Rev. Teri Peterson
Ready or Not
Isaiah 9.2, 6-7, Luke 2.1-20, John 1.1-5, 14
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
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.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
When I had lived in Egypt for about 8 months, my brother and dad came for a visit. We went on a Nile river cruise, and one afternoon we were watching the countryside go by when one of them noticed something odd. I couldn’t see what they were talking about, so asked what they meant, and they said they had seen someone bringing a water buffalo up out of the river and into the ground floor of the house.
The reality of animals and people living together in the same home had long since stopped being unusual in my mind. Outside the cities, and even in the city in some neighborhoods, it’s common for homes to be built with two or three stories—the ground floor housed animals and tools and supplies, the upper floor the family’s living quarters. It was rare to see separate barns across the field like we had back home on the farm, because it was safer and easier and more efficient to have everyone in one house.
That visit was more than ten years ago now, and it was only about two weeks ago that I put any of these pieces together in my mind, as I read an article that pointed out that the word Luke uses that we usually translate as “inn” is only used in one other place in the Bible—when Jesus and the disciples share the last supper in the Upper Room.
Suddenly I recalled all those village homes that looked like they were straight out of ancient times. I mean, I had known there were no hotels in those days, that hospitality was provided to both family and stranger in every home as part of the culture and values of the Israelite people. But to suddenly read the story as “there was no place for them in the upper room” made everything sound different.
It was a busy season, of course, with people crowding in for the census. It makes sense that every space in every home would be used…the upper room that was reserved for guests would have been filled, probably by multiple visitors. The family’s living quarters on the middle floor would not have been spacious to begin with, and likely children and mothers were spread out on mats everywhere. The ground floor, where the animals lived, would still have been well within the family’s space, and probably could accommodate a few other travelers in addition to the donkeys and cattle who ate and slept there during the chilly nights.
There was no place for them in the guest quarters, or even in the family’s own rooms, but the animals that were their livelihood could always make space. Far from turning Joseph and Mary away, the owners of the house made room as well as they could, even when the best space wasn’t available, even when no one was prepared. All it took was one nook and cranny not already stuffed full, and God seized the moment and chose to be born there.
I’m pretty sure, having seen these homes and villages, that the scene bears little resemblance to our traditional Christmas cards and carols and pageants. We have cleaned up the story to fit our ideals of beauty and divinity and purity and humility. The shepherds who come running have miraculously showered along the way, and the stable is in a field far from anyone who might hear the cries of labor pains, and there’s remarkably little dirt or manure or blood anywhere.
But when we tidy it up, separating Mary and Joseph from the rest of the crowded village and from the realities of life, keeping everything very sanitary and pretty, we lose something important: God didn’t need the perfectly cleaned guest room or the well-decorated hotel or even the slightly messy but still habitable family bedroom. God needed people who were willing to carry the Son—Mary and Joseph, who didn’t have white skin and blonde hair like the paintings, but who did say yes to God using their bodies and minds and hearts and reputations and livelihoods. And God needed a space—any space—to be born in us.
And like most babies, Jesus came when he felt like it…not when the nursery was ready and the parents prepared and peace had already descended on the earth. God chose to break into the world, through pain and muck and stray pieces of fur, in the midst of a dictatorship proving their power over occupied people, in whatever small space could be found.
This is still the way, of course. The prophet Isaiah said that light has shined on those who live in a land of deep darkness…doesn’t that feel like this world sometimes? Or this year, a lot of the time? The shadows are long—shadows of grief, of fear, of violence, of uncertainty. The news only seems to get worse every day. If all we have are Christmas-card perfect images of God, where can Jesus possibly fit into this world of brokenness and hurt?
This morning the front page of the Wall Street Journal held a photo of a man in the suburbs of Damascus, decorating a Christmas tree with empty shells he had painted. These ornaments are every size—small bullet casings and large empty bomb shells—and he used these weapons to fight back with beauty. Each one is carefully painted with a gorgeous design, and hung with ribbon on a “tree” made from metal rings. In the valley of the shadow of death, light shines and love wins.
Even in the land of deep darkness, a child has been born for us, a Son given to us…did you notice the prepositions? A child has been born FOR us, a Son given TO us…the angels echo the prophet: TO you this day is born a savior. To US. For US. Not just for people who are ready, or people who understand. Not just given to people who have plenty of room for one more thing. God’s gift of incarnation, of love in the flesh, of living among us as we are—the gift of Jesus—is given to us, and he is for us, whether we are ready or not. It doesn’t take much space, just a tin tree in the backyard decorated with spent weapons from the neighborhood, a corner of the basement, a few spare inches in a crowded heart…God, like a newborn baby, has a way of taking over a room and a life.
Here, and now, however dark the night, the good news is still true: whatever room we have available, no matter how small or unfinished or dirty or crowded, God will use to birth love and light into the world again.
Thanks be to God. Amen.