Christmas is about family. We all know that. Each year, at the worst time of the year weather-wise, we either make the journey to see family or family members come to see us. We all have stories about Christmases that don’t go as planned, Christmases where one family member did something funny or unusual, meaningful Christmases with our loved ones, and remembrances of Christmases with family members who are no longer with us and whom we miss dreadfully. We tell stories of Christmases when those family members were still alive, and we tell stories of Christmases when children were just born or very young. Christmas is about family.
For the last four weeks during our Advent season, we have been listening to stories about certain women in Jesus’ genealogy, and how they may have influenced his character and his ministry. The four women that are listed are very unusual women; some were outsiders, some were denied justice and used questionable means to get justice. All of them have strange and disturbing stories. But, there is a fifth woman in that genealogy that we haven’t yet talked about, and that’s Mary: Jesus’ mother. Tonight, we focus on her story, and the story of how her son, Jesus, was born.
We are all familiar with the story. Mary, the young woman, engaged to marry Joseph but not married yet. She’s minding her own business when suddenly, an angel appears out of nowhere and tells her she’s going to have a baby. I vividly remember one of my professors in seminary preaching a sermon about Mary and saying, “Of all the silly things the church has ever said, the statement that Mary was meek and mild has got to be the silliest.” Angels in the Bible are not mystical, soft, beautiful creatures. Angels are scary, because the first thing they always tell us humans is not to be afraid. But Mary is different, and when the angel tells her she’s going to have a son, she is not afraid to say, as we modern people might say it, “Hold on. Time out. How, exactly, is this going to work?” And after the angel tells her, she does not meekly bow her head and submit. She faces the angel and says, “OK. Here I am. Let’s do this.” She boldly says yes to being the mother of the Savior of the world, even though that will mean being an unwed, teenaged mother whose baby is not fathered by the person to whom she is engaged. Mary’s “yes” to God means that she will risk her life—because the penalty for adultery was death by stoning—and she is going to trust that God will follow through on his promise to her.
And Luke tells us several times through her story that Mary ponders things. She thinks about the events that are happening to her, she wonders, and she meditates. After she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, her meditations burst forth into song. And Mary speaks about how God raises up the lowly and brings down the powerful. That means her—an unwed, teenaged, Jewish mother who lived in what powerful Rome thought was the worst backwater province they’d ever decided to conquer. This is the family to whom Jesus came: not the family who had it all together, not the rich and powerful in the halls of New York and Washington, D.C., and not even to us middle-class folks of suburbia. Jesus chose to come to the poorest of the poor, to be a member of a family who was part of a group of people who were being oppressed by the powerful empire, Rome. Jesus chose to come to a family whose ancestors were the who’s who of murderers, thieves, and adulterers. And Jesus chose to love them. These are the kinds of things, I think, that Mary pondered when Jesus was born.
And when Jesus was born, he was not born in a lonely stable all by himself. That image comes to us from a 2nd century text, not the gospel of Luke. The word that gets translated as “inn” in the Gospel of Luke has a better meaning of “guest room”. When Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, they went to Joseph’s family home, and found that it was the “guest room” that was full—already full of family members who had arrived in Bethlehem before them. But Joseph’s family lived in a home that was also home to their animals—think of traditional homes in Europe where the basement houses the animals in the cold winters, and that opens up directly into the fields. Since the guest room was full, Joseph’s family found space for them with the animals. It’s like when we go to visit family today, and we’re all crowded under one roof, so the kids get the adventure of sleeping on the floor either in sleeping bags or on air mattresses. When Mary gave birth to Jesus, she was surrounded by family, family who welcomed Jesus into the world, who loved him, and who wondered what this child, this Savior, would be when he grew up.
Christmas is for family. And Luke talks about Jesus being born into a human family. When a baby is born, those first several hours after the birth, when it is known that the mother and the baby have come through the ordeal safely, then the extended family comes in and coos over the baby, and showers the baby and the mother with love and affection. But Luke surprises us again. Not only is the Savior of the world born into a poor family in a backwater province, Jesus’ family doesn’t get him all to themselves. In come traipsing some shepherds who had been out in the field and, who said, that angels had told them about this baby that has been born, who would be the Savior and the Messiah. And Jesus’ family does not shoo the shepherds out of their home, but welcomes them inside to see Jesus and to tell their story. And the story that the shepherds tell becomes part of this family’s story as well. In essence, the shepherds have now become part of Jesus’ family.
And that’s where we who follow Jesus come in. We are invited in to Jesus’ home with the shepherds. We, too, have heard the army of angels singing, “Peace on earth among those whom he favors!” When the world around us seems dark, God invites us in to see the light. When the world around us worships power, wealth, and fame, God calls us to the insignificant backwater province of an all-powerful Empire, to a people whom the Empire is oppressing, to an unwed teenaged woman in a crowded home who just happens to be giving birth to the Son of God. When we want to change the world with power and might, God says no, I am going to change the world with humility and weakness. And after we see this birth of God’s love among the poor and the humble, we are forever changed.
We are forever changed because we understand that we have become part of Jesus’ family. We are changed because we have seen God come to us, not in the form of an avenging angel to punish the wicked and lift up the good, but instead as a small, vulnerable baby who asks us to love him and to love the poor family into which he is born. We are changed because we realize that our brothers and sisters in this world include the poor, the humble, and those who look different than we do. We are changed because we hear Jesus calling us to be different from the world: to not chase wealth, beauty, fame and power, but to seek the virtues of humility and peace, to share what we have with others and without expectation of receiving anything in return, and to not be afraid to be vulnerable in order to let God’s love shine from us.
The beginning of this change within us happens when we see Jesus lying in the manger on Christmas Eve. But I pray that it does not stop there. When the glow of the birth has faded, when the presents have been opened, when the family goes home, do we remember what God has shown us in the manger? Do we remember that we are sisters and brothers with the poor, the wretched, the refugee, the immigrant? Or do we go back to our comfortable lives and wait until the next Christmas comes to be reminded of these things? This baby in the manger does not stay a baby forever, and our faith, too, should not remain immature. We need to continually be reminded of these things every day and every hour of our lives. We are called to follow Jesus, not only the baby in the manger, but also the adult Jesus, who teaches us how we are to live and who challenges us to love one another and to treat one another as we would treat him.
Jesus’ mother Mary knew that to be the mother of the Son of God would not be easy, and still she said yes when the angel came. She said yes to risking her life to give birth to him. She said yes to allowing the shepherds to come in to see the baby on that long-ago night, perhaps realizing even then that being the mother to the Son of God meant that she would not be able to keep this baby to herself, but would have to share him with the rest of the world. She said yes, even though she may not have fully realized it then, to having the whole world be part of her family. Can we do any less than Mary did? What does saying yes to God mean for us? It does not mean having an easy life, for until Jesus returns there will be evil in the world. But saying yes to God means that we have seen the light that Jesus has brought into the world, and that we are now called to be part of that light shining in dark places, to everyone we meet. Come to see the light of the Christ-child, and go into the world, changed by what you have seen, to show that light to all whom you meet. Amen.