In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. 2 This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. 3 Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. 4 Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. 5 He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. 6 While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. 7 She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.
8 Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. 9 The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.
10 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. 11 Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. 12 This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, 14 “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”
15 When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” 16 They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child.18 Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them.19 Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. 20 The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told.
Merry Christmas! I suppose this whole service is a bit of a surprise to you all, but, quite honestly, you should be used to surprises by now. I mean, this is the church, and what if anything should we celebrate but surprising joy?
Think about it. When you first encountered Jesus, truly and fully, were you not thrown off? Were you expecting to receive the promise of a new life, freed from the pain of suffering and death in the fullness of time? If you have, I expect you were. Even if you were raised in the church, you would probably have been surprised when you have that personal conviction of sin, and the personal revelation that you are saved from it. At least that’s the hope. And if you haven’t, consider this one such surprising moment from God.
Celebrating Christmas is incredibly important to us, if not religiously, then culturally.
We spend months planning for it every year. We spend hundreds, maybe thousands, on gifts, travel and parties. We love the season, its lights, its sounds, its festival nature. But truth be told, when we finally get to Christmas day, we’re often so tired of Christmas that the magic has worn off.
So let’s let today be the surprise that Christmas was meant to be. People in the ancient world were expecting a messiah, but that messiah’s arrival would have been a surprise, without any fanfare or forewarning of actual dates. When the Messiah actually did come, there were no lights in the streets or songs in the taverns. Rather, the streets were quiet, the people were upset because of the census, and nobody was expecting a boy born in a manger was to be the king of kings, lord of lords, prince of peace. Jesus and his birth was a surprise. So celebrating Christmas when we least expect it is probably the most authentic way we can appreciate his birth.
Jesus was probably not born on December 25th, anyways. More than likely, according to historians, he was probably born in April or May. So truth be told, it’s never the wrong time to celebrate the incarnation of God into the world.
Art by Heidi Malott, http://www.heidimalott.com
The story itself is one nobody expected.
Mary didn’t have on her calendar the day an angel was supposed to come to her and tell her she would bear the son of God. Joseph certainly didn’t plan on being engaged to a woman already pregnant, nor did Joseph’s family, nor the village of Nazareth. Joseph was an upright citizen, and though poor, a hard and good worker. Mary was a just a kid, thirteen or fourteen. Nobody expected any of this to happen.
Nor did anyone really expect the emperor to call for a census, leading to the mass migration of people to their ancestral hometowns. This was the first census, after all. Mary and Joseph probably did not expect that they would have to deliver a child in the midst of this travel, let alone the night they arrived in Bethlehem. The angels definitely didn’t expect to see and entire army of angels singing in the night sky on this unassuming night in the late spring. Mary and Joseph didn’t expect of all people a bunch of shepherds to come and see them while they delivered a baby in a stable filled with animals, and all the smells that come with animals.
The Magi didn’t expect to see a star in the sky where there wasn’t one before, nor did they expect that when they looked up which star it was, that it would be a star that would foretell the coming of a king. They didn’t expect when they arrived at the palace of the country the king would rule in that the king would be surprised. The king didn’t expect news of a new king being born, especially when he himself hadn’t sired a son.
So you see, this entire story is about surprising, unexpected events happening to all kinds of people, from all over and with every kind of background.
The birth of Jesus affected everyone differently, too. For some, it inspired fear and dread. For others, hope and light. For some, awe and adoration. For others, hardship and persecution. For everyone it caught off guard, this miraculous event was truly a surprising time. And as it turns out, it came at the right time, which is any time. There would have been no better time for Jesus to have been born. And there’s no better time than now for us to recognize the miracle of Jesus in our own lives.
Jesus Breaks In Without Warning
Celebrating Christmas in July, then is an opportunity to reflect on the revelation that God himself broke into the world, without warning, and changed everything just by being born.
By being born, God changed the nature of reality. For beforehand, humanity was absent divinity. We were truly and completely unholy. But because Jesus came, and was born of a human, and made fully human and divine, he united humanity and divinity itself. Because he was human and divine, he made it so that we can have hope of being made like him, more holy, more like God. He opened up a pathway for us to God.
God came in Jesus so that we could know God better, but also that God could know us better. True, God knows all, but in the experiences of Jesus Christ, the Godhead experienced humanity like never before. God was born. God was taught what it means to be human, with all the happiness and messiness that involves. God was in diapers. God had friends, played with friends as a child. God went to weddings, and funerals. God celebrated, and God wept. God, as made known to us in Jesus Christ, experienced humanity in its fullness.
Knowing that God was human makes it possible for us to understand him better, and in that way, we know that Jesus truly loves us humans, warts and all.
He knew the depravity we were capable, and his still loved us. He knew cruelty, but he also knew kindness. He knew the power of humanity to do great things empowered by the Holy Spirit. He saw it in unexpected places, and forced us to look where we would never look. And it all started by forcing us to look in a stable for a king. Look at the shepherds as his first honored guests. Look at Kings as the shallow, paranoid creatures they are. Look at foreign wise men as bearing the promise from the outside. Look at the refugee, because Jesus became one in Egypt. Look where you never would, and you will be surprised by joy.
The Time is Now
In celebrating his birth in the wrong month, so to speak, we see how powerful it truly is that he came at all, when nobody expected. Jesus came as a surprise, so that we all can be saved, so that we all can have hope.
We’re in the dead heat of July, soon to be August. We have so much on our plates, we often lose sight of what gives us hope. So I invite you to look for hope. Look for joy where you least expect it. Look, and remember when you first encountered Jesus. Look, and seek goodness where none may have been thought to exist.
Seek first that goodness, and know that it’s never the wrong time to have hope, to see joy, and to live with unexpected happiness. You may yet bear the surprising good news of Jesus to someone who needs it, and can’t wait for “the right month” for us to do it. Do it now. Live like it’s Christmas everyday. It’s never the wrong time to have hope, share goodwill to all people, and bear the light to the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.