Christmas Eve - 12/24/2016
As remarkable as it is, the Christmas story I just read is so familiar that it’s pretty hard to have it surprise you. Except for the youngest here, you’ve heard it all before, many times in many ways, so Mary and Joseph, angels and shepherds, the baby Jesus lying in a manger, it’s all familiar, and really, that’s OK, because maybe the familiarity helps you to use your imagination and hear the story the way it’s supposed to be heard.
I talk a lot about the need to use imagination when reading the Bible. I think that has a tendency to bring some people up short because, they think, the Bible is a serious book; in reading it we should be using our intellect, not our imagination. As a result, when we read it we put on our serious face because that seems like what we’re supposed to do. The Bible is a serious book, but without imagination, we can miss a lot because we can wind up focusing on the wrong things and asking the wrong questions.
The Christmas story is an example of the imagination of God as reflected in and through those he inspired to write. It’s a story told with imagination and it’s intended to be read and heard with imagination because that’s really the only way that divine truth can be conveyed. Tonight then, as we hear the story again, perhaps we want to be more like children, children who do use their imagination.
And, at least up until a certain age, children also have no problem with the same story being read to them over and over again because even though they’ve heard it before, it still has the ability to surprise and enchant them and then they say, “Read it again.” Read it again is what we do with the Christmas story as many times as we’ve heard it. Tonight we can take off our serious face, read it again and appreciate the imagination of God. In doing that, maybe we’ll even be surprised.
“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.” That’s how Luke begins his account and it’s a verse that doesn’t require any imagination. It’s basically just the report of an event to take place. Included are the names of those in power at the time, thus placing the announced event more precisely in history. Augustus and Quirinius are the names of people who are supposed to matter, names equivalent to those of Obama, Snyder, Trump in our time. But those aren’t the people Luke is going to write about.
That’s one of the surprises that doesn’t surprise us because we know who Luke is going to write about. He’s going to write about people that Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius don’t even know exist anymore than our state and national leaders know that you and I exist. Luke is going to write about a pregnant teenager and her husband to be, he’s going to write about shepherds, all of them people of no account and little status with the events surrounding them not taking place in any city of economic or political significance but in Bethlehem, a small, relatively insignificant town.
Yet, in the surprising imagination of God, these are the people and this is the place where God’s purpose for the world will begin to unfold. In the imagination of God, what is most important will happen among those who most of the world would call unimportant . Again, it doesn’t tend to surprise us because we’ve heard it before but it’s God’s imagination at work, upsetting the expectations of everyone, including those involved, Mary and Joseph and the shepherds, including the power brokers of that time, Augustus and Quirinius, and…including us.
The baby is born, and the birth is announced by angels to those unlikely shepherds. That seems to be a surprise in an account like this because the expectation would be for the birth of an important figure to be announced to other important figures. In this case though, maybe it’s not as surprising as it seems. If the angels had appeared in the halls of power and announced news about a baby born in a stable, lying in a feed trough, a baby who would be the Messiah , would those present have paid attention to such a vision? I doubt it. More likely, being imagination challenged, like Ebenezer Scrooge, they would have dismissed the appearance of angels as the result of indigestion, an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. The angels would have wasted their time among such folk, with what they had to say easily outrunning limited imaginations.
Shepherds, on the other hand; shepherds out there in the fields, in the quiet, especially at night, would have had plenty of time for imagination. Far from town the immenseness of the clear night sky had to be spectacular, horizon to horizon a blanket of stars that couldn’t help but move minds and imaginations in the direction of wonder. A vision of angels would still be terrifying, and it was, certainly not something they would have expected, but in wonder the shepherds could be open to the announcement of the good news of the birth of a savior, as unbelievable as it would have sounded. The shepherds wouldn’t dismiss the vision as the effects of an undercooked meal.
The shepherds ran with the vision and the announcement, daring to imagine, wanting to imagine that it was true, that there was good news of great joy not just for a few people, but for all people, people like them of no account and little status. That was the truth announced to them, good news for all people, truth that could only be imagined by God.
Tonight we join the shepherds in imagining this new possibility. We join Mary, she too having been visited by an angel, Mary who now ponders anew all that has happened and what it means and how God could have chosen her to be the mother of this child, indeed, to be the mother of God. We join her in surprise and wonder as we consider the God whose love and imagination goes beyond reason to create hope for all people.
You’ve heard it all before but tonight, let the wonder of it surprise you. For to you is born this day a Savior who is the Messiah.
Rev. Warren Geier