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Christmas, December 25, 2014

When I went to seminary, I had to leave everything behind for a whole new way of life. I had to give up my job and my familiar identity as an editor to become a student. I had to give up the normal route of going through the selection process for the priesthood before going to seminary and risk not getting through the process when I finished. I risked all these things because the Holy Spirit told me that now was the time to go, so I went. I re-learned the world of the student. I went to class. I stayed up late writing papers. I talked about theology with others, which I had always wanted to do. My life was turned upside-down.

When I left seminary, I looked for a job in church work, and I was surprised again. In less than two months, I was offered my old job. The company had been bought out while I was in school and so I made more money working part-time. This blessing allowed me to take part fully in the selection process when I did begin. Another reversal of my life, another bit of good news for someone who had been living on savings and a little freelance work for three years. What I learned is that God is in the business of reversals and that those reversals can bring very good news.

On an ordinary night in the city of Bethlehem an ordinary woman gave birth to an ordinary child and laid him in a manger. It was a small incident in a seething city, filled with people who had come to be counted. But God knew it was not just an ordinary birth. God was fully present as God is at all births, but that night God was in the business of reversals, of taking something old and making something new.

The new birth was set in the power of the Roman Empire. The empire had absolute power as it always did, but there was great hope for peace in Augustus Caesar. He had inaugurated what was called the Pax Romana, a situation in which the empire was at peace. There was no current violence or rebellion. The calm of the empire, achieved through power and control, would crumble under Augustus’ successors, but for now, it held.

With the birth of Jesus, God said no to peace through violence. That was no peace at all. It was not shalom, the Jewish word for the wholeness and balance of true peace. This vulnerable, needy child would not ever try to produce peace through violence, but would offer it through healing and love for everyone.  This child would be a gift that would bring a feeling of individual and community shalom.

With the birth of Jesus, God said no to the rich and self-satisfied lording their power over the poor and marginalized. God said yes instead to the lowly. Jesus was not born in busy Jerusalem, the center of Judaism, but in the small sleepy town of Bethlehem to two homeless people without family or friends around. They were in a stable, and Jesus was put in a feeding trough. And the angels appeared not in the middle of the action, but to shepherds in the field. Shepherds were dirty people, thought of as thieves. They were not permitted to give evidence in court, and they were ritually unclean because their work kept them from observing the Sabbath. They had certainly given up on their religion and perhaps on God as well (Craig A. Satterlee). Yet the angel came to them to tell the good news because it was for all people, not just the few who were rich and powerful.

With the good news, God said yes to God’s love for the earth – in all its violence, its oppression, its brokenness. God sent Jesus as a light to the nations, as the incarnation of God’s love, to spread that love and tell everyone about a better way to live. God wanted peace for those God favored and that was all people, not because they were good or bad, but because they were God’s creation.

Reversals are surprising things, and they draw reactions. My reaction to what happened to me was a good one. I had been given a chance to change my life and become more the person God wanted me to be. There are several reactions to God’s reversals on this night. From Rome there is nothing – no reaction. They don’t even know about the birth, about the new plan for peace that would challenge their power in unforeseen ways.

The shepherds are terrified by the appearance of the angel to explain God’s new plan for the world. Why should an angel appear to them, when they know themselves to be the lowest of the low? They hear God’s message about a new Savior, the Messiah and Lord, brought by the angels. In their world, the news is barely believable. Yet a chorus of angels appears to reinforce the message and to sing praises to God, who will bring this new way of peace to all people who will accept it. The angel offers them a sign, not a heavenly one, but an earthly one, and points the way to the manger. At this point the shepherds are curious and beginning to become hopeful. They leave their sheep, and go with haste to see if they can find what the angel foretold. They do, and they are filled with joy, so they go and tell everyone they see about this wonderful thing that has happened.

Mary’s reaction to God’s reversals of the norms of human life is one of thoughtfulness. Maybe in the midst of that messy birth and the fatigue that followed it, she is in need of a reminder from the shepherds of who this child was. She gathers the news hungrily and keeps it inside her, pondering the future her son – the Lord, the Savior, the Messiah – would have and how he would save his people Israel and the whole world.

The crowd reacted with amazement at the news, but we hear of no further action that they take. Maybe some take it seriously and others do not. Whatever the attitude, no one is said to become a disciple. But the shepherds have become disciples. They have heard the message of the angel, they have seen the sign of the baby in the manger and they have told the story to the people. Their last reaction is to accept this good news that they have been told and go home rejoicing, back to their regular lives, but knowing the world would never be the same again.

God’s great plan of peace for the world is what we think about when we celebrate Christmas. A peace without violence, a peace that includes the poor and marginalized, a peace that is for all the people, a peace that God Godself will initiate in this vulnerable, very human baby named Jesus. Some of us are here tonight in the midst of family and friends. Some of us are saddened by a loss that has occurred either currently or in the past, some of us are lonely and our sharing in this worship service will be the only company at Christmas we will have. But for all of us, God’s reversal of the way things were has led us here to praise and worship as the shepherds did. We are amazed at the Incarnation, the coming of Immanuel, God with us. We are filled with awe that God’s message so long ago is not just for that world, but for this world too. Despite the awfulness of world news and the brokenness in our own hearts, we hear in ringing tones that we are God’s beloved and favored ones. Despite how we think about ourselves, God regards us with tenderness and love.

When this Christmas is over, when things go back to normal, we are left with one thing. God has reversed the path of Creation in Jesus and will continue to do so until there is peace for everyone. Like the shepherds, who were in the midst of their ordinary lives, we can no longer be the same. We must tell the story to those we meet and center our lives in praise and thanks to God. God has come to us at Christmas. And our response to God’s love is to come to God.


     - Rev. Ann Barker


Works cited:
Craig A. Satterlee, Commentary on Luke 2:1-14 (15-20), Blog Post, “Working Preacher”