If anyone ever decides to write a story about my life (which I admit would be a fairly short and boring read; I’d encourage you to save your money…) I do hope that they put a little more energy into the beginning of it than Luke does with the Christmas story. It doesn’t exactly start with a bang, does it? This good news of great joy starts with kind of a dull history lesson about politicians and their ridings. Of all the things Emperor Augustus ever did, decreeing a registration for tax purposes isn’t anywhere near the most exciting. And on top of being dull, it’s not even a particularly good history lesson. St. Luke doesn’t seem to be altogether concerned about details. Scholars will tell us that the names don’t quite line up with the dates; and some will point out that we haven’t found any other evidence that this worldwide registration ever took place, which is odd and a little awkward.
Still, we see this sort of thing a lot in the Bible, lists of names and places that are long forgotten and only interesting to the extremely nerdy. Before a prophet lets loose a wild vision, or a thunderous call for God’s people to shape up or be shipped out, or a beautiful dream about what God has in store for all things, we often get a list of parents and grandparents, who was king at the time, what obscure village the prophet hailed from. These are the parts of Scripture that most of us tend to skim, or skip entirely, in order to get to the good stuff.
But they’re there, these bits of biographical and geographical data. We call them Scripture, and it seems to be important that they are. Because, they’re more than just historical trivia. These lists of names and regions remind us that whatever God—the God we know from the Bible, the God we meet in Jesus—is going to do, it’s not going to be outside of time and space; it’s going to have to do with bodies and places. We sometimes act as though it’s in good taste to keep holy things and not-so-holy things separated and in their proper areas. But the Bible reminds us all over the place that God doesn’t seem to have nearly as much of a problem confusing heaven and earth as more polite company often does.
So Luke isn’t a great objective historian, but if we wanted to use a ten cent word we could say he’s an excellent theological historian. He’s on to something really important to what we’re here to celebrate tonight. He won’t let us have miraculous conceptions, or angel choirs lighting up the skies with their glad tidings and praise, without insisting that this stuff, this God stuff, this particular heavenly good news of great joy doesn’t take shape anywhere other than the dust of the earth, in the everyday, in bodies and places. What God is up to, God is up to in time and space, in the midst of thrones and royal edicts, family turmoil and night shifts. This story, if it is anything, has to do with getting people of all sorts all bound up in something way beyond our imaginations, but unexpectedly here, wondrously now.
By giving us these names and places, Luke makes sure that we can’t rush into some heavenly ideal, we can’t make the manger scene sort of hazy and iridescent and dreamlike. It matters that what’s about to be birthed into the world happens with the politics of the day in mind; in the shadow of an occupying government, in the middle of tax season; it has to do with backwoods towns and royal cities; with commercial interests and regional authorities and local licensing offices and family trees.
It matters that this has to do with families. It occurred to me a couple of years ago that Joseph must have had relatives living in Nazareth, folks who ought to have been responsible for taking him and his pregnant fiancée in. He’s only there because that’s where his people come from. Surely there’s an uncle or a cousin around. How could it be that they ended up with only a manger for a cradle? Is it possible that gossip about an unexpected and unapproved pregnancy travels faster than a donkey, from Nazareth to Bethlehem?
It might be that the good news of great joy comes to life through Mary and Joseph’s faithful willingness to make a family out of a confusing and difficult situation—there’s something really beautiful about the two of them shuffling into town together. But that there’s no one to welcome them might remind us that what God is up to also doesn’t shy away from relationships damaged by arrogance and exclusion and inhumanity of all sorts; God won’t be deterred by narrow judgments and skeptical stares. The good news of great joy that is for all people will come to life whether it’s welcomed or not; its light will seep through the cracks of closed and barred doors. This is news that turns shame and hurt into dancing and praise.
It matters that this has to do with work. The shepherds are simply going about their business. This is a night like any other; these are the ones stuck with the nightshift. If it were today, the angel of the Lord might have shown up in a 24-hr convenience store. That’s just as likely a place as the hills outside Bethlehem—the last place on earth that anyone is expecting a Hallelujah Chorus. It’s a beautiful insistence that there’s no place that’s so mundane that heaven isn’t interested in it; there’s no life so insignificant that angels won’t sing for it; there’s no part of our lives that God’s not prepared to be found in.
In fact, it’s important to what Luke wants us to know about all this that the angels show up in the midst of work that isn’t glamourous, has no prestige attached to it. Quite the opposite, in fact. Shepherds were notorious ne’er-do-wells, the ones who weren’t good for much else than watching sheep. It reminds us that the good news of great joy really is for all people. If we’ll have to do with this news, it’ll put us in some surprising company.
By moving us from the Roman throne, the ultimate seat of political power, all the way down to the outskirts of a nowhere town, and a gathering of misfits with no political power at all, Luke helps us start to understand that there is nothing that this story, this good news of great joy will leave untouched in the end. It’s the story that encompasses all other stories—though, mysteriously from the inside. It’s hard to see just from this part, but if we stick around, day after day, week after week, we’ll discover that it’s the story of God’s passionate love for this world; of God’s deep yearning to see this world made whole—to overcome the ways of brokenness and death, of violence and greed, of hopelessness and shame, and bring about a whole new possibility for hope, peace, joy, and love in every life—in our lives. It’s the story of God’s unflinching desire to be with us, to be for us, to see a holy dream come to life among us.
I don’t think the shepherds don’t go back singing and dancing just because they got a private audience with the holy family, or a special serenade from an angel choir. I think they go back singing and dancing because somehow these two things aren’t separate—this baby in the hay and the Angel Army Singers. They go back singing and dancing because “On earth as in heaven” is maybe not such a stretch after all.
I think I’m going to stop saying that Christmas is “about” one thing or another. Every time I do that something shifts and I have to rethink it. The story is too alive for that. But what stands out this year, tonight what I think the shepherds really are glorifying and dancing over, what we gather to celebrate is that ours is a promise-making, promise-keeping God. God has made a promise to the world, to us, to our neighbors. God has chosen to be mixed up with us. With this world. That’s what the angels are singing—their good news of great joy. God has promised that the world will be renewed and restored, that life and love and nothing less will get the final word on us; that God will be with us not matter what. And in Jesus we’ll begin to see that promise start to come to life in a whole new way. This baby is somehow the promise kept. This strange birth is the first hint of a holy revolution that will draw people from every corner of the world—it will draw us—into an extraordinary new way of living with God and with each other—a way lit up by the love of God for us and for all things.
In the end, Augustus and Quirinius, Mary and Joseph, the nameless shepherds and the countless angels together remind us that the wonder of Christmas isn’t over tonight, or tomorrow. We don’t get to box this all up when our guests go home. This is not a gift that will delight for a while and then gather dust. Instead, Luke draws us into the wonder that what God is up to, the stuff God has promised is meant to take shape in this world, in our lives. Our bodies, our work, our relationships, every atom and molecule, every step and every word is meant to be intertwined with all the stuff of heaven. And if we’ll come to the manger and peer over the edge we’ll see that there’s no length to which God won’t go to make it that way.
Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given.
Glory to God in the highest!