Most of us here this morning probably don’t remember being born. I certainly don’t, although I’m pretty sure I was there. But there are stories about our births that we have been told. We probably know where we were born, and we likely know some of the circumstances and events that attended our births. If you talk to some folks, they were born in the midst of a raging snow storm, even if their birthdays are some time in July. Some of us might even have some true wonderful and gloriously complicated stories about our births. And that is because birth stories are important to us. The birth of a child is always a monumental event no matter when and where it takes place. Most of us here this morning were probably well received into this world. When we were born there were tears of joy that flowed automatically and without reserve, and there were prayers of thanksgiving offered. It was a joyous time for all. It was the culmination of nine months of prayers, hopes and anticipation.
But even if we were not well received into this world by those responsible for our birth, our births, and our first howls of objection to our new environment were a monumental event to God. God always rejoices when a new child comes into the world. It is good to remember that we human beings are the crowning glory to God’s ongoing creative work. No child comes into this world without the blessing and the love of our heavenly Father, because God is ultimately the father and the source of every child. God has made this abundantly clear to us in the birth of his own Son.
And that is part of the reason that birth stories have such an important place in the Scriptures. None of us, I am sure, get the holy shivers when we encounter those long lists of “begats” that show up from time to time in our Bibles. Most of us roll our eyes and just skip right over them. As far as we can tell, there’s nothing of value there. If we happen to be reading a more modern translation, the old English word “begat” has been updated by the more modern phrase, “became the father of,” but still, not a whole lot there to pattern our lives after. But really, those long genealogical lists are important. They’re actually birth stories that have been abbreviated. And, like our own births, there once was a birth story that went with every one of them. And even though those stories may have been forgotten or have become lost to us, they’ve not been lost or forgotten
by God. That’s why, included at the beginning of the birth story of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we find long lists of “begats”, that almost never get read at Christmastime, even in church. And yet, they’re an important part of the story. They put the birth of Jesus into historical context.
When the shepherds received the story of Jesus’ birth from the angels, they were told that the birth of the Messiah would bring them peace. At the time of the birth of Jesus there was peace in the world. But it was a tenuous and artificial peace. It was not a peace that infused the heart. Peace that infuses the heart is the only real kind of peace. The Imperial Roman government was expanding in leaps and bounds. The Romans were over-running the world. Some nations were conquered by the devastating power of the Roman military machine, and other nations allowed themselves to be occupied out of fear of being utterly destroyed by the Romans. All of this led to a kind of pseudo-peace; a peace born out of fear and submission to the overwhelming strength of the Roman government.
Israel, which had once been a mighty and glorious nation, led by the hand of almighty God, had been reduced by the Romans to a tiny, insignificant, provincial land, absolutely intimidated by Roman rule. There was grief, not peace in Israel. Grief over what has been lost and might never be regained is the deepest grief of all. We know this, because we have experienced this ourselves.
And that grief must have been magnified when the great emperor, Augustus, sitting on his throne in Rome, decreed that all of the world should be registered. It is clear from the Scriptures that this registration represented a hardship for the people of Israel. It was nothing more than a move by the Roman government to exercise more authority and control over a people who were already sorely oppressed. Living in a free country as we do, it is difficult for us to comprehend or imagine living in a world of drastically reduced freedoms, all in the name of maintaining peace. That day is yet to come.
But this is the world in which Mary and Joseph lived, and by all reckoning, this registration represented for them a severe hardship. Mary was, as we like to say, “great with child.” The timing of this forced registration meant that she and Joseph would have to make the difficult journey at the height of her pregnancy, from their home in Nazareth, to Bethlehem, which was Joseph’s ancestral home.
But of course, Mary and Joseph were no strangers to hardship. The two of them had suffered through the very near dissolution of their relationship. They both had suffered scorn and disbelief from their families and friends. And now, upon arriving in Bethlehem, the two of them have discovered that there is no lodging available in Bethlehem, and perhaps not even any sympathy for a couple obviously about to give birth.
But my purpose this morning is neither to pity Mary and Joseph, nor to tweak our emotions into feeling sorry for them. It is, instead, to remind us how very, very real Mary and Joseph are, and by extension, to demonstrate how much they are exactly like you and me.
We would perhaps, have liked it better if the story of our Lord’s birth had been picture perfect, without all of the messes. We don’t like messes, but the Christmas story is messy. And its messy, because any time human beings are involved, there’s going to be a mess. We are sinful, broken, people and we make messes. That hasn’t kept us though, from turning the real story of Christmas into a fairy tale. We seem to prefer a fairy tale. But in doing so, we lose what is most important to the Christmas story: we lose what is real. Christmas is powerless over us if we can’t allow it to be as real and as messy as our own lives. Christmas is a story of redemption. It is a story of God working in and through all of the messes of this world and of our lives. It is a story of human beings becoming part of God’s story in this world.
But in the midst of the mess, at every step of the way, both Mary and Joseph received constant assurances that this is the way that it was supposed to be for them. Now these assurances didn’t always come at the moment when they would have been the most convenient, but they did always come at the right moments. In all of this, Mary and Joseph cultivated a sensitivity to, and a watchfulness for these divine assurances. This, too, we must learn to do as the stories of our own lives unfold.
And this is where we must declare our spiritual solidarity with Mary and Joseph, because our stories are so very, very real. We probably won’t have to face the same difficulties and trials that Mary and Joseph faced, but we will face difficulties that are unique to us. The nature of difficulty is that it is rarely a stranger. It is never far from us, always ready to complicate our lives. We wish for fairy tale lives for ourselves, but we live real lives. We must learn to depend on God for strength and peace.
It was not easy for Mary and Joseph to always acknowledge that God was at work in their lives, especially during their times of trouble. And I know this, because it is not easy to see God at work in the midst of our own times of confusion and fear.
But by cultivating a sensitivity and even an anticipation of God’s abundant assurances, we will hear God’s voice of comfort and strength. We will find peace that infuses our hearts. We will know that God is at work in our lives, no matter the circumstances or the mess. God will bring blessings to us.
We know this because we have seen how God brought blessing to the lives of Mary and Joseph.
Jesus’ birth, in spite of all of the struggles and messes involved with it, is still the most significant event and the most significant blessing in all of human history. God is most real to us when God takes on human flesh. God entered our world, as broken as it was and as broken as it continues to be to show us the path to true peace. This is our salvation.