Merry Christmas! It’s wonderful to see you all here this evening. Worship on Christmas Eve always seems to bring together an interesting variety of people, stopping here on the way to somewhere else. With people traveling and getting together with family, this is often a time to see faces we don’t always get to see much throughout the rest of the year. And I think it’s especially a joy when we get to have young children and little babies present among us – with all the squirmy excitedness, curiosity, and wonder that comes with them.
Normally on Tuesdays, I drive to Fremont for text study. I meet up with a group of other pastors and preachers from around the area – and it’s actually also a pretty interesting variety of people. We catch up with each other over coffee at a café in downtown Fremont. And I’ll admit we don’t always get around to the text-studying part of text study, but it has become an important opportunity to check in and connect with other colleagues in ministry.
And every so often, it also becomes an opportunity to hang out with cute babies, whose parents sometimes bring them to text study. My friends Allison and Timothy – whom some of you have met – have an adorable little girl named Caroline, who is now a little over a year old. Even when she is being still and quiet, it is impossible not to notice that Caroline is there. Everyone wants to play with her or they make silly faces at her to try to get her to laugh. When she was tiny, everyone wanted to hold her and she would get passed around from arms to arms so that everyone could get their turn.
Now Caroline is big enough that she always wants to wiggle down onto the floor and go exploring by herself. And she will delightedly toddle all over the coffee shop, laughing and cooing over each new thing she finds, and making friends with absolutely every person she encounters. And I can tell you, there is just no resisting a bright-eyed, sticky-fingered baby who has decided that she wants to be your friend.
Babies and small kids just have a way of bringing people together. They have a way of turning even perfect strangers into a community, one that is both weird and lovely.
This is certainly true for the group of people gathered together in our gospel story for this evening. They, too, were brought together because of one tiny child. Of course, most of us know this story so well that we could probably recite it line for line in our sleep. And our familiarity with the story can actually make it harder for us to appreciate some of the stranger details in it.
Like for instance, in the nativity sets that many of us have at home, we are used to seeing figurines of Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the angels all sitting serenely side by side, but the story we just read is much wilder and weirder. The shepherds – who, in all likelihood, had no idea who Mary or Joseph were – they had just been going about their business, hanging out in the fields with the sheep. And suddenly, out of nowhere, the dark night sky explodes with angels. And you can tell a lot about what that experience must have been like for the shepherds from the first thing the angels say. What do they say? “Do not be afraid.” How terrifying do you have to look for that to be the first thing you say to people?
The shepherds take the angels’ advice and they turn up where Mary and Joseph are, wanting to see baby Jesus. Now, many of us have kind of a romanticized image of shepherds, mostly from stories like this one. But at the time, shepherds would have been considered kind of rough, dirty, blue collar kind of people. They did work that was important for everyone’s livelihood, but it wasn’t really something glorified or well-respected. Today, they might be the equivalent of like construction workers – important work, to be sure, but far from glamorous.
So imagine you’re Mary and Joseph – you had to make a last minute trip to a city you might not even know very well while you’re about-to-burst pregnant. And you end up having to give birth to your first child about 90 miles away from home. And then a gaggle of sweaty construction workers you’ve never met before show up at the doorstep saying that they want to meet your baby because a bunch of angels appeared to them and told them to come. That is the kind of weird we’re talking about in this story. That is the kind of weird and lovely community that the Christ-child brings together.
And these probably weren’t the only people there. The more you look into the history and culture of the time and place where Jesus was born, the more you realize that most of us have probably been imagining the nativity all wrong. When you think about the nativity, where do you imagine it taking place? Probably in a stable, right? – the holy family alone, away from other people. But look again at the text; “While they were there, the time came for [Mary] to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger.” We read this text with our 21st century eyes and assume that they are in a stable or a barn, somewhere away from people, because that is where we would expect to find mangers and animals. But that is not necessarily the case here.
Our translation of the story also tells us that there was no room for them at the “inn.” But the Greek word that Luke uses here – κατάλυμα – was also used to mean something like “guest room,” which is probably the better translation here. Inns at the time weren’t much like our modern conceptions of hotels or motels. And in the town that Joseph’s family is from, it is unthinkable that anyone would have turned away a relative with a pregnant wife, no matter how distant a cousin they were.
Most people’s houses at the time had two rooms or areas: a guest room that was usually in the back of the house, and then the area in front where the family lived, where they would keep their animals, sometimes on a lower level. More than likely, what really happened in this story was that Mary and Joseph stayed with some relatives whose guest room was already full – meaning that they were staying with the family and their animals in the front area of the house.
So when Jesus was born, it wasn’t in some cold, cave-like stable away from other people. He was born in a home packed with people, in a place full of warmth and love. And when the shepherds showed up, they didn’t find a young couple alone with their baby and a few farm animals. They found a party already in progress. They found a circle of family that opened to welcome them in. And I love imagining that gathering. I can easily see little baby Jesus being passed around the circle from great aunt to third cousin to shepherd to neighbor who came to see what all the commotion was about. I imagine each and every person cradling the tiny Christ-child in their arms, looking down at him in wonder, laughing when his tiny hand closed around their finger.
From the moment he was born, Jesus drew people to himself in love. And he continues to draw us together here and now. Whether you will celebrate this night surrounded by friends and family or you will be on your own at home or somewhere else, you have been forever drawn into this weird and lovely and holy community. You have been made part of the community drawn together by the birth of a child who is God made flesh – a child who is love made flesh – a child with bright eyes and sticky fingers who has decided that you are a friend.
This Christmas Eve, I invite you to reflect on where you have felt loved this season, and on how you might reach out to pull others into the Christ-child’s circle of love.
May you be surrounded by the love of Emmanuel, God-with-us. Merry Christmas.