Christmas Eve Worship “In Those Days”
Rev. Tasha Blackburn
December 24, 2019
“In those days came a decree that all the world should be enrolled.” “In those days…” And with that introduction we begin to set the pieces of the nativity scene we know so well. Mary goes in first, looking unruffled and calm in her shades of blue; Joseph stands over her, protecting and adoring Mary with a look full of love; the baby in the warm manger—of course no crying he makes; even the cow and the donkey, in their familiarity, have taken on an air of comfort and sweetness. Piece by piece we place them in their stable tonight and yet, even as we bring them near, their sheer familiarity can make them seem further away, not closer to us. They become some sort of fairy tale from long long ago and far far away. Unreachable. Unrelatable. Something that happened in those days.
But that is not the scene that Luke has set. We know the words so well that we pass right over his pieces. For Luke the figure that goes in this nativity first is not Mary. It is injustice. He begins by telling us that Emperor Augustus has decreed there will be a census. With that we should hear “greed and injustice”. For an edict coming from an emperor to take a census meant one thing in those days: more taxes. It is the greed of a foreign emperor that sets the scene. And he is the first figure in Luke’s nativity.
The second is oppression. For Luke next shares that this is the first census taken under a Syrian governor. This means that the people—the shepherds, the innkeepers, the holy family themselves—they are all ruled by a foreign oppressor, a puppet governor put in place by their enemy Rome. So the second figure placed into this scene is oppression.
The third piece is not a surprise. It is disruption. Joseph and a very pregnant Mary will spend the last weeks of her pregnancy on the road, all to meet the demands of injustice and greed. Certainly disruption takes its place in this scene.
And, finally, a fourth piece Luke places for us is desperation. Again, let’s not let familiarity blind us. Mary and Joseph become desperate. The baby is coming and no one has room. No extended family has taken them in. She is forced to give birth among animals and in animal conditions. There is fear standing here as this new family is so far from home, fear, and desperation.
These are the figures in Luke’s nativity. He places them one by one in the first six verses of his story. He does not describe perfect lives to us. He describes the lives of real people in those days. It turns out they are not really unrelatable at all. Sadly, those days don’t seem so distant or different from our days.
It is into this difficult setting that Luke offers—finally, finally—his seventh verse. Briefly and with no fanfare he writes, “And Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a feed box.” Joining all the injustice and fear and disruption and despair, a baby was born.
In those days—in those difficult days—it seemed like a small thing had happened. But the message offered from heaven about this ordinary thing was clear. It was this: “Do not be afraid.” The angels offered it from the skies. Gabriel offered it to Mary and to Joseph at the announcement of this unplanned pregnancy: Do not be afraid. I know greed takes up space here in this scene. And so does oppression and disruption and fear. But do not be afraid.
It was the message from God in those days and it is the message God offers you tonight, in these days: Do not be afraid. In the midst of your disruption and fear, do not be afraid for God can work amazing things in the midst of difficulty. It is what he did in the birth of his son. It is what he does even now in your life.
We should take great comfort in the fact that not one of us could point out the Emperor Augustus in a line-up. For God’s sake, most of us cannot even pronounce the governor Quirinius’ name. What a message of hope that is! For God’s sake, we do not know them or recognize them or remember them because fear and oppression and greed do not win. Nor could we call to mind the names of all those who had no room for the family, nor those who gossiped about Mary and shunned her. We do not know them or recognize them or remember them because disruption and despair do not win. God wins.
It takes awhile for Luke to complete his scene, only after six difficult verses does he finally add the Christ child. But it is only verse 7 that matters. In those days it was only what God did in the midst of all that pain that mattered. In these days it is the same: What God does in the midst of our pain is what matters. So, do not be afraid. No matter what, do not be afraid. God works miracles in the midst of pain and he works salvation in the midst of fear. Do not be afraid, in whatever scene you are living tonight, for I offer you good news of great joy: a Savior has been born for you. Amen.