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Christmas Eve Gospel

David Johnston

Luke begins his narrative of Jesus’ birth by situating it in relation to who is in power: Caesar Augustus and Quirinius. These two men held power over their citizens’ everyday lives. For example, Augustus’ decree for a census means people are on the move to their hometowns. Augustus and Quirinius are the names one would hear in the daily news, if it existed then.

But then Luke gently takes his reader’s face in his hands, saying “I know Augustus and Quirinius seem very important and powerful, but look over here at these two.” As he says this, he moves his reader’s head toward a distant corner of the Roman Empire. Luke’s narrative gaze shifts from the seats of power and fixes itself on two Palestinian Jews named Joseph and Mary.

As people gather for Christmas Eve services, what are they focused on? We can imagine a long list of things: family, traditions, the sentiments of the season, the next thing on the to-do list, the family member or friend who’s passed since last Christmas, and whatever is going on in the news at the time. Here in the United States, we do have people in power making decisions right now about tax reform that, much like Augustus’ census, will have a profound impact on people’s everyday lives. How do we, like Luke, gently take people’s faces in our hands and guide their gaze to Bethlehem? How do we give them eyes to see not just a familiar sentimental nativity scene but God in the flesh, come to save the world? Even then, there will be work to for people to see that the world that God so loves that God sent God’s Son to save is this same world in which we live.

To see the mighty acts of God is to become a witness, one who then shares the story of God with others. I cannot think of an example in Scripture where someone sees God at work and then keeps that news to his or her self, and Mary and the shepherds are no different. God’s grace at work in the world is so potent that it cannot be contained to the event of God’s act but overflows into the story of that event too! With a story as familiar as this one, we may have to unwrap the story from the swaddling clothes of sentimentality that it’s been wrapped up in for generations.

The sermon could choose to present the story from one perspective or the other, or both. (Yes, I’m leaving Joseph out; he gets his airtime in the gospel of Matthew).

We can imagine Mary representing those whose eyes are open, watching for the Lord. They are the ones who have prepared throughout Advent, as Mary has done through her pregnancy. They are ready to receive this new thing God is doing. The words proclaimed by Gabriel at the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38) and Mary in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) are preparation to see what God is doing in the birth of Jesus. Jesus is the Son of God who will reign over a kingdom without end. But this new kingdom does not work the way Augustus and Quirinius work. Rather, God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). When God fulfills these things and Mary gives birth, she does not need an angel to tell her who this baby is or what to do: she receives Lord Jesus into her arms. Later, when she receives the news from the shepherds, she “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). God has joined God’s life to human flesh in Jesus for the salvation of the world, and Mary gazes in adoration upon the great mystery of the Incarnation, swaddled in the manger.

We can imagine the shepherds representing those whose eyes are not yet open. They are focused on their daily lives like the shepherds watch their sheep. The shepherds are oblivious to all that Mary and Joseph have seen and heard reg