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Christmas Eve, 2016

Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:1-20

All the world and this one couple with a baby on the way collide in Luke’s Gospel.

Events beyond Mary and Joseph’s control have pushed them to travel at a most inopportune time. Will labor start on the road? Will the trip harm mother or child? Is there no exception to government orders for a woman in the last weeks of pregnancy? Is the divine subject to secular authorities? Who is in charge here, God or Emperor Augustus?

Jill Duffield’s lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook’s email list every Monday.

Ultimately, we know the answer. God, of course, is in charge. But in the immediacy of needing to be registered, finding the inn full and watching sheep, it sure feels as if Augustus and Quirinius have the upper hand. Taxes must get paid. God doesn’t set up the auto pay for the power bill. We have a sense as we read these verses of how the next administration’s policies on everything from climate change to minimum wage will be felt more keenly than the grand sweep of salvation history quietly working its way to completion in stables and far away fields for low-wage workers and refugees.

It was impossible not to stop at the mention of Syria in Luke’s birth narrative. Syria, where people have been tweeting desperate messages for help. Syria, where there is no relief for civilians, men, women, children, those about to give birth or those well advanced in years. A photo in this week’s New York Times news roundup is arresting. Three people are on the move, burdened with bags, fear evident on their faces. A kitten balances perilously on the youngest man’s shoulder. The elderly woman carries a black purse, reminiscent of the many handbags I have seen in the pew beside older women every Sunday. The old man lags behind a little. Syria. Where families are being forced by events outside of their control to journey to places where there is little or no room for them. It seems the political, worldly powers still impact the vulnerable in ways far more tangible than the angels, stars and the Holy Spirit.

Secular authority seems oblivious to the newborn Prince of Peace, then and now. How do we reconcile that reality this Christmas Eve 2016? How can we step into the pulpit and proclaim good news of great joy for all people in the wake of a bitter election and brutal killings of unarmed black men and huge numbers of displaced people and a myriad of fears both personal and corporate about what lies ahead? How can we say with sincerity and confidence that despite all the evidence to the contrary, God is in our midst and God is in control?

We must look again at Luke. Look closely at the snapshots the Gospel writer gives us, glimpses of God’s goodness that flash into our earthly reality with undeniable clarity even while Augustus and Quirinius are in proximate, life impacting, power.

First, there is the holy family: Mary, Joseph and Jesus wrapped in bands of cloth in the manger. Augustus’ decree may have forced their journey, the mass migration of people may have precluded space for them in the inn, but Jesus would be born regardless of those factors. The circumstances are far from ideal. No Noah’s Ark decorated nursery. No family close by to help. No advanced medical care or gift basket from the formula makers. But nonetheless, Jesus Christ is born. The policies, power, laws or lawlessness of earthly powers can’t stop the divine from entering the world. Not in Bethlehem. Not in Syria. Not then. Not now. Not ever. We need that reminder this Christmas Eve. We need to hear loud and clear that, yes, the rulers and principalities of this world may have the ability to control where we go and when, impacting our lives for better or for worse, but they can never thwart God’s coming to meet us wherever we are. Jesus will be born this Christmas to those for whom the world has no room, to those who have been forced to journey far from home, for those who are afraid of what is coming next and carry heavy burdens.

There are also the shepherds in this story. The heavenly host announces the inbreaking of heaven on the face of the earth – not in a palace or parliament building, but in a field full of sheep and those who tend them. God’s glory shines brightest where the world often isn’t looking. Stars are best seen far away from the light pollution of city center. The announcement of Emmanuel can’t always be heard over the din of our busyness or the distraction of our many devices. If we want to learn where to go to see this thing that has taken place, we may have to hang out with the people working the night shift, the ones doing the work that bears fruit we enjoy but that is done by those in the shadows. The good news of great joy for all people is being shared first with those who most need it. The question that raises is this: Are we in close enough proximity to them to overhear it?

Finally, Luke shows us Holy Family and shepherds together. The big workings of those in power are not in view here. Only this one poor family. Only the usually invisible shepherds. Only the animals, a kitten precariously balanced somewhere, peering over the scene, perhaps. The shepherds share their story. Those normally unheard speak the word of God that has been given to them. Everyone is amazed. Mary treasures all they have to say and ponders, no doubt, how these words will shape her story.

The shepherds then go back to work. Their lives, their day-to-day lives, are both exactly the same and completely transformed. They will tend sheep, subject to so much that is completely out of their control. And yet, no matter what comes next, no matter what Augustus or Quirinius do or don’t do, the Prince of Peace rules. Having seen and heard, gone and told, returned and praised, they know what we now know: The Messiah has come, salvation is here, God is in control and the vulnerable, invisible, refugees, migrants and least of these are the first to receive the good news of great joy for all people. Perhaps if we draw close to them this Christmas Eve, we will hear the angels, see the Christ child, rejoice and praise God, too.

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