Friday, December 24, 2010

My First Christmas Eve...

It’s early winter in Bethlehem. There’s a chill in the air and the scent of damp straw hangs all around. The cattle are lowing… the stars are shining extra bright. Something incredible has occurred this night. Tonight, for the first time since humanity stood amidst the Garden of Eden, God tangibly comes to us. Pretty incredible, no? This tiny, wriggly baby—Jesus, Emmanuel—is fully human, and fully God.
And, yet, where is the fanfare? God, who created the earth from nothing, had the power to choose anyone on earth to bear and raise his Son… so he chose a young woman, not more than a child herself; and a common carpenter.
It seems like a rather strange way to save the world, doesn’t it?
When I think about raising children, the Nigerian proverb which says, "Ora na azu nwa” comes to mind. Translated, it means, “It takes an entire community to raise a child.” Hillary Clinton made this proverb famous when she named her 1996 book “It takes a Village to Raise a Child.” As a youth minister, I can attest to this notion—that it’s not only a child’s family that influences who they become as they grow up… but also the community, school and friends that surround them.
If I were to choose a family to raise my child, I would require some serious applications. I would want not only to meet the couple, but might require several references, a tour of the community in which my child would be raised and a guarantee that s/he would be raised in a good church.
What on earth could God be thinking, choosing two peasants who aren’t even married yet to raise His one and only son?
What kind of life could he possibly have? Born, not in a warm cozy home where Mary had been “nesting” for weeks, but in a strange land, placed in a feeding trough. This is nothing like the birth stories with which we are familiar. There’s no account of midwives helping with delivery while Joseph paces the floor... There is no mention of warm water or receiving blankets… Jesus was wrapped in bands of cloth.
There was no one waiting outside the room for the good news of safe delivery and the anticipated declaration “IT’S A BOY!” There was livestock. This new family found its humble beginnings lost somewhere in the shuffle of the world’s first census.
But that’s not entirely true, now is it? There were shepherds not far from this strange scene… but why shepherds? Isn’t there an inn with people close by?
One scholar writes that, “[Shepherds] are people whom we wouldn't expect to be worshiping Jesus. Because of their jobs, shepherds normally didn't make it to the Temple worship services. They didn't practice Sabbath day observances. They were seen as ignorant, irreligious, immoral, crude and vulgar Jews – and they smelled bad, too.[1]
Some biblical scholars have even noted that shepherds were so shifty in their business practices—letting their sheep graze on other’s land—that they were not permitted as witnesses in courts of law.[2] That’s right-- men who were not considered fit to be witnesses in court, are the first to witness the Christ child![3]
The angel appears to this motley crew—not the pious Pharisees or Saducees—and announces to them the birth of the Lord, the Messiah… the one for whom the people of Israel have been waiting and waiting.
Let’s recap the story so far. It’s a brisk night in Bethlehem, miles and miles from Nazareth. Mary and Joseph are exhausted from traveling and have just born witness to the birth of this tiny baby, they know to be the Messiah. There is a stillness hanging in the air…no one with whom to celebrate this incredible experience… when suddenly a bunch of shifty, smelly shepherds come stumbling upon the scene babbling about angels and a celestial experience...
It doesn’t sound real, does it? It might even sound a bit… crazy.
If it truly takes a village to raise a child, why would God send his only begotten Son to a community of peasants, livestock and unsavory shepherds?
I’ll tell you why: Because this child—this babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, this SAVIOR—is not to be raised by any village. He came to raise our village. It takes this child to raise our entire community.
This is the story of how our God became human and entered the most neglected, unsavory places on earth, that no one could be left out. This story is not about a virgin mother or a carpenter; it’s not about a multitude of angels or shepherds… it is about God incarnate.

God takes the commonplace details of life and enters in, making them holy. God does not reside on some unattainable throne dressed only in the finest linens. God the Son became human and laid in a manger, wrapped in bands of cloth. Jesus, Son of God, suffered the shock of birth—grasping for his first breaths of humanity—so that we might know the salvation he brings.

No matter what this year, or this decade, has brought: pain, illness, shame, suffering, even ambivalence… this story tells us of the invitation God makes to us, like the unsavory shepherds. Despite who we are or how we’ve acted, Jesus Christ breaks into our world and becomes human like us so that he can die for us and for our sins. My fiancé wrote earlier that, “Tonight we celebrate and remember, not just to give gifts, not just to see a baby in a manger, but to ponder the great gift of eternal life that is wrapped in those bands of cloth in that stable.”

It’s early winter in (_______, West Virginia). There’s a chill in the air. The chickens are roosting… the stars are shining extra bright tonight. Something incredible has occurred this night. Tonight, and for the past two thousand years, our God has walked among us to show us love, compassion and forgiveness. Pretty incredible, isn't it?

[1] Brian Stroffegen,

[2] Brian Stroffegen,

[3] ibid.

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