Isaiah 9: 2-7; Luke 2:1-20
One of the best known Christmas stories of all time has been made into yet another movie this season, the story of “The Grinch” by Dr. Seuss. I doubt that Dr. Seuss would’ve guessed that it would be such a hit, and he might be a little perturbed if he did know, seeing as it is a commentary about the commercialism of Christmas. But this story hits on something we intuitively know in ourselves— that there are connections we can make with one another that are deeper than the giving of gifts; that there are relationships stronger than any disaster; that this life is not really about what we have, but about what we are doing with what we have.
In the Christmas story, this story of Jesus’ birth that we celebrate at Christ-mass, the Grinch in our story is Emperor Augustus. For Roman citizens, he was considered a Savior— he expanded the Roman Empire and brought enforced military peace wherever he went. But it only felt like peace for those in power; for those on top; for those who were favored by Emperor Augustus. And in order to keep power, and keep this enforced peace which cost quite a bit, Emperor Augustus declared that all the world should be registered in order that he could tax them. For some, this would’ve been a mild inconvenience to travel to one’s hometown, most likely not too far away. But for people like Mary and Joseph, who had nothing, and no way to get anywhere except to walk, this was one more burden upon a heap of burdens. As if it isn’t enough that Mary is nine months pregnant. As if it isn’t enough that Joseph isn’t positive his fiancé has been faithful or what effect this is going to have on his life. As if it isn’t enough that they are facing uncertainty in all directions, now they have to walk almost 100 miles. Now they have to be registered so they can pay more taxes. One more burden heaped upon their weary shoulders.
Surprisingly, however, after setting up the story with all of these political details, Luke spends little time talking about the birth. “When it came time, Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger.” It is humble; it is simple; it is sparse of any details. In this part of the story Mary, who so bravely said yes to God, has no voice. Joseph, who courageously accepted this strange beginning, says not a word. It is only Emperor Augustus who makes the decrees.
That old saying that whoever has the loudest voice wins; or whoever has the most toys wins? They all apply here— it would appear that Emperor Augustus is in control.
But Luke does not leave us there. The first eight verses give us a glimpse of a world not so different from our own, in which it always looks like the powerful and the mighty are in charge. But in the next twelve verses, Luke has something to say about that. For it is in the darkness of night, in the fields instead of the city, to the shepherds of all people— those who were not important enough even to worry about taxing— that the angels come. And this is not a quiet visit to whisper mysterious news. No, they make a scene. Cue the strobe lights; cue the fireworks. They’re not going to let the shepherds think they made this up. They’re not going to let the shepherds talk themselves out of what they’ve seen. They go to the most unlikely of people, the people who have been longing for some good news, and they sing about what God is doing and how God is bringing peace. But this is not an enforced peace— as we will later learn through Jesus’ life of forgiveness. This is not news to shame them, as we will see when Jesus heals people and eats with those on the margins. For the angels, for the shepherds, the good news is that God is with them and there is light beyond the darkness of their everyday; there is hope that love can conquer hate; that this baby who is born into the world is indeed born to all of us— that the peace that God is bringing to those whom God favors is amazing news not because they are part of some elite group who will benefit from God’s grace; this is a God whose arms are open, whose love is never ending, whose peace is for all.
And then, as quickly as they came, the angels are gone. And the shepherds turn to each other and say, “Let’s go check it out!” And this, I think, is where all of us come in. Because the shepherds don’t just go and peak in the windows to see what God is up to. The shepherds courageously go and use their voices to share this crazy thing that has happened to them with Mary and Joseph— strangers. It’s been nine months since Mary and Joseph have seen anything close to miraculous. There has been frustration and hardship and doubt and fear and anxiety. And now those who have most recently experienced the presence of God, share that gift with Mary and Joseph, assuring them that they are not alone, that they are not crazy, that God is with them.
Dr. Seuss got to the end of writing “The Grinch,” and he said the end was the most difficult part. He kept trying to put all kinds of words in the Grinch’s mouth; or to put all kinds of sermons into Cindy Lou Who’s speech. But the more he tried to explain what was happening, the more he tried to resolve the ending in words, the worse he thought it was. He thought it became preachy and unbearable to try to explain how the Grinch gets out of the mess he has created. And so, instead, Dr. Seuss left us with a picture of all The Who’s in Whoville eating their roast beast with The Grinch and singing together. And whether he meant to, or not, it is an image of the Kingdom of God— friends and family and enemies and strangers, sitting down together.
And so we leave the manger, with Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the shepherds, the animals, and probably some family and neighbors from upstairs, gathered around in a celebration of birth; of new beginnings; of changed hearts. They had no presents. They had no roast beast. The circumstances around them had not changed at all. And yet as the shepherds tell about the angels and the message and the good news, everything does change. Those who had nothing, now have something. Those who thought they were forgotten by God, just found out that God has entered the world for them. Light enters into the darkness and hope is born again.
As you go home tonight, in the glow of our Savior’s birth, may you look for the light that God is bringing you; make you listen for the songs of the angels; and may you have the courage to share what you know of God’s love with someone who needs to hear it this Christmas.