“The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”
If Jesus were born in 2021, it’s quite likely that we would not see what happened in Bethlehem in quite the same way.
Just imagine if CNN or Fox were on the scene… Either might have reported the story like this:
“We have BREAKING NEWS. It is a terrible time for the people of Nazareth. Not only are they enduring the abject cruelty of Roman rule, ruthless Emperor Augustus has demanded that his subjects – no matter what their health – travel to their hometowns to be registered. Augustus claims he needs to raise revenue for his empire. Collecting taxes from the poor is one way he plans to do this.
This is the story of one couple, Mary and Joseph, who made the trip to Joseph’s hometown, Bethlehem. Unnamed sources tell us that the unfortunate pregnant girl, Mary, is engaged to Joseph. We have learned that when Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant, he was not going to go through with the wedding, but something seems to have changed his mind at the last minute. Neighbors wonder if it is because he is so old. What other options for marriage did he have? They think it was probably better for Joseph to wed Mary than to be alone, especially since he is only a carpenter, not much of a catch.
Our cameras caught incredible footage of the harrowing 90 mile trip, a trip that took several punishing days. Joseph walked the whole way alongside the donkey he provided for Mary, who looked incredibly uncomfortable throughout the journey. She needed to make frequent stops, as most women in the late stages of pregnancy do, which only lengthened their difficult trip.
Sources tell us Joseph expected that when they arrived in Bethlehem, they would be able to stay in the guest quarters of a relative’s home. What he didn’t count on was that because their trip had taken so long – because of the extra stops – many others had arrived ahead of them, so there were no rooms left.
Exhausted by the trip, Mary and Joseph had to settle for taking their rest in a stable – a dirty, odiferous stable. Perhaps it was because of all that they had been through on their trip that Mary delivered early – without the benefit of a single family member to help her.
Such is the tragic story of the birth of Jesus.”
Fortunately, for us, neither Fox nor CNN were there. What we have instead, is “Good news of great joy for all the people.”
And couldn’t we use some good news?
When I sat down to write the first draft of this sermon on Wednesday, these were the headlines of the Gloucester Daily Times: “Cases Double in City,” “Hospitals see sharp increase in COVID admissions,” “Baker calls up National Guard to support hospitals,” and “New Year’s Eve event canceled in Rockport.”
We need some good news. We really, really, REALLY need some good news.
Yes, it is true that Jesus was born in harrowing circumstances; his parents were poor and oppressed; there was no family present to support them; Jesus was born in a simple barn. There was none of the comforts or support that we have come to expect at the birth of a baby. No list of must-have baby items or any baby shower. No prenatal classes or newborn photo shoots.
Had Jesus been born in similar circumstances today, someone might have called Child Protective Services – a very young, unmarried mother! A father who could not even provide a proper place for the delivery. A child born outside! Pretty much everything we think is supposed to happen when a newborn comes into the world did NOT happen for Jesus.
Looking around our world right now, little to nothing feels as it should be. Raise your hand if your plans to be with family for Christmas have been disrupted because of Omicron? And then there are the persistent challenges we face as a nation and as a world: Disunity and threats to democracy. Gun violence, even in our schools, is epidemic. Our climate crisis imperils all life on the planet. Refugees struggle at our border and are around the world. There are people today who could very much relate to the difficulties that Joseph and Mary faced at the birth of Jesus.
We need some good news. We really, really, REALLY need some good news.
We need the birth of Jesus. We need to remember that the gift of his birth all those years ago continues to be a gift for us today. And we need to find a way to receive the blessing, to hear the news, of Christ’s presence in our lives like the angels and shepherds and Joseph and Mary did.
I wonder if the shepherds, out at night under a starry moonlit sky, were able to be quiet enough, to be still enough, that they could be open to a Divine message, to the message of the angels, to the good news of Christ’s birth?
Notice that the Good News of Great Joy came to people who were outside in the midst of the natural world, a place that welcomes solitude and silence. What might we hear if we stepped away from our screens , if we turned aside from our online news feeds, if we left our homes and churches and other indoor gathering spaces and simply went outside under the night sky to watch and listen? What might happen if we slowed down enough to open our hearts to the beauty and wonder of creation. What might we hear? What might we see? God is still speaking. Are we listening? How can we make room in our lives to hear the good news of Christ’s presence in our lives?
If CNN or Fox had been on the scene of the birth of Jesus, we might never have recognized the deeper story. We might have gotten so caught up in the outer appearances that we missed the subtle, sacred truth – perceptible to those who know solitude and silence.
The angels and shepherds, Mary and Joseph, remind us that the good news – the great news – of God’s love for us is not separate from the trials and tribulations of this life.
Seeing with the heart, they can recognize the presence, power, and gift of Divine Love that is available for all people no matter their circumstances.
We can not know what Mary was thinking when she delivered her son in a manger. If she was like me and most mothers I know, the hours and days after such a tremendous event stirred up so much inside – often including a feeling of vulnerability. Mary and Joseph may have needed those shepherds to share the Good News of Great Joy – to remind them that despite outward appearances , God is at work. They may have been so exhausted, even depleted, that they needed others to help them see the bigger picture, to help them recognize and embrace the Divine presence in this infant and situation.
And just like us, surrounded by a world where all is not right, and likely will never be, probably feeling vulnerable and even afraid, we are told that Mary sees beyond and beneath the surface of things and does not let the moment slip away. She sees and appreciates the love of God in the midst of the madness. Somehow she understands that if she is going to do what God calls her to do, with all of the bad news that is in her world, she needs to take to heart this message, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace!”
In all likelihood we are not going to be able to escape today’s bad news. But, we don’t need to let it be our only story or our primary story. We don’t need to let it take up every room in the inn of our consciousness.
We can choose to interpret the stories of our lives, less like CNN or Fox – with critical eyes – and more like angels who invite us to discern the signs of hope in our midst.
We can choose, like the shepherds, to find those times and places of stillness and solitude to listen for the voice of God.
We can choose to be like Joseph, believing the best about others and staying by their side.
We can choose, like Mary, to pause and treasure the good news of God’s presence in our lives. (Let us take a moment to ponder the good news we have received this last year.)
My friends, the bad news that Joseph and Mary faced of a ruthless Roman emperor faded long ago. Caesar is yesterday’s news. But, the infant born in a manger all those years ago continues to be good news for you and me and for all people who are open to his message.
For this we can truly rejoice and be glad. Amen.