Year C, RCL
December 24, 2018
North Fork Ministries
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 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 bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "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. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
"Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
[When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. ]
The Emperor Augustus was praised as the great king of peace. He had, after all, implemented the Pax Romana and brought an end to the discord among the various tribes and peoples inhabiting the Roman Empire. Peace prevailed, but at a very heavy price. The Roman legions, with their well trained and disciplined assault troops, equipped with the latest advances in weaponry, could, in short order, lay waste to any sandal-clad insurrectionists that dared challenge Roman authority.
And in the midst of the uneasy peace of the Pax Romana, we read of a multitude of angels praising God and promising, “Peace among those whom he favors”. More familiar in our minds is the King James Version, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” And another translation reads, “…on earth peace to men of good will.”
The different possible readings of the text leads one to ask, “Just who did the angels have in mind?” To whom was this promise of peace given?
In his telling of the story, Luke offers us a hint. The angels didn’t make their appearance at the Emperor’s palace. They didn’t blast their trumpets on the floor of the Roman Senate. They didn’t appear at the Roman baths where wealthy citizens could soak and talk politics and philosophy.
The angels of the Lord appeared that night before shepherds camping out under the stars with their sheep. And they announced to the shepherds in particular, “I am bringing you good news of great joy”
Why should shepherds be the recipients of such good news? Why should these guys living in the fields, occupying a profession that was at the bottom of the social ladder - probably men who had disappointed their parents by becoming shepherds instead of artisans or merchants, be visited by angels? Or maybe these shepherds had families, but preferred to hang out in the fields with their buddies, rather than go home to a wife who complained that they couldn’t survive on a shepherd’s pay. Yet, these very ordinary men received the angels’ blessed promise of peace.
In Luke’s gospel tonight, we heard the story of Mary and Joseph making their way to an inn where they found that there was no room for them. This story was reenacted with the pageant of Las Posadas, held by our Hispanic members, on eight consecutive evenings, ending Saturday night. Dozens of people gathered each evening, and half of the crowd, usually those who had worn coats warm enough to ward off the winter’s chill, stood with candles in hand, outside the front door of the church. Those on the outside were the Marys and Josephs in the nativity story, and accompanied by a guitar and a small drum, they sang the tale of their journey by burro to Bethlehem and pleaded for the innkeeper to find them a room. Inside the church, light-filled and warm, other parishioners, sang a tale of their crowdedness inside, and told them to go away. Persisting, the folks representing Mary and Joseph, took a candlelit journey to the back of the church, singing along the way “Si me ven, si me ven, voy camino de Belén”, “If you see me, if you see me, I’m walking to Bethlehem.”
At the rear of the church, they again recounted their woeful tale, and from inside the church, the innkeepers again refuse, but then finally relent, and find room for them in the stable. Once inside, there are prayers and more songs and the telling of the complete story of the birth of the Christ child. And then, as you might expect, the church is filled with exotic smells of spicy chicken mole, rice, and black beans. And there is laughter and the joy of reunion among families and friends who have been separated and are now reunited.
Each year our Hispanic members enjoy this celebration of community and the ritual retelling of a story central to our faith. But this year, in particular, the profound contemporary relevance of the story is particularly apparent. As we gather here, our Hispanic brothers and sisters, hopeful would-be citizens of this nation of immigrants, are gathered at our southern border, fearful, this very evening, that there will be no room for them in the inn. On Christmas eve we have to ask ourselves how we can we profess to worship the child in the manger while turning our backs on the child at the border.
Looking around me on Saturday evening’s posada, as I stood outside in the cold, I heard the pleading voices of young children asking to be let inside. But the voices inside, responded by saying, “There is no room in the inn, go away.” And I understood why this ritual means so much to an immigrant community, those who repeatedly face doors that are closed and insiders who say, “There is no place for you here.”
And I also understood more fully, why there is such joy when the doors are opened and why it is, when we fling open the doors of our church, we are providing a place for the Christ child to be born. When we welcome the outsider, we have said, “there is room in the inn for Jesus.”
The shepherds, living in the fields, certainly felt like outsiders. As they kept watch over their flocks in the dark of the night, they must have felt very separate from the more prosperous, established residents living in the comfort of the towns and villages below them. It’s possible that you feel like an outsider. Even those of us who have prospered here and find the North Fork a good place to live can feel alone. It is part of the human condition to feel like we never fully belong. And even if you are personally accepted by the larger community, the fact that you embrace, support, and love the shepherds of the world, makes you a bit of an outsider yourself.
Well, I have good news for you as well. On this night, in the city of David, some 2000 years ago, a child of outsiders was born. And accompanying his birth, angels proclaimed, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!" It is the angels promise to us all. It is good news of great joy for all people.