We got going later than we expected. Car trouble. Need I say more? When we finally got going, rush hour traffic heading north had long since ended and I was excited and a little nervous about my first trip to the boundary waters. It was pitch dark by the time we got to the road hugging the north shore. But suddenly, brilliant colors danced across the sky – yellows and greens, reds and blues. Northern lights. I had never seen them before. The sight was so brilliant - jaw dropping – amazing. We pulled off the road to a gas station so we could get out of the car. Overcome with excitement, I told some people, other travelers, who were there about the lights. They looked up – but saw nothing- the stations lights were too bright. They were from the south and looked at us as if we were maybe a bit crazy. Undeterred, we took off down the road again, pulled off in a wide spot on the shoulder and marveled at the lights dancing across the sky. It was a Holy moment.
For those of you who have had the good fortune to see Northern Lights, you know the awe-inspiring delight they can bring. But as beautiful as they are, I imagine that they are nothing compared to what the shepherds saw on the hills outside of Bethlehem. They not only saw bright lights, they saw angels.
They were terrified.
Even though Renaissance painters portray them reclining on pastures playing a lute, in real life, shepherds were known to be a bit rougher – more like the bandits that they protected their sheep from than a whimsical Renaissance man. They were the outsiders – they slept outside, they smelled like the sheep they tended and they did not go to temple.
Seeing an angel – a messenger of God – shining more brightly than anything that they had ever seen before – naturally made them think they were in trouble. Big trouble.
But the angel surprises them saying, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord." And then…another surprise – the angel invites them to the manger.
While all of this awe-inspiring glory was happening on the hillside… the savior was being born in a very un-awe-inspiring stable. Mary and Joseph had traveled a long way – between 70 to 90 miles, depending on the route. Tradition has it that Mary rode on a donkey – the Bible doesn’t say. But whether she rode a donkey or they walked, I imagine that it was a long and exhausting trip. It probably took a couple of weeks – she was 9 months pregnant after all – and that would explain why, when they arrived in Bethlehem, the rooms were all taken. Without a cell phone – or really any phone, fax or mail, Joseph couldn’t exactly call ahead to make a reservation. It must have been disheartening. But then… a space was found – a very humble space… but Mary probably didn’t much care at that point. Childbirth has a way of focusing one’s attention to the task at hand.
Mary and Joseph were practical people – they were peasants after all – and not too proud. And so… when Jesus was born in the stable, the nearby manger probably looked sturdy enough to be a handy substitute for a crib. And so Mary laid the little vulnerable baby in the manger just as the angels declared --even though that baby was born to be the Savior of the world.
The shepherds came – and, like the shepherds, you are invited too. Come to the manger. Come to see Jesus.
For Jesus, God’s Son, was born as a vulnerable little baby just like you and like me so that he could embody God’s great love.… for you… and for you…. And for you…. And for me…
And for John.
I recently met John – and before we could sit down his story tumbled out of his lips. John has had a tough rough life. His dad was in organized crime. But when he asked John to be part of it, he ran away – at age 11. He joined the army, fought in wars, took on shrapnel and watched his friends die. He came home to discover his daughter was being abused. He shot the man and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. 30 years is a long time – and in that time he became even tougher – watching his back all the time. He was a tough guy. As he told me the story… I was thinking… I wouldn’t mess with him. And yet…God did. For while John was busy being tough and showing everyone else just how tough he was, God sent some messengers to him…most people would call them Christians or church people, not angels… but the message was the same. They brought Good News of great joy that Jesus Christ came for him, to be his Savior. He didn’t have to fight and be the tough guy any more – and he wasn’t alone anymore either. He now belonged to the community of Christ.
John found help and community in the church when he was behind bars. But when John got out of prison, he wondered… would the church still welcome him, still help him? And so, when he saw the church doors, he came on in – and he was welcomed.
Tonight, whether you, like John, are seeking help and community, or, like the shepherds, are full of joy and amazement or, like Joseph and Mary, are exhausted from the journey, or some mixture of these things or even if you feel something else all-together… one thing is true: God’s love is for you. As the angel declared to the shepherds, this is “good news of great joy for all the people.” All the people – not just the shepherds and not just the people of the day – this good news is for all people – then and now. And this is why tonight we come to the manger to celebrate God’s gift of love, Jesus. Because Jesus, God’s gift of love, Jesus, the Savior, was sent for all people, including outsider shepherds, peasants like Mary and Joseph, converted Christians like John, lifelong Christians like me and for you –whatever your path has been.
A favorite writer of mine, Madeleine L'Engle, said it well in her poem, “First Coming”
God did not wait till the world was ready,
Till ...nations were at peace.
God came when the heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.
God did not wait for the perfect time.
God came when the need was deep and great.
God dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine.
God did not wait till hearts were pure.
In joy God came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
God came, the Light that would not go out.
God came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
God came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!
So come. Come to the manger. And as you come – sing songs of joy - for this is “good news of great joy for all the people.”
In Jesus name. Amen.
Pastor Pamela Stalheim Lane
December 24, 2016