Birth stories… love ‘em, hate ‘em, doesn’t matter, we certainly tell them, don’t we? Retelling and recounting the tiniest details of how babies came into the world. Parents know them and memorize them, treasure them, retell them to their children and grandchildren with great detail, again and again. We regale one another with numbers: pounds and ounces and inches, and even centimeters of dilation and hours spent laboring.
My sons have listened to their birth stories again and again, especially the younger one. Unexpected complications with his breathing landed Mark in the NICU for an agonizing week, and all of those first pictures of him have tubes and bruises and scabs on his tiny little face. He was a tiny scrawny baby, not at all smooth and round and rosy perfect like his brother. He had jaundice, so his coloring was off, and he had an unusual blue birthmark on his bottom that made him look especially… special. I wanted to explain his birth to him without scaring him, and truthfully without reliving those moments when I as a mom was terrified for my child, so I embellished. The purplish, yellowish, reddish coloring and tubes coming out of him were because he was an alien and it took him a little longer to get adjusted to our atmosphere. My son didn’t just like this story, he loved it—and by the time he was 3 years old, he had not only memorized it, he was adding to it, and had named the planet from which he’d come and “recovered memories” of flying down to earth on white wings.
As much as we treasure this story in our family, I am reminded when I think of all the children I know and love in this congregation and in my own life, that not every child knows his or her birth story. Knowing all the children I do, some still young and some now all grown up, I know that not every child has a joyful birth story, not all children are wanted, not all children come into the world surrounded by security and love. I read an essay by a mom whose son was adopted and she shared that all the details she knows of her son’s arrival come from a police report, yet they are sacred and cherished just the same.
More than either of my sons, in fact, the birth story of Christ is along those same lines of danger, surprise, and vulnerability. A couple who should be settling into their first months of marriage and learning how to make a life together as husband and wife is instead uprooted from the support of family and friends and thrown into the political turmoil of the Empire of Rome’s need to count heads. A census sends Mary and Joseph away from the familiarity of their home, to Bethlehem where Joseph’s family is from. Remember, too, it’s not just a narrative technique to give excitement to the story, Christ’s birth during the reign of Caesar Augustus is also resistance and rebellion: Caesar Augustus himself was called “good news for the world” and savior to bring peace. But our sacred story says no to Rome and no to Caesar, our story defies that peace through conquest with a peace that comes from putting God in the center of one’s life.
In the details of this unusual birth story, Mary and Joseph’s world is merged with the political one of Rome and Caesar. Apart from the support of family and friends, alone with only one another to get through a terrifying experience, their lives are in turmoil because of this census decree. Yet even in that turmoil there is resistance: this baby born defies Rome just by throwing off the count! And in our scripture tonight the world of Rome and Caesar and the world of Mary and Joseph merge with another world, that of the humble shepherds. Kings, priests, and prophets are not the first to know of this baby, but instead the poor ones, those without home or privilege or position. Those itinerant, smelly shepherds who reside in the hills around Bethlehem, lowliest of social class, come to see what has happened and the good news is revealed to them.
The world all around Jesus said that Caesar Augustus was the Good News. But our Holy Word, our Sacred Story says otherwise. Our Good News says Nope. It’s not Caesar, he is not the good news. It’s not someone of power and privilege, it’s not someone who brings peace through conquest and violence. It’s a baby, born in a stable. And his birth attendants are angels and dirty shepherds, and his mother and father are young and afraid and alone and inexperienced. He has no political position or power. He holds no office or seat from which to rule. But he will change the lives of everyone he meets—from the time he enters the world as a tiny vulnerable baby.
Everything about this birth story is unusual, the details are not expected… they turn the birth stories of kings and gods on their heads, this story defies what it means to be mighty and powerful, it redefines virtue and meekness and sacrifice. This story—no, not just the story, but this BABY, this tiny baby turns the ordinary into the sacred.
This baby says that God loves us so much, God chose to be born among us. God loves us so much, God was born in Christ to understand and know and live with these fragile crazy humans God had created. God longed for closeness so much, God sought out relation with us, God desired reconciliation and atonement and unity with humanity so much, so very very much, that God became flesh, born in the person of Jesus Christ. This story tells us the Good News that God wants to be part of our lives. And there’s nothing much more to say about it than that. The story itself is that powerful.
The message is that simple. God loves us. US! God wants to be a part of our lives. Fragile and sinful and broken as we are—God said, YES! Those are my children! Let me get down there and live among them and grow up with them and teach them and hold them and yes, even die for them! Wow! That’s a love we can only begin to understand. On my Facebook feed this morning, pretty much like every morning, I saw unbelievable silliness, frustration, righteous anger, unspeakable joy, longing, yearning, loneliness, fear, contentedness, over-stated and under-practiced piety, stupidity abounding, consumerism, real efforts at self-improvement, sincerity, celebration, reconnection… and many other thoughts and emotions.
I saw men and women of all ages, young and old, wounded and striving to be whole, happy and sad, wise and impetuous, haves and have-nots, liberals and conservatives, black and white and brown and every color in between, gay and straight, married, single, widowed, partnered, divorced. Some have children, some do not, some want children, some do not. Some wish their children were older, some wish their children were young again. Some wish they were young again. Hundreds of thoughts and comments, some the same, some different, yet all of them unique in some way. And all of it, the good, the bad and the horribly misspelled, all of it, is human. And humanity wouldn’t be humanity if one or another of those things were left out.
And it overwhelms me with grace to know that God said YES to all that. God says YES to all that—to all of us, God says, those are mine, the ones messing up down there, the ones learning to walk, the ones stumbling, the ones who are lost, the ones who are dancing, fighting, dreaming, hoping, trying to be better and love one another—it overwhelms me to know that we, that I, that all of us, belong to God. God claims us as God’s own, born among us as Christ Jesus. One of the hymns we sing this time of year says that Love came down at Christmas. Love incarnate, love divine—love became human and love lives in us.
Let the Good News of this incredible defiant love fill your heart and your life this season, share it with friends and strangers and enemies, build relationships and make peace and practice forgiveness and forge the way for justice with this love! The love that embraces you just as you are and will not let you go, the love that will change you, the love that will change the world! Amen!