When I look back on my life, I tend to think of it as a book. This may be because when I was a kid I was a voracious reader, and still do a fair bit of it now.
I find it useful to divide my life into chapters, often delineated by big events as reflect; my childhood, can be neatly divided into two- before the death of my parents, when I lived in Miami, and after, when I moved up to North Carolina to live with my sister Nee Nee and her husband Carl.
As an adult, there’d be a new one for when I stepped into a church for the first time as an adult, and it might contain some reflections on all the things that the church has given me over the years; a chance to meet my wife Shannon primary among them- we met at an after church service class in Dallas, but also employment, spiritual meaning and belonging.
Given those examples, what are some chapters in your own lives?
I think this framework of chapters useful as we approach the Christmas stories, because they represent new chapters in so many ways. Within the context of the Bible itself, they’re some of the first stories in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, and the beginning of John’s Gospel is the accompanying text for today’s reading. They also represent a beginning, a New Testament, a new story, three quarters of the way through the Bible.
But they also represent new chapters in the lives of the characters in the stories.
For anyone who has had children, pre child and post child Mary and Joseph led very different lives. After the magi give the holy family their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they go home by another road. The shepherds start praising God after they visit the holy family.
God of course, becomes incarnate, becomes flesh and bone in Jesus- literally a new way of being in the world.
One of the reasons I like Christmas in July isn’t just the fun of singing our Christmas Carols again while we’re sweating, but the ability to approach these beautiful stories at the center of our faith in new ways. There’s no Christmas music for 3 months beforehand or worrying about if there’s going to be room in the family budget for gifts, or Uncle Tony is going to get a little too drunk this year on mulled wine. I consider it a blessing for us to be able to encounter these stories without worrying about the ham in the oven at home.
This story has so much richness and depth in it; it has so much to teach us; today, we’ll consider what it has to teach us about how God moves in the world, and about how we might think about our own lives and the new chapters in them.
To begin, I actually love that we pair these two radically different “nativity” stories- from Luke and John- with each other.
One is intimate, the other cosmic, one very rooted in time and place, with characters having their own little interactions, the other at the birth of time and space itself. This reminds us about the character of God; there’s a meme, presumably made by atheists going around on social media that has a picture of the zoomed out galaxy, with text something like, “Christians, do you really believe that the creator of billions of galaxies and trillions of planets wants to be special friends with you?” My favorite Christian reply to this is simply, “yes.” God is both big enough to be the light that shines throughout the universe, and still fit in a manger.
This is useful for us to remember as well as we consider our own lives. Each of us is indeed very, very small in the cosmic scheme of things smaller than we can comprehend, yet vitally important, in more ways, than we can imagine.
But now into the nativity story itself; this beautiful story, which ends with the angels singing, begins with the most mundane of introductions; details about a census. I think this gives us a special insight into how God works in our own lives; what becomes miraculous often does not start out that way. My first experience of communion at the age of 25, which I have talked about before meeting Jesus in the bread and cup, began with looking up a worship service time on a website. Every new job begins with filling out an application and paperwork. Marriage takes getting a license, and pregnancy and birth prenatal care visits to doctors and parenting classes.
The nativity reminds us that God works through the normal as much as the spectacular, the easily seen as the mystical.
This should make us pause and reflect: how has God worked through the normal, and the mundane in our own lives?
What, looking back, seemed annoying or onerous in the moment, as surely traveling cross country with a pregnant fiancé must have been for Mary and Joseph, yet in hindsight was the beginning of something beautiful and holy?
The next informative, and I believe transformative section is the story of the shepherds. For the Jewish people, Shepherds would have been simultaneously a very average job and a symbol of God’s care for the people. The Old Testament is full of imagery describing God as divine shepherd, guiding the people toward green pastures and still waters through dangerous times.
This is yet another reminder of the complex interrelation between the normal and the sacred. But the story of the shepherds is useful to us for another reason.
The shepherds, for their part, are not the main characters, the protagonists in the story of Jesus’ life, or in the gospels. Their mention is relatively brief, only a paragraph or so. Yet it is profound and beautiful. They spend their time with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph telling them how wonderful their child will be and praising God. They don’t give unwanted parenting advice. They don’t harangue them over giving birth in unsanitary conditions. Theirs is a relationship that is brief, supportive, and holy. We know that all who heard them were astounded and amazed at the words of these shepherds, men who were not used to public speaking.
It reminds us that sometimes the best thing we can do for each other, however briefly we interact with each other- whether it’s in church on Sundays, at the football game, or at work or in school, is to support each other, knowing that our encounters will echo beyond the short time that we spend together.
How many of us remember the kindness of strangers, a quick compliment or a little bit of help when we needed it most?
Maya Angelou is often attributed with saying, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
No matter what chapter we’re in in the story of our lives- somewhere near the beginning like our readings were today in the gospels of Luke and John, or maybe ¾ of the way through, where the Gospels appear in the Bible, there is much to take from our Bible readings. These are foundational stories about God as transcendent light in the universe, and God as teeny tiny baby with wittle toes. They tell us about the sacred and the mundane, and how sometimes the best part we can play to support and uplift each other, no matter how brief, or how long, our time is with one another.