The Better Story (Christmas 2021)
(Luke 2.8-14) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vVp5AGte_4Q
The gospel we just heard reminds me of a time that I was doing some laundry, and I walked past the TV with the laundry basket full of clothes in my hands. There on the TV was A Charlie Brown Christmas, and it was just at the part that we just saw, where Charlie Brown throws back his head and cries out, “isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” And Linus says, “Sure Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about,” and he walks out onto the stage and recites the story from the Gospel of Luke that we just heard. And even though I’d heard the story a thousand times, and even though I was in a hurry to get on with all the things I had to do, I stopped. I stood still and listened to the story, the basket of wet laundry still heavy in my hands.
Why do we want to listen to this story?
Maybe it’s because there’s something about it that’s different from many of the stories we hear. Think about this past year, think about 2021. What were the stories that we heard most often, the stories that were in the news, the stories that had the biggest impact on us as individuals and as a society?
Well we don’t have to think back very far do we. There is the story of the pandemic, with its latest chapter, omicron, unfolding as we speak.
There is the story of climate change, of the latest predictions, the conflicted conference in Glasgow, the wildfires, floods and landslides in BC.
There was the collapse of Afghanistan, the fear of the Taliban and the mad scramble to get out of the country. All of this adding to the on-going refugee crisis, made worse by the travel restrictions of the pandemic
There was the discovery of the unmarked graves of thousands of children on the sites of former residential schools, yet another gruesome reminder of our government and our church’s complicity in the cultural genocide of Indigenous people in this country.
These are just some of the stories that we told ourselves over the past year. Stories of insecurity. Stories of conflict and division. Stories of winners and losers. Stories of power and oppression. Stories of anxiety and fear.
And there’s a problem here. It’s not that these stories shouldn’t be told. No, we need to know these stories. But the problem is that when we’re immersed in stories like these, when they become the air that we breathe, these stories of conflict and insecurity, when we see ourselves as actors, or perhaps as helpless bystanders in these stories, what happens? What does it do to us?
These stories can diminish us. They bring us down. They make us less than what we could be. They alienate us from each other. They make us afraid.
But we have a better story. A story of hope. A story of new life. A story of promise. A story that says, “Do not be afraid.”
We heard that story again this evening.
Now, the way Luke tells it, at first you might think that this story is no different from the others. It seems to begin in the same old way:
“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.”
Here we go again. Another story about how the powerful dictate our lives. Caesar Augustus, maybe the most powerful man in all of history, issuing a decree. We know how Rome operates. Military power. Decrees. Migrants forced to travel.
But then, as quickly as he appeared, the Emperor Augustus disappears, drops out of the story. And the focus shifts instead to an unlikely couple in an awkward situation.
“And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem. . . . He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.”
It is an awkward situation, Joseph with his pregnant fiancée, forced to travel at the worst possible time. But we’re given just the hint of promise. There’s an air of expectancy as they arrive in Bethlehem, the city of David.
“And so it was, that while they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
The birth of a child. Completely ordinary, yet always extraordinary. If you’ve been there, you know the feeling. But why this child, why has this child suddenly become the focus of our story? What does this birth mean?
Or as Charlie Brown would say, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”
And here the story twists again in an unexpected direction, as the people who are about to discover the meaning of the baby’s birth are probably the most unlikely candidates you could imagine. Poor, uneducated, homeless, shunned from polite society, there were in that same country “shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.”
“And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were terrified.”
“But the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour who is Christ the Lord.’”
A Saviour? Do we need to be saved? It’s a word that’s often misunderstood. Sometimes we are told that being saved is about going to heaven after we die, and maybe that’s part of it. But it’s also about being delivered from the things in this life that bring us down. The word that Luke uses for salvation can also be translated as to be healed or to be made whole. The salvation that the angels proclaim is about being restored to wholeness. It’s about being rescued from alienation in our relationships with each other and with God. And it’s about knowing that God is with us and that we no longer have to be afraid. This is good news of great joy and it’s for all people. Even for shepherds. Even for unwed teenage mothers. Even for you and for me. No wonder that “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.”
This is the story that we tell this evening.
What happens when we immerse ourselves in this story, rather than all the other stories that surround us? What would that do to us?
This is a story that has the power to lift us up. A story that encourages us to live fully, to live into the fullness of who we were created to be. A story that can lift the weight of fear and anxiety from our shoulders, and give us the courage to reach out across divisions even in the midst of conflict. This is a story that can inspire us to be peacemakers, to be agents of reconciliation, to be instruments of compassion, and to love others, because this is the story of a God who loved us so much that he sent his son to be born as one of us, not in the comfort of an emperor’s palace but rather in a manger, in a little village, surrounded by shepherds, because there was no room at the inn.
So tonight, we immerse ourselves in this story. Marvel at the glow of the light that shines in the darkness. Sing the carols, sing those songs that proclaim the story over and over again. Share the peace, come to the table, warm to the company of those around you, in person and online. Open yourselves to awe and wonder, if only for this night. For we have been given the better story: that even in the midst of darkness there is a light that shines in our world; that even in the midst of fear there is a love that will prevail. The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light; for unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given and he shall be called Immanuel, God with us, the Prince of Peace.
Homily: Christmas Eve, 4.30pm, Trinity
Readings: Is 52.7-10; Luke 2.8-14