The Nativity of Our Lord
December 24, 2012, 11:00 p.m.
Once upon a time . . . . Once upon a time . . . . What do you think when you hear those words? For me at least, those words signal the beginning of a story. And I would hazard a guess that for most of us – as soon as we hear those words, “once upon a time”, we assume that someone is about to tell us a story. And I think we assume that the story we are about to hear is some kind of legend or fairy tale or fable or some sort of fiction that can be recounted orally in fairly short order.
And I also expect that when we hear someone say, “once upon a time” most of us – at least those of us with a little gray hair – probably assume that the story we are about to be told is a familiar one. Even if it’s not a story that we already know, we probably think, this story has a theme or a moral or a lesson to be learned – and that perhaps it will be familiar to us.
And I can’t help but think that it’s kind of like that with these first verses from the second chapter of Luke’s gospel. Think about it for a minute. Think about how many times you’ve heard this story. Think about how many times you’ve heard this ancient account of the birth of Jesus that we just heard. How many times have you heard this reading from Luke in church? How many times have you heard it in a church pageant or a school play? How many times has this story been read in your own home as part of a Christmas Eve or Christmas Day family tradition? How many times have you heard it since Charles Schultz’s A Charlie Brown Christmas began running on television in 1965?
Has this short piece of scripture become so familiar to us that, as soon as we hear the words, “In those days a decree went out . . .” that we immediately think “once upon a time”? When we hear these first verses from the second chapter of the third gospel, do we immediately say to ourselves, “Oh, I know this story – this is the story about the birth of the baby Jesus”? Do we hear this all too familiar account of the birth of this baby to Mary and Joseph as just another fairy tale – just another sweet story? Has this become for us just a story – just a tale about the birth of a child – and everything turns out just fine because momma and baby are warm and dry – and everybody is healthy and they all live happily ever after?
My hope – and my prayer – is that we haven’t lost sight of or forgotten that this story is not just another “once upon a time”! This is the story of the Nativity of Our Lord! And you’re probably thinking “well, I know that!” But what do we really mean when we say that this is the story of the Nativity of Our Lord? Why do we celebrate what most of the world calls “Christmas” as the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord?
Doesn’t the prophet Isaiah tell us? Isaiah says “for us – for us”! For us – for you and for me – a child has been born! For us – for you and for me – a son is given! And this son – this gift – that is given to us – is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace!
But this son, this baby Jesus, this gift that God gives us isn’t just for you and for me. And I don’t think it’s any accident that the angel of the Lord that Luke tells us about appeared to shepherds.
It seems like we hear a lot about shepherds in our Sunday scripture readings. We seem to hear a lot about sheep and shepherds but have you ever noticed what we don’t hear? What we don’t ever seem to hear is anything about the station in life of these biblical shepherds that we always seem to be hearing about. What scripture doesn’t tell us is how these shepherds fit into the world in which they lived.
Perhaps not surprisingly, shepherds in first century Palestine weren’t terribly well thought of within their society. They had bad reputations and were generally regarded as thieves. And perhaps they were thieves out of necessity. Maybe they were thieves because they were financially disadvantaged – in a word, the shepherds in our story were poor! And regardless of the reasons, shepherds were lumped together with the likes of tax collectors and prostitutes as members of despised trades.
And so the angel of the Lord appears to these poor and the despised shepherds – and the angel tells them “I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all people”. The good news isn’t just for them either – it’s for all people. The good news that the angel of the Lord brings to the poor and the despised – and indeed to you and to me – and to the whole world – is that this baby that is born to Mary and Joseph – this baby Jesus – is God incarnate. This baby Jesus is Emmanuel – God among us! This baby Jesus is Christ the Lord!
And so as we celebrate tonight and these next days of Christmastide, let us remember that this isn’t any “once upon a time”. This truly is the beginning of the good news of the Gospel. This is the very beginning of the entire Christ event. The Nativity of Our Lord stands for the whole saving act of God in Christ Jesus. It not only stands for his birth, it reminds us of his life and teaching. It points us to his passion, death and resurrection. This Christmas that we celebrate – this Feast of the birth of Our Lord that we proclaim – it calls us to new life in Him and for Him. My brothers and sisters, the grace of God has appeared to us – and that grace brings with it salvation – salvation to you and to me and indeed to the whole world! Thanks be to God! AMEN!