census in the unruly land of Palestine. The Romans, sticklers about numbers, took pains to account for the human and financial resources of each of their provinces. Big government, then and now, cannot live by bread alone. So through the bureaucratic channels in Rome, a peasant couple in Palestine is required to set out on a sixty-mile journey to a tiny village in Judea called Bethlehem.

Never mind that teenage Mary is in the last stages of her pregnancy. What does Caesar care? So one tiring, terrible step after the other, the couple make the journey only to be shut out of a decent place to stay when they arrive. And so born in a manger, in a cattle shed, this child, with these parents, in that situation, will be heralded as “Savior,” the “Wonderful Counselor,” the Prince of Peace.”

Right. That’s a believable story!

But that is precisely the resolute message we proclaim this night. It is a brazen, some say preposterous claim. And rest assured, all interfaith goodwill aside, no other religion will go along in confessing it:–God entering the world as a human being (much less as one born in a barn). No Muslim, or Jew, or Buddhist, or Hindu will affirm what we do tonight. That in Bethlehem’s stall of straw, surrounded by a bunch of smelly, mute animals, the Risk of all risks is taken.

The Unknowable becomes known. The Infinite becomes finite. The Formless takes form. Being itself becomes a being. The Word becomes flesh.

God’s rescue operation—freeing the world from the grip of evil—is set in motion. To those who believe, the New Creation has already begun to take hold.

The late former Presiding Bishop John Hines was fond of telling the story about a traveler who passed through the Louvre, and all its wondrous artwork, without so much as the faintest stirring of the spirit within him. As he stalked out the door, he said quite loudly, “There is nothing all that great to see in here.”

A museum guard standing by the door overheard his remark, and took up the challenge. In his quiet manner he replied, “Sir, the paintings in here are not on trial. It is the spectators who are.”

And similarly, It is not Jesus and the Holy Family who are on trial in this Christmas festival, but those of us who celebrate it. We are. And knowing that we are, let us grab hold of this night with all that we have. Grab hold with your entire heart and soul and being.

For this is the night when God enters the world. This is the night of your salvation, and the world’s joy.

So Come, and with all that we have in us, let us adore Christ the Lord, and give praise to the One who is the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.