Sermon- December 22, 2019

Advent 4 December 22, 2019 Psalm 85, Micah 5:2-5a, Isaiah 52:7-10,
Luke 2:1-20
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In one of our family photo albums there’s a couple pages of pictures from a roll of ancient pre-digital photographs, from days of old, back when film had to be developed – and depending on exposure-to-direct-light and depending on our camera’s exposure-settings, sometimes you’d get double exposures. We have a whole roll of film full of double-and-even-triple-exposed pictures – over-and-under-exposed at the same time and overlaid over one another – pictures blending together, multiple images showing through at-once.

I think it’s a parable.

Here we are with our youth group, in a barn at the Heifer Project’s Living Nativity display in central Massachusetts with live animals – and there, in the same picture, underneath, in the background – our church (at the time) Bethany United Methodist in Roslindale-Boston, doing our annual Christmas pageant – and – here’s Reah teaching kindergarten students in her classroom at Parkside Christian Academy – here’s all these multiple images, all merged into one another, in a series of pictures – all-as-if-all-happening-at-once-at-the-same-time. Here’s we three kings (I was one of them that year), home-made tin-foil crowns on our heads, parading as young shepherds watch their flocks by night, and a very young Mary and Joseph admire their infant child in a manger. And parents sip coffee after church together…
All these beautiful images… remind us of so many things at once… in spite of the rather strange mix of over-and-under-exposure at the same time…
And this is a parable… of how I often feel… as I reflect on the birth of Jesus as told in the gospels – and the Christmas story we experience here and now, live – like split-screen Living Nativity. It’s hard for me to sort-out all the images and all the feelings that come to mind in this season…

Yet – how awesome the story still is – when we take, make or find time… to look closely at all the story… Including details that may seem a bit out of focus…

Details of the story like Emperor Augustus sending forth the decree that all people must be registered through an imperial census for tax assessment. A detail Luke’s gospel mentions no less than four times – to make it clear – God’s people are not in full charge of their destiny. A reminder the Empire wields power over all Rome’s conquered peoples. (Much like today – the empires of money, power, violence and selfishness wield their dark power… over so many subject peoples.)

Another detail we notice but which may at times seem under-developed…
Is Joseph, fiancee of Mary, descended from the royal line of King David who ruled in Israel a thousand years earlier – returning now to the home village of King David…to a rather un-royal-welcome…
After a four-to-five-day-80-plus-miles-long-journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, here’s Mary and Joseph, bone-tired, trying to find a place to lay weary heads. No cars, trains, buses (of course) in those days – and the gospel never mentions a donkey to ride. (It’s only artistic imagination that has us envisioning Mary riding a donkey.)
We’re familiar with Mary and Joseph arriving only to find all local inns and rooming houses famously full. Best we can do, sorry folks, is out in the barn – meaning the lower level of a house where animals live. No Holiday Inn… No Motel 6 where we always leave the light on… for the holy family…

But… thinking again of over-and-especially-under-developed parts of the story – (I’m noticing–) how often I have not even noticed – the actual birth of Jesus is told in just one sentence. Not even a word about Mary’s labor pains – or if there was a midwife there to help – Just – here comes baby Jesus, wrapped in bands of cloth to keep warm… And now in Bethlehem, hometown of King David, that night… the holy child is laid to rest in a farm animal’s feeding trough. As the Son of God and Son of Mary is born…

Meanwhile… Shepherds are watching their flocks by night…A familiar image for people of Bethlehem – who would vividly recall David, hometown shepherd boy, who grew up keeping watch over flocks…Who, even as king… had a shepherd’s heart. (Shepherding was also the ancestral family line of work for Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his children…and Moses… All the patriarchs and matriarchal ancestors of Israel were shepherds… We’re talking deep family tradition….)
And more than tradition…as… The Lord is my Shepherd… I shall not want… reminds us…
God is our True Royal Shepherd… And as people of God made in the image of God, we too have the spiritual DNA… for shepherding one another…

And now, again, shepherds keep watch over flocks by night….

But tonight – in this familiarly comforting setting…. Suddenly –
An angel of the LORD appears before terrified shepherds.
And (as the Angel Gabriel said to Zechariah – said again to Mary) – now this angel messenger says to shepherds: “Do not be afraid.”

“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.”

Savior – Messiah – Lord. Familiar words we take for granted. But the meaning is often disputed…. At the time, only the Roman emperor was permitted to call himself “savior.” And “good news” was the empire’s catch-all-phrase for yet-another military conquest of neighboring nations….

But now here’s God – reclaiming language stolen by empires – as God’s angel proclaims God’s true King, born for all. And with no further unpacking of this good news –
The angel tells shepherds – “This will be the sign for you – you’ll find a child wrapped in bands of cloth, lying in a manger.”

Then, suddenly, with the angel a huge heavenly host of angels appears – praising God, saying,“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace, good will among people!”

And when the angels leave, now shepherds say to each other, “Let’s go now to Bethlehem and see what has taken place, as the Lord has made known to us.” So they hurry and find Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in the manger – just as the angel said.

Summoned by angels from watching flocks by night… Called and chosen by God to serve as first witnesses to the Royal Birth. Called to See and Hear – eyes, ears, and hearts open…
Called to Testify – not just stating facts – but communicating from the heart… what they’ve seen and heard… from God.

And shepherds go and see as they’ve been told. They share the good news that’s been shared with them. And all who hear are amazed…

And that wonder, awe, and joy they feel – are assuredly, now, for all of us… anytime we hear and tell the story… eyes, ears, hearts open to God’s love…
Even when the story sometimes feels like it’s carrying too many images, and there’s too much going on at the same time to see it all in focus and be able to take it all in… Probably this is just the nature of this enormous story… from the beginning…

I’m sure it took Mary and Joseph awhile… to appreciate the blessings of that holy night… We’re told Mary treasured all these things… and pondered them in her heart.
Probably it was only later that day… when Mary and Joseph could finally sit back, breathe deeply and say, “thank you dear God!” – and begin to ponder deeply – all they’d been through… all the way… to this holy birth…

This birth that’s still such a lot to ponder….
So hard for our human minds to take in –
The Creator of the universe… taking on human flesh… born a little child among us.
Our Creator calling us to be Christ’s people…
The immensity of what God asks of us, in keeping Christ’s story alive….
Nurturing the life of the holy child among us, here and now…
Making room in the inn of our lives for our Savior…
Our life’s work now…
As we do as the angels say –
Sharing the good news of Jesus born among us – And –

Now the big picture comes into clearer focus…
As we see together in God’s beloved community… ever more clearly…

The wonders of God’s love… revealed in this holy birth… and…
Now… at last…

Everything else must wait.
As we ponder… Pray… and
Sing… with the angels…

Thanks be to God. Amen.