There is something comforting in familiar stories. The familiar story of Jesus’ birth as told in Luke’s gospel is particularly comforting for our predicament this year. I find it helpful to read the story aloud since it is so familiar.
The Birth of Jesus
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her 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, because there was no place for them in the inn.
The Shepherds and the Angels
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—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 Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. ~ Luke 2:1-20
What do you notice? What jumps out?
The first thing that popped out at me was the detail of who was ruling where. Luke mentions the Emperor Augustus and the governor of Syria, Quirinius. Augustus was the grand-nephew of Julius Caesar and Emperor of the Roman Empire. Quirinius, on the other hand, was a Roman aristocrat who rose through the ranks and, having garnered the favor of Augustus, was assigned to Syria. Yes, the same Syria that’s in our current news.
I don’t think this is by accident. It’s as though Luke is looking at the nativity through a wide-angle lens. He backs out far enough to set the historical context by identifying the Emperor and Governor, only to zoom in to something no Emperor or Governor would ever have noticed: an unwed teenaged mother, homeless for the evening, finding make-shift shelter in a barn, giving birth to her first-born son with only her fiance’, and some shepherds who wandered in, to assist.
The other thing I notice is this odd assortment of people who are brought together who don’t have any connection with one another: shepherds who have been working out in the hills, an out-of-town couple, an innkeeper, an angel, and a terrifying heavenly host. Their lives intersect in a powerful encounter as they witness an extraordinary encounter together. Their common experience bridges those things that would otherwise separate them. They’re able to find temporary peace in that awe-struck moment.
Lastly, the whole thing is a hectic situation. The diverse group of characters contributes to the hectic-ness, but it’s the collision of multiple and diverse scenes that all intersect at this particular moment, in this particular place, at this particular time: the census that caused a young couple to travel a great distance across deserts and mountains on the week of their child’s birth; the “no vacancy” sign at the only inn in town; the shepherds terrified by the angel of the Lord appearing and speaking out of the night sky; the heavenly host praising God; and the child being born in a stable and laid to recover from the birth experience on a bed of hay in a manger, surrounded by his parents, animals, and curious and overwhelmed shepherds.
A little chaotic.
Out of the craziness and frenzy of the world situation, the political process, and the holiday season, comes a sign of peace. The birth of Jesus – his life and teaching, his death and resurrection, his promise to come again – is a sign from God. It’s divine communication from God to all people. It is a promise of hope for the world.
The good news is that on this day, in the city of David, a Savior was born. He is the Messiah, the Lord, the Prince of Peace.
This is good news, not just for a select group of people, but for everyone who has ears to hear it. It’s not a general message blasted out there. It is a very personal and specific message for every member of the human family.
For those who are struggling with with illness or personal problems, it is the promise of healing. For those who follow Jesus, the Christ, it is a glimpse of God’s love for all God’s children.
For those who feel that the world is in the throes of violence and confusion, it is a moment of respite and reflection.
For those who live in darkness and fear, it is illuminated with light and that a new day, a new week, a new year, a new life is coming for each and every one of us.
For those who thing the world isn’t worth saving, it speaks of hope.
And for those who find themselves at odds with someone or something, it offers the promise of peace which surpasses all understanding.