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 regarding the birth of Jesus. They, like some in our congregations on Christmas Eve, are going about their daily routine without any expectations. Yet God sends an angel to announce good news even to those who have done no preparation and have no expectations.
The angel messenger leads off with the traditional “Do not be afraid!” and then follows it with the invitation at the heart of this story: “See—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11, emphasis added). “See!” or, as the King James Version translates it, “Behold!” It is an invitation to turn our heads, to open our eyes, and to witness this thing God is doing in Jesus for the salvation of the world. The angel gently takes the shepherds’ faces in his hands and guides their heads to gaze upon Christ. The shepherds cannot pass up this invitation and say, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place” (Luke 1:15, emphasis added).
This invitation to come and see the newborn king is echoed in many beloved Christmas hymns. For example, in “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”, Charles Wesley pens “late in time behold him come, offspring of a virgin’s womb. Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail th’ incarnate Deity” (emphasis added). Many Christmas hymns offer some answers to an important question that should be addressed in a Christmas Eve or Christmas Day sermon: What do we see when we gaze upon the newborn Christ? Hopefully it is something with more theological depth than a cute scene of a newborn baby. Here answers may vary depending on you or your tradition’s theological leanings. Personally, I find myself coming time and again to “On the Incarnation” by Saint Athanasius, who sees the Incarnation as God establishing solidarity with humankind to deliver us from sin and death as well as restore in us the image and likeness of God. In Wesleyan parlance, God taking on human flesh to deal with sin creates the possibility of our sanctification. Wherever you land, land with an invitation to adoration of Christ.
Having adored the newborn Messiah for themselves, the shepherds become witnesses. They cannot contain God’s grace received through the angel’s proclamation and their adoration. As the shepherds head home, they go “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20). The grace of God that enters the world through Jesus cannot be contained to the event itself but overflows into the story of that event. We too can receive this grace today. Here, at the beginning of the story of Jesus, we see evidence of how uncontainable the good news is. It begins in the obscurity of a feeding trough on the edge of the Roman Empire but will be proclaimed by witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
The invitation of Jesus’ birth is not just to see something new, but to gain a new way of seeing. We do not have to stay transfixed on this world’s seats of power and their every movement. If the Bible is to be believe, God is way more likely to show up in some obscure corner of the world at work through the unlikeliest of people. God has joined God’s very self to our human life in the flesh of Jesus, which means new divine possibilities for all of creation, if we can but gain the eyes to see them. Poet Wendell Berry grasps the new way of seeing born of the Incarnation:
Remembering that it happened once, We cannot turn away the thought, As we go out, cold, to our barns Toward the long night’s end, that we Ourselves are living in the world It happened in when it first happened, That we ourselves, opening a stall (A latch thrown open countless times Before), might find them breathing there, Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw, The mother kneeling over Him, The husband standing in belief He scarcely can believe, in light That lights them from no source we see, An April morning’s light, the air Around them joyful as a choir. We stand with one hand on the door, Looking into another world That is this world, the pale daylight Coming just as before, our chores To do, the cattle all awake, Our own frozen breath hanging In front of us; and we are here As we have never been before, Sighted as not before, our place Holy, although we knew it not.
God has entered creation, and it is forever changed. God has assumed human form and opens the possibility for us to become holy, although we knew it not.
 St Athanasius, On The Incarnation (Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996).
 Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1998), 94.