Welcome to this awesome and joyous Christmas feast! It’s always exciting to have a few more faces with us on Christmas, particularly those we don’t see often because school or jobs keep you from us.
One of the wonderful things about this service is it allows us to briefly suspend the busyness and distractedness of preparation, and to turn our attention to other aspects of our life such as family, traditions, stories, and – hopefully – faith.
Speaking of family, traditions, stories, and faith; those of us with a few Christmases under our belts have certain expectations about how this evening should go. It may include a drop-in for some Christmas cheer followed by this festal Eucharist with its carols and candles, and a late night of hanging stockings. But these things are more like window dressing rather than things that move us or change our lives.
If you’re one of those who has certain expectations about how this evening should go, hang onto your seat because this sermon may get a little bumpy; it may rattle some of your settled expectations, and call you think about how unsettling these stories can be.
For the next few minutes, I am asking each of us to suspend our expectations and to think about how we view Christmas: the day, the stories, the traditions, and its relevance to our lives.
Has Christmas become a fairy-tale for you – a tradition observed? Is it more akin to a sentimental magic kingdom production intended mainly for children? Has it lost its relevance to the reality of our day-to-day lives? Perhaps we have catalogued it with the likes of It’s a Wonderful Life; Miracle on 34th Street; or Christmas Story? In other words, has it become near and dear to us as a sentiment but failed to affect our thinking?
As you ponder these questions about relevance and sentimentality, take a moment to consider how improbable this Christmas tale is. As a story that is very familiar to us, we may have never considered how improbable it is. So consider the setting and humble origins of the primary actors. This story doesn’t take place in Jerusalem or some grand city. No, it’s set in a small town in a remote crossroad of the Roman empire. Bethlehem is the ancestral home of Joseph; a skilled carpenter and a stand-up guy, but a poor relation of the clan of David, who himself was deemed to be an unlikely king of Israel. The youngest bother and the runt, David was not deemed by anyone but God to be worthy of anointing as king. Yet God continues to confound our expectations.
And then there is Joseph’s betrothed – Mary. Mary is very young – engaged but not yet married, and mysteriously pregnant. This holy and humble family would have invited all sorts of gossip and speculation had people known their circumstance. Yet God chooses these and other seemingly unlikely people to populate this story of salvation.
While Emperor Augustus has the power to summon people from all stations of life and from across the empire to their ancestral homes; God’s angelic herald goes only to shepherds – hard-working field hands – to proclaim the good news of a savior – the Messiah. God is not impressed by our station in life; rather, God is concerned with the humble – those hungry to hear this peculiar good news.
So why this emphasis on the improbable? Because the improbable invites a kind of creative imagination and questioning that engages our minds as well as our hearts. Tonight there is room for both in this stable in Bethlehem. Consider that nine months earlier Mary had accepted the perplexing news of the Annunciation from the angel Gabriel without questioning, and went for months without confirmation except from her cousin Elizabeth. Now, after all this time, Mary’s choice to submit to God’s purpose is confirmed by an unlikely and ragtag band of shepherds. I think it’s fair to ask, would you and I ponder the words of these shepherds? Yet Mary ponders all that she sees, hears, and experiences. Mary is learning that God works in unorthodox and improbable ways, she is open to understanding what it all means, and she is trying to connect all the dots.
At every turn of this story there are improbable revelations and acceptance of these revelations. And the improbability of it all may be the part that is most challenging for us as modern listeners. While those, like Mary, who can accept the improbability of these revelations without question are blessed; I say, blessed are those who question, who ponder, who wonder because in trying to connect the dots we will make it our own revelation, with time. Our pondering of the improbable publicly and in the company of others will deepen all our understanding.
So now that the harried preparations for Christmas are behind us, as we stand among the shepherds and livestock before the holy family in this modest stable, I invite each of us to choose one crazy improbable part of this story and ponder how it speaks to you in this season of celebration and wonder. And now, I wish you a very happy and improbable Christmas!