In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
This is the Word of God. Thanks be to God.
What would you need to see today in your life, in your family, in our community to know that God is here?
I wouldn’t mind a whole host of angels showing up to make it obvious, to be honest. I’ve always been a little jealous of the shepherds in that way. They get such a bold and clear announcement that GOD IS HERE! When I’m walking alongside dear ones in my life who get the worst diagnosis, or lose a job, or find out that they have miscarried yet again, or can’t crawl out of their depression no matter how hard they try, I would like God to make Her presence a little more clear. When Supreme Court rulings go after my bodily autonomy and the most basic rights of my queer siblings and my doubts about the future are as thick as morning fog, I would appreciate a big banner moment telling me God is on the way. When I want to scream at the forces of oppression that keep beloveds in prison cages and bar dear ones from finding stable housing and harden the hearts of those who have the power to make change but just won’t, it would be nice for a choir of angels to let me know that God hasn’t forgotten about us.
But as I linger over this passage we read on this night every year, I can’t help but get stuck on one particular line: This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. Sorry, but was the singing choir of angels not the sign the shepherds should be looking for? I guess not! Apparently, the sign that the shepherds have found God will be a tiny baby lying in an animal feeding trough.
This story has become so familiar to many of us, and so it is easy to not feel the scandal of that. But let’s think about this. If a baby is lying in the feeding bin of a cow, something must have gone wrong. Because in what world would that be Plan A?
Here are some ways we could paraphrase this message from the angels: This will be a sign to you – you will find a shivering baby, wrapped in the only cloth his parents could find.
This will be a sign to you – you will find a being who is utterly dependent on others and who we cannot be sure will be able to survive the cold night ahead.
This will be a sign to you – you will find a situation that no one would have planned and that everyone is sure could not get any worse. When you find these things, the angels announce to the shepherds, that will be the sign that you have found God.
I wonder if that is why we come back to this wild story year after year after year – because it reminds us that God’s presence is not first and foremost in the fanfare or the angel choir or the big miraculous sign, which are not experiences many of us recognize as our own. God’s presence is in the plans that fell apart. God’s presence is in the moments when we realize we truly do not have control. God’s presence is in the failures we don’t want anyone else to see. God’s presence is in the very stuff that, if we are honest, makes up so much of our messy lives.
But how is that possible? Even if we look in those devastating cracks in our lives for the God of the universe, how can we be sure we are finding this God? Let’s look at that line one more time: This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. Those bands of cloth didn’t appear by accident. We can imagine Mary grabbing Joseph’s arm and saying, “Is there an edge of your robe you can spare? Tear it off so we can wrap Jesus up in something that’s warm.” And that manger didn’t become a baby cradle on its own. We can picture Joseph dragging it across the stable floor and sorting out the muddy pieces of straw from the clean ones so that his adopted son would have the best cushion for his head available in that unplanned place. There’s Mary, completely exhausted from hours of labor, offering up her scrappy creativity to make the stable Jesus’ first bedroom. And there’s Joseph, hands covered in dirt and mud from following Mary’s directions, using every ounce of his strength to make his wife and son as comfortable as possible when everything else has fallen apart. The sign telling the shepherds, telling us, that we have found God is always in the messiest of places, and we can trust we are encountering the Divine there because that’s where we’ll find the gritty love of a community using whatever they have on hand to make new life possible.
The angels tell the shepherds “Do not be afraid!” and just after this, they tell them to SEE, to BEHOLD, to NOTICE, as Minister Candace Simpson puts it. (Minister Candace Simpson, “Liturgy that Matters: December 25, 2022.”) And it is that community-showing-up-alongside-each-other-to-birth-something-new that I believe the angels are telling the shepherds – telling us – to slow down long enough to see, to behold, to notice. Because that intentional noticing will somehow be the pathway through our fear. SEE this strange little cobbled together family who trusted each other enough to turn a shelter for livestock into God’s own birth place. BEHOLD the meals that showed up on your doorstep after your loved one passed away. NOTICE the everyday church folx who gave half their church property so that doors might literally open for our unhoused neighbors. SEE the faithful ones rising up all over the country to pool their financial and relational and advocacy resources in mutual aid to help every single person who needs to exercise their right to reproductive choice. BEHOLD the friend who texts you once a week just to say, “I know you are hurting. I’m here if you need to talk.” SEE the dear one who walks quietly into the room as you grieve and shows you their love not with their words, but with their silent and abiding presence.
This time of year, we use an ancient Jewish name to speak about the God who comes to save us – Emmanuel. That name translated to English is NOT God has fixed everything. It is NOT God has erased our fear. It is NOT God has caused all the suffering to go away. No. The name Emmanuel means God is with us. Nothing is fixed yet, and still – Emmanuel, God is with us. Our fear makes it hard to breathe sometimes, and still – Emmanuel, God is with us. The suffering that has unfolded all around us is here yet again, and still – Emmanuel, God is with us. Let this be a sign for you, dear ones – God is alive and well among us in the community that crosses boundaries to hold onto each other this night. May we slow down long enough to see, to behold, to notice this God being born. Amen.