In that region there were shepherds 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 Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God.
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds 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.”
Chances are, this is not the first time you are hearing this story. It is one of the best known stories of the Bible. I invite you to picture it in your mind. What do you treasure about this tableau? What do you find yourself connecting to most about this story? When you read a favorite story to a child who has memorized it, you will see that they notice and get quite fussy if you skip any parts of the story or if you try to change it. In that same way, people have a strong attachment to the Christmas story. The way they have envisioned it for years is the way they want to keep seeing it. There is something very comforting about hearing the same story over and over again and having a sense of its continuity and timelessness.
Recently when I was studying this text, the difference between the classic story that I have in my head and the words of the Bible stood out to me more than ever. I was reminded that it does not say stable anywhere in the passage from Luke. Where exactly Mary gave birth is not clear. We only know that she laid Jesus in a manger because there was no room in the inn. There is no innkeeper who tells them there is no room and there are a number of scholars who contend that inn is a mistranslation. The word translated as “inn” is the word kataluma, which is used elsewhere by Luke and translated as “guest chamber” or “upper room.” Some scholars say that Mary and Joseph were not turned away from an inn, but they were told there was no room in Joseph’s family’s home. Bethlehem was after all the town that he came from and so one can assume he still had family there and that was why he had to go there to be registered. If so, why wouldn’t they have taken him in to their guest room? Were they disapproving of his unmarried, pregnant bride to be? We gain a sense of Mary and Joseph facing rejection and it makes Jesus’ birth that much more interesting to imagine him being born where the animals were kept, not just because there was no room but because his parents were social outcasts. This emphasizes for us the humility of Jesus the Christ’s birth. It makes the birth even more remarkable.
When we really think about it, we are talking about God being born into the world. Jesus is God with us, Emmanuel. This story has so much to inspire us about our faith and our God. We see throughout the Old Testament that God has been trying to communicate with humanity in many different ways and finally here in the beginning of the New Testament, God actually comes to earth in human form. God could have chosen to be born to a princess but he chooses humble, young and unmarried Mary. Mary is just a girl, barely past her childhood and then told that she is going to have a child by the Holy Spirit. She is going to be the god-bearer. What a huge responsibility. What an honor.
I remember when I was in 8th grade, I was asked to be Mary in our church’s nativity service. In my church we had actual babies play Jesus. I was very nervous about holding the baby and trying to make sure the baby did not get upset during the service. The mom sat nearby me in the front row ready to swoop in in case of a catastrophe, but all went well, in spite of the baby pulling off my headpiece and Joseph’s fake beard. Things went so well in fact that afterwards people in the church came up to me and asked me if the baby was mine. I have a vivid memory of being shocked that they would ask me that. Couldn’t they see that I was too young to have a baby? And there I find myself identifying with Mary. How could God think she was ready to have a baby, and not just any baby but the Messiah? How did God know she was the right one to bear the savior? Scripture tells us that she had found favor with God. I invite all of us to imagine what it would be like to hear that God has found favor with you and told you that youwere going to be part of bringing God into the world.
When I was in seminary one day my systematic theology professor came in to class and said that God had spoken to her on her way there and God wanted the class to know that God was pleased with us. She asked us to try to take that in. What did it feel like for God to be pleased with you? It felt good. Smiles spread across the people’s faces and the energy in the room lifted. To allow yourself to feel cared for by God is powerful.
When we look at the Christmas story, we see who God chooses, and if we look closely enough we see that God chooses us. We are part of that nativity picture. When we celebrate our homemade nativity with the children on Christmas Eve, we invite everyone to the manger. Children wear construction hats and angel outfits, cow ears and shepherd cloaks. The message is that everyone is called. Everyone has a place with Jesus. It is not really important if we envision a stable or an inn. The exact details are not as significant as what we capture in the overall picture. People struggle with details. They feel like if they know exactly what happened then they will find the truth. What is the truth we are searching for this Christmas? Is it the certainty of the facts of the story? Or is it the mystery and beauty of God’s love?
God chooses each of us.
God chooses you.
And God came into the world in human form to stand in flesh and blood and say in our words that God is with us, that we are loved, and we are called to share that love in the world. May your heart be filled with this truly good news this Christmas and all year long.