Nativity of Our Lord
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.
I have been blessed to have three new babies born in my family in the past year. My sister, my cousin in Michigan, and my cousin in Texas have all graced my family with beautiful little babies. Two of them are on my mother’s side of the family, and are my grandmother’s very first great-grand babies (she was starting to get a little worried that none of her grandkids were ever going to get married, let alone have kids!).
If I go on Facebook right now, chances are high that at least one of these beautiful smiling faces will be in my News Feed. My sister especially is fond of those pictures you take of your baby next to those milestone signs that says what they’ve done every month: first smile, first laugh, what she loves most, what she doesn’t. And little Rylie Grace has figured out that she gets lots of loves and hugs from family members when she’s all smiley.
This doesn’t even include the many friends of mine who, just this past year, have also had babies. In our digital age of technology, news travels instantly, and I can check up on them at any time. I could video chat with my sister and say hi to little Rylie over the phone. Every day, even though I live 335 miles away from my family, I can check in on these new babies and follow their lives as they grow up.
And yet, even as I celebrate all these new births with much fanfare, I know that they are only a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of the babies that were born this year. Do you know how many babies were born in the world this past year?
Best estimate is about 129,000,000. 129,000,000 babies were born this year. I only care about, maybe, 10. 129,000,000 human beings were born this year. And for the vast, vast majority of them, only a small number of people cared. For many of them, I am sure, nobody cared, not even their parents.
In a world where news of an earthquake makes it half-way around the world before the earthquake is finished, where news is that available, and travels that quickly, 129,000,000 babies were born, and for the most part, the world didn’t care.
Perhaps even more shocking than this is realizing that 2000 years ago, the Messiah, the Son of God, was one of them. We’ve sanitized the story of Christ’s birth with happy carols and brilliant scenes and sets. For Christians, it has become one of the most glorious, and most important, events in all of history.
But when it actually happened, it wasn’t even a blip on the radar. Who cares about babies born in an occupied territory, under the administration and military rule of a foreign country? Who cares about two poor parents, unmarried parents, looking for a place to sleep at night? Who cares about what shepherds have to say, those people who ignore sabbath, who are dirty, and smelly, who can’t hold any other job, who are just bums out in the fields.
In retrospect, Jesus’s birth may have been one of the most important events in history. But when it happened, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph may as well have been a homeless boyfriend and girlfriend, with a newborn they can’t support, living out of their car or sleeping on a park bench. Nobody batted an eye. Nobody cared. There were bigger things for them to worry about.
It’s an interesting way for God to come to earth in the flesh and blood. There are so many other ways it could have been done. Maybe there weren’t any princes going to be born that year, but surely, the Son of God could have been born to someone respectable: a well-to-do family, maybe one with a name and title. Maybe in a bigger city, around family, with support. Wouldn’t that have been better? Nice and pretty?
And yet… that’s not our story. Not our story at all. That sounds more like the introduction to Palm Sunday, the triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Big, happy, joyous. Instead, we get quiet, dirty, insignificant—boring. God’s entry into the world was so insignificant, no one even paid attention to the child for the first 30 years or so. They had bigger things to worry about.
In the weeks leading up to the Christmas season, we have a lot to worry about as well. Believe me, I know—Advent is a stressful time for church-workers. Society expects a great deal of people around this time. Christmas commercials start in September, reminding us that Christmas is all about giving gifts—the bigger, the better—and that we are being good people by buying expensive things. It seems to be a good message, except that it’s simply not possible for so many people.
We are told that Christmas is all about family, and that nothing is more important than being with them—even people who don’t have any family, or who are separated from them. We are told that Christmas is about being happy and joyful, where all of our problems magically disappear in the spirit of the holidays.
But we know that that’s not all there is. At the same time as we gathered these past few weeks to get ready for Christmas, we were reminded again and again that we live in a world that is not always happy, that is not always bright. We live in a world that, at times, feels awfully dark.
A potentially-deadly virus grew into an epidemic that put parts of the world in a panic. Racial tensions and an unjust system broke out into demonstrations, protests, and even some riots. On the heels of that, two police officers were executed, assassinated, in their car. It’s hard to be merry. It’s hard to be bright. But we don’t have to pretend that everything is okay. We don’t have to ignore the injustice and the evil happening around us everyday.
We don’t have to, because it is in the darkest times that light shines most brightly. On a night over 2000 years ago, in a little, overstuffed town on the other side of the world, in a country living under military occupation, to unwed, poor parents sleeping outside with no shelter, heralded only by some dirty shepherds… a tiny miracle happened. A baby was born. Into all of that, under all that stress and worry and fear, God showed up.
God didn’t wait for a time when the province of Judea was independent and stable, when Joseph and Mary had gotten properly married and settled down in their own house, when the time was perfect for raising a new king. God looked at the world, broken and unfair, terrible and dark, and said, “Yep—now’s the time to go.”
It seems to be a habit of God to show up in the most unexpected times in the most unexpected ways. Isaiah’s prophecy about the new king, the Wonderful Counselor, the Prince of Peace, was given on the cusp of the Syro-Ephraimite War, when the kingdom of Judah was about to be attacked by its neighbors. In that time, Isaiah proclaimed, “God is with you—do not be afraid.”
That message carried through again and again. God was certainly present in the high times of the Israelites. But even and especially in their lowest, in their darkest, even when it was their own fault, God said, “I am still here. I am the light that banishes the dark.”
And when God finally fulfilled the promise of Immanuel, of “God with us”, God took on human flesh, and in another time of darkness and despair, came like a little, tiny light, a tiny baby, to no fanfare or parades. No Instagram or Facebook posts, no Twitter announcement, no pictures shared instantly across the world. God was born in the midst of stressful, worry-filled quiet, in the middle of nowhere, where no one besides a few dirty men cared. A tiny, bright point of light in the dark, which grew into a great and mighty light, a life-giving light.
This Christmas season, we have plenty of reasons to be depressed, to despair, and to worry. Some of us won’t get to be with our families. Some have little reason to celebrate this year. And that is okay. It is in these moments, on this night most of all, that we remember that God is with us. That God doesn’t abandon any of us. That hard times are not signs of God’s disfavor or displeasure—rather, they are the perfect times for God to be present more than ever.
The child in the manger, which we celebrate tonight, grows up. Lives through oppression. Is subjected to a broken justice system, torture, and execution. And in doing so, he breaks the hold of darkness through the resurrection. Christmas inevitably leads to the cross, and to the empty tomb. It is a dark night, but a night from which springs hope.
Tonight, we will light candles, tiny lights in the darkness, as symbols of that eternal Christian hope. In the quiet, silent night, we affirm our faith in God, who does not abandon, who does not lose, us. Tonight is the night before Christ’s birth.