Some years ago my family was invited to attend a Christmas party at the home of one of our church members. It was to be a casual affair. We were asked to bring a salad to share. It was a potluck gathering for a number of people in the congregation. After an hour of visiting, our host asked for everyone’s attention and he sat down in front of the fireplace and explained that what he was about to do was one of the greatest honors a person could have. He paused and a tear rolled down his cheek and then he began to read Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus. He read it simply and quietly. The room was still. Even the children listened intently, because even they knew that to get to Bethlehem one has to hear the story. “In those days,” he read, “a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled.”
It is Christmas again. Do we dare read this story, not only to pay our dues to the religious part of the holiday, but instead to understand that because of what Luke is telling us the world has been changed forever?
Christmas is meant to change things.
Think about the words Luke uses to relate what happened. A young couple travel from a town in Galilee to this town a few miles from Jerusalem. They have come to pay taxes, to do what is required of them by the law and while there she gives birth to a baby who they name Jesus. Any of us who have become parents know what kind of change that implies. But that this child is Jesus, the Son of God, the Word made flesh, God’s love incarnate in the world, changes their lives forever.
And then there are those shepherds tending their flocks, people others looked down their noses at because no one with better options chose to be a shepherd. These were undesirable characters, even though the greatest king in Israel’s history had been one, but you can almost hear a man saying to his wife, “She’ll never marry a shepherd!” Yet, they hear the angels sing and one wonders what that would do to a life, even ours. Just to hear the angels sing! Did the shepherds look differently? Did they acquire a swagger in their step as a result because when the Messiah comes, everything changes! Or does it?
It is so easy to settle for less. How tough it is to get to Christmas when we do!
It is a true story. Two children, one five and the other three, the older a little girl with an attitude and the younger, a little boy who suffered under his sister’s shadow, were told by their mother one December that if they didn’t start behaving as they should they would get a lump of coal for Christmas. Now that might not be good parenting and I accept that, but what happened next only exacerbated their behavior. They fought, they pouted, they cried, they made life miserable despite their mother’s repeated threats, but when Christmas came the house was filled with brightly wrapped packages, most meant for them. Reinforce a behavior and it is likely to be repeated.
The next December it was worse. Now a year older, these two kids had refined their worst behaviors and once again their mother issued the warning. She was serious. They didn’t believe her. Nothing changed and on Christmas morning the two came hurtling down the steps only to discover two lumps of coal under the tree. Immediately the little boy began to wail and in between sobs apologized to his mother and father. The little girl stood there, stoic, taking it all in when finally her mother said to her, “And what about you?” She took a deep breath, raised her hand and pointed at the two lumps of coal and asked, “Which one is mine?”
It is so easy to settle when it comes to Christmas. To be swept to this day through the torrent of “holiday” activities, worn and weary, often wanting to simply get it over with. And we stand there with our hand raised and we ask the same thing. “Which one is mine?”
But read the story! Read it aloud. Read it and hear what Luke heard. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, everything changed. Yes, it takes the eyes of faith to see that this humble scene painted by Luke of the little family without a home is the center of divine activity and that the baby is the one who for centuries had been promised. But he was born this night in the city of David and when he was born life changed forever.
Luke says that Mary, this new mother, sat and pondered all that had happened. That is, I would suggest, a strange conclusion. Maybe it’s a clue. Maybe what she was doing there at the end of it was trying to figure out exactly what all of this would mean for her. What changes would it bring to her life? The circumstances surrounding this baby’s birth weren’t the usual business, the usual stuff of life. It wouldn’t take her long to begin to understand. If you read a bit further, you find her and Joseph traveling to the temple to dedicate their son and an old man sitting there named Simeon points at him and proclaims that this child is meant to change things.
So go ahead, invite your neighbors over and after you have a little to eat and to drink, read the story, this amazing story about the child come to transform the world. Then after you do, dare them to go and tell others!
Larry Chottiner is pastor of Salisbury Church in Midlothian, Va.