Jesus’ Birth: Scandalous
or Humanity’s Hope?
Christmas Day readings: Isaiah 9:2-4,6-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14
December 24, 2006
Pastor Mary Blessing,
Vicar, St. Philip’s, Scotts Valley CA
Once again we hear the amazing story of the risky birth of the messiah—the one who is anointed King of Israel, born in the city of David. Born to a very young girl, probably no more than 14 or 15 years old, away from her family and friends, supported only by the husband who needed an angel to tell him to marry her.
Luke wants us to understand the significance of this birth, so he places the birth of Jesus in the context of important historical events. Even though Luke seems to get the dates of these historic events a little wrong, it is significant that Luke places the timing of Jesus’ birth in the context of the rule of Caesar Augustus. Augustus was known historically as one who attempted to bring peace to the Roman Empire. Here Luke lets the reader know it is truly Jesus, the Christ, Son of God, who brings peace. Peace which passes all human understanding.
And so angels proclaim, “Glory to God in heaven, and peace to earth!” Angels proclaim this glorious peace, not to the King, but to lowly shepherds, out in their fields. And the angels do not send the shepherds to visit Emperor Augustus. God’s angels send shepherds to a barn, in the city of Bethlehem, where they find an exhausted teen age girl and her tiny baby wrapped in cloths, laying in an animal’s feedbox. It is here, say God’s messengers, you will find hope for the world. Here you will find God’s peace.
Can we even understand the scandal of this birth? In our contemporary world of sanitized birthing, can we grasp the significance of this untimely birth in this unlikely setting? The violation of the cleanliness laws of Israel would have been enough for the average faithful Jew to reject this “barn borne” child as the child of promise.
A few years ago, I found myself awe-struck by a contemporary drawing of this “nativity scene”. Perhaps it caught your eye….it was a drawing of the back of a pick up truck, end down, parked in front of an old barn, strewn with hay. On the bed of the truck lay a bedraggled teenage girl in torn clothing, partially covered with an old blanket. Tucked in the crux of her arm was a tiny baby, cradled carefully, but the mother looked fearful. Next to them lay a young man, trying his best to keep his scared little family warm. They looked like a homeless couple, picked up off the streets of San Francisco or Santa Cruz. When I saw that image, I sort of got just how much of a scandal it was for Israel to hear that the Messiah, King of Israel, of the House of the mighty King David, was actually born to a vagabond family, lying in a barn, because they had no home. But it is here, alone, in this barn, Mary and Joseph received the hope that brings that peace which passes understanding.
How is it that over 2000 years later we remember this birth story, and we marvel at the miracle of God entering into world history as a helpless, poor baby, completely dependent upon the young teenage mother and her faithful husband? Why do any of us even pay attention to this quaint story, filled with historical inaccuracy? Was it because of the miracle birth (if you have ever been witness to the birth of a child, any child, you would probably agree with me that every birth is a miracle, barn or no barn!)? Is the birth story even a reliable story? Does anyone know?
I believe the reason Luke bothered to write any of this story of Jesus’ birth, and the reason any of us pay attention to the birth of Jesus, is not because of the miracle of his birth, which was a scandal, but because of Jesus’ death—the death of a criminal, also a scandal, which was overcome by the resurrection of Jesus and the glories of the Risen Lord, who was known to Luke and can be known to you and me, right here and right now. It was how Jesus lived his life that brought people together to worship a God of peace. It is the hope the Risen Lord gives to all who choose him, no matter how deep a scandal their own lives are, which gives the story of Jesus’ birth its meaning. Just as Jesus was born into a lowly state, he brings healing to poor, lowly, insignificant people, like himself, perhaps some who were born to mothers without husbands, and others who are sinners living in darkness until the meet this man of light. This God of peace, the one who fulfills the promise of Isaiah and prophets, the one called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Is. 9:6)
We would not know the story of Jesus’ birth if witnesses had not first told the story of his life, death and resurrection. We might not pay attention to those witnesses if there were not witnesses to the Risen Christ, the Lord, who comes to those who seek him, to bring hope and that blessed “peace which passes understanding.” The Risen Christ who came first to his disciples after his death and resurrection, still comes to those who seek him, to those who open their hearts and ask, no matter how awful the scandal of their own lives may feel.
Perhaps you have heard the story of my most important Christmas Eve ever. I was only 16 years old, away from home for the first time—far away—over Christmas break. Less than a year before, my oldest brother died unexpectedly. This was to be my family’s first Christmas without him, and I was alone, with no family at all. The entire year I had spent wondering what really happens to the soul after a person’s body dies. I had a strong faith, but I really wanted to know what happens.
On Christmas Eve our family had traditionally gone our Cathedral to midnight mass. This Christmas I was in Edinburgh, Scotland, alone, staying in a youth hostel, with a lively family drinking and celebrating in Scottish fashion. As the night passed I announced I was going off to church, but the family didn’t understand, as they said they didn’t think there was a late night service. I went anyway, to St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral. No one was there, but I tried the door and it was unlocked. I entered the dark, cold cathedral, and listened. But no one was there. Far in the distance, across the cold stone floor, stood the altar, empty. I decided to stay in the back pew, where I just sat for a while, in the quiet, remembering the Christmas story. The pregnant Mary, riding a donkey to Bethlehem, while Joseph walked beside her. The inn that was full, and the barn animals mooing and baying as Mary lay there, groaning, giving birth to the Son of God. What an amazing story I thought. How did this young mother survive such a lonely moment? Where was the joy for her in this anguish of birth?
As I sat and thought of the scandal of Jesus’ birth in the barn, I thought of the scandal of my brother’s death. It was a scandal, an outrage, as our family was filled not just with grief of the loss of a loved one, but also with shame. He was a brilliant young man in medical school, but he had fallen into a deep depression. He could not overcome his depression, and took his own life. Jesus was born into a state of shame and outrage, and Jesus’ death was the death of a common criminal. Jesus’ birth and death were both a scandal, yet Jesus lived a life in perfect peace and harmony with God. In the birth and death and resurrection of Jesus, God showed us that God redeems even the most horrible scandal if we are willing to place our lives in God’s purposes. Somehow, I “got” that in the stone cold, dark Cathedral in Scotland.
As I sat there in the darkness of that Cathedral, I felt compelled to get down on my knees and simply ask God the prayer that was heavy upon my heart, “Where is my brother?”
In a moment, in the silence, a deep, peaceful quiet enveloped me--I “felt” more than heard the words, “I am with you and I am with your brother.” A complete “knowing” filled my being. In Jesus Christ, who was born into this world as a helpless baby, lived, died on a cross and rose again—somehow through this Risen Lord was the completion of all creation. In that moment, on my knees asking--it was as if Christ came personally and filled my heart with that “peace which passes understanding.” I wanted to stay in that moment forever—truly. But after a while, after lingering in that peace, it was as if someone lifted me up by my elbow, and whispered in my ear, “Now, go, and tell the world.”
That Christmas Eve I flew out of that Cathedral Church filled with unquenchable hope. I wanted to do cartwheels all the way back to the Youth Hostel!! Hope and knowledge that the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus is not a human scandal, but truly God’s greatest gift one can ever receive.
Now I pray you open your hearts, no matter how much you may see your life, or the lives of others as a life of scandal: open your heart to receive the gift of Christ’s love, that complete knowledge, so that each time you hear the amazing story of the birth of Jesus, you, too, will be filled with the hope of life everlasting, that “peace which passes all human understanding.”