(I used the title "One Holy Night" based on the mini-ad campaign our congregations used to share our joint services with the community - - Two Churches, One Holy Night. I'd really called it "Birth Stories," though, if I could change the bulletin and if I cared. Not much of a sermon title person.)
Every birth has a story. Every single amazing, unique, miraculous or heartbreaking, birth has a story. A story that probably gets told again and again of how a child was born one freezing winter night when Mom and Dad almost didn’t make it to the hospital because the roads were so bad. A story where things were touch and go for a while, but in the end it all turned out OK. The same story that didn’t end quite the same. A story of how a child was born in the hearts of two parents due to the selfless of another mother who gave life in more than one way. A story of hours and hours of walking and wondering and waiting and worrying, that finally comes to fruition in a wiggling wonderful newborn child. Every birth has a story. And tonight we have come together to remember one such story.
There is no such thing as a mundane birth, as I learned more than once, but especially when the birthing class we took before our third baby was born met for a reunion. With little ones in arms, we told our stories to one another, often starting with, “Well, it wasn’t too crazy” but ending with the drama of a lifetime. Literally. There were stories of fast drives and long waits. Scary heartbeats and tired mommas. But more than anything there were stories of people - - first time moms and dads, over-zealous grandparents, attentive doulas, excited siblings, reassuring doctors, stern nurses, compassionate complete strangers. The medicine gave the facts of the birth, but the people made the stories.
The same is true of the birth that brings us here to worship tonight. The people involved makes the story. The account in tonight’s gospel began with the Emperor of the occupying nation. His mention sets the scene in a somber way. The people of Israel were not in charge of themselves. They were not in control of their own land. A Caesar from another land was calling the shots, and seemed to have control over all the world.
Yet if we are not new to this birth story, we know that it began long before the census was demanded. You could say it started hundreds and thousands of years ago with patriarchs and matriarchs, judges, kings and queens, and prophets, but none of us have the time tonight to hear all of THOSE stories. But still, the birth story goes back a little further than just Augustus and his need to control the world.
In Luke it goes back to and elderly priest and his wife, righteous and living blameless before God, serving in the temple and living if not content at least resigned to the understanding that that their age they apparently were never going to be parents. Highly respected in their community, trusted with the important work in the temple, then suddenly blessed with a miraculous child, the messenger who was born to prepare the people for the Messiah.
Then there’s the heavenly being, Gabriel, who scares the voice out of Zechariah and makes an unbelievable announcement to a trusting and faithful Mary. Confident of his messages that confused their recipients, with compassion he offered signs to confirm their truth. Angelic and authoritative, he was the first to deliver the good news to Zechariah his and Elizabeth’s prayers had finally been answered more fully than he could have imagined. And to Mary, not her prayers, but God’s will would be accomplished through her. He was the one she would tell about forever who was with her in her moment of realization. She would bring forth life, the life, that life that was the light of all people.
Joseph doesn’t get mentioned until the actual birth narrative gets going. His presence is the connection to family of David. It’s minimal, but it provides a stability that is needed in any birth story. I can imagine his grumbling and frustration at the thought of taking his very pregnant companion all the way to Bethlehem from their hometown of Nazareth. His protective annoyance at the lack of space when they get to town and realize her time is near.
And then there are the shepherds in the field. Not the most highly respected profession in the area, but certainly a necessary one. The shepherds were in the fields literally minding their own business when suddenly they are dragged in this cosmic story by a heavenly host of screaming angels. Rough and tough, dirty and smelly, on the opposite end of the spiritual and societal spectrum from Zechariah and Elizabeth who started this whole birth story, the shepherds fulfilled the role of adoring relatives, coming as soon as the birth was announced to adore the child, filled with awe and wonder. And like the proud grandparents and siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins and godparents, they told everyone they met about the baby they saw.
The birth story of Jesus is as full of family and acquaintances, strangers and interlopers as any birth story we could tell, but all of them, each of them has an important part in the most important birth story the world has ever heard, the birth of God into creation, the in-breaking, the incarnation of God in the world. And look at all the people who were used to make it happen, all the different kinds of people God used to bring love into the world and share love with others. From Mary and Joseph, to Zechariah and Elizabeth, to angels and shepherds - - unwed parents to a priest in a temple, heavenly messengers to earthy workers, everyone had a part in this amazing story of God’s gift of love, God’s act of love in coming to the earth as one of us. These diverse and varied people, as diverse and varied as each of us who have gathered to worship tonight all over the earth, had a part in bearing God’s love in Christ Jesus into the world.
Earlier on I said that we were here tonight, on this one holy night, to remember a birth story. It’s true in one sense, but in another it’s not true enough. We are here to do more than remember the story of Jesus’ birth. We’re here to do more than retell the events, to sing songs, even more than share in a holy meal and light candles as symbols of the light of Christ that shines in the darkness.
We are here to find our place in this birth story that took place a couple thousand years ago and takes place again and again even now. We are the people in the story of Jesus’ birth into our world. We are the men, women, and children who are receiving unbelievable calls from God to participate in God’s love in our schools, in our community, in our workplaces, and in our families. We are the Zechariahs and Elizabeths in places of honor and respect who will carry unexpected blessings. We are the shepherds and the innkeepers with little to offer, but ourselves and our words. We are the Marys and Josephs, chosen to navigate treacherous roads to make sure the inexplicable inbreaking of God’s presence takes place exactly where God wants it to, in the middle of a crowded, bustling world. We are Lutherans and Presbyterians from Mt. Zion and First Presbyterian, we are family members and visitors from churches of all flavors, and probably even some whose church participation has dwindled over time. But tonight we are here, this one holy night we have gathered, and tonight we are part of the birth story. We have been called into the story of Jesus who was born to continue God’s story of grace and truth and love, God’s promise of blessing and salvation and redemption. We have been called into the story of Christ who is born into our hearts and our lives, and at the same time we are being called out of the shadows and giving Christ’s light to carry into the world.
This birth story unites us. This birth story is one common thread in our lives and in our faith. It has drawn us together so that even if we gather few other times together to worship, each us felt the need, the importance to gather together tonight. We can’t let the story stop here. We can’t let the gospel end at the manger, because the good news of God who came to live among creation did end there. This birth story, this Christmas story we have begun on this one holy night, must continue on so that our families and friends, our community and our culture will know that Christ is born! God’s love is here to stay. With our united witness, the actions of our lives, and even our words, if necessary, may we share with others what the Lord has made known to us!