Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Christmas Eve, 2019
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph 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. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And 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.
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15When 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.”
16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (NRSV)
Luke’s infancy narrative is a familiar story, and a great story, if a bit of a mess. Luke’s details are a little suspect. His particular confluence of imperial and local leaders at the time of Jesus’ birth don’t agree with those of Josephus and other first-century historians. And while the Romans apparently had a fondness for census-taking, there’s no evidence to corroborate Luke’s account of a census requiring everyone to return to ancestral homes.1
We can let such things bother us. Or, we can remember that Luke, like all gospel-writers, is telling a faith story, not writing history. Luke understands that faith stories are situated within a much deeper and wider Story which is always populated with real people in real socio-political contexts.
This wider Story is God’s Grand Narrative, and it’s layered deeply and concurrently throughout past, present, and future. Each of the gospels, then, is more complex than one man’s record of another man’s life. They’re creative utterances—collaborations of individuals, communities, the Creation, and God. So, I like to think of this account of Jesus’ nativity as something that finds Luke. And when Luke finds his place within it, the Story tells itself through Luke’s openness to it, his passion for it, and his generosity with it.
Because of all this, Luke takes interest in the timeless and history-saturating truth of that deeper and wider Story over the accuracy of details. Now, Luke doesn’t fabricate characters, so his use of real people seems to acknowledge that we all come and go. We succeed and fail, live and die. But The Story is a different matter. It’s continuous, and it says stunning things like: “Let there be light…Say to them I AM has sent me to you…What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?” It also says, “you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.” (Genesis 1:3, Exodus 3:14, Micah 6:8, Leviticus 25:10)
I think that in Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus, we hear God announce not just a year of jubilee. We hear God announce universal Jubilee. For Christians, Jesus is a kind of fulcrum in history. With his birth, the time—the Kairos—has come for everyone and everything to return to its “family,” its origin. Isaiah calls Jubilee “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61:2), and only in Luke’s gospel do we hear those words on Jesus’ lips. He speaks them when he reads from the scroll of Isaiah, and he does this when he himself has come home to Nazareth. Theologically speaking, to come home is to return to a primordial, archetypal source, an eternal identity.
Christmas Eve is one of my favorite days of the year. For many of us, it’s a time when we return home. Many of us have treasured traditions that include things like a hike or some other outing, candlelight worship with communion, sharing a meal with family and friends. For me, Christmas Eve has become a time of uncanny wholeness and belonging. The mystic at-home-ness of this day reminds me of words from Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet. Out on a cold parapet, Hamlet’s friend Marcellus says:
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long.
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad.
The nights are wholesome. Then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is that time.2
One need not be in their own hometown to experience the “wholesome…hallowed and…gracious” Kairos of Christmas Eve. Luke illuminates the point of home when he says that Joseph goes home to Bethlehem, which may or may not have been the town of his birth and childhood. He goes there because, according to Luke, Joseph traces his roots back to King David.
In the context of the deeper and wider Story, home has less to do with some geographic location than it does with our truest identity. Home has to do with belonging at the most primordial depth and the most unrealized height of who we are in God. To return home for God’s Jubilee is to return to our true and eternal Self from which, by grace, none of us can be forever alienated.
John understands that kind of home. The opening of his gospel is brief and dense, but I consider it consistent with Luke’s nativity story. In the beginning was the Word, says John, 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] what has come into being in him [is] life. (John 1:1-3a, 3c-4a)
Being is itself home for the one whose birth into human existence we celebrate tonight. The lives we live are expressions of that same life. So, Beingitself, Life itself is home for us, regardless of where we lay down our sweet heads. To me, this means that home, real and everlasting home, can always be found anywhere in the Creation.
In many Christian churches, the words spoken over the Lord’s Supper build a fence around Christ’s table. I used to speak those exclusive and life-diminishing words. I no longer do that, because I can no longer demand that anyone say or do something to secure a place at a table from which, I believe, we have all ultimately come. And while this is the Easter table, a table of remembrance and redemption, it’s also the table of Christmas Jubilee, a table of mystery and reunion.
All of you are welcome at this table. So, I invite you to come, and I pray that you will feel here the welcome of the home from which we have all come, to which we all return, and which, at Christmas, comes to us.
1Lewis Donelson, Feasting on the Word, John Knox Press, 2008, pp,117-118.
2William Shakespeare, “Hamlet,” Act 1, Scene 1, lines 157-163.