Today we hear the beginning of the greatest story ever told; in the gospel accord to Luke, Luke offers a surprisingly boring start: governmental systems and taxation. Caesar Augustus put out a decree that all in the world should be taxed; everyone had to travel to the nearest city of lineage. For Joseph and Mary, this meant that they traveled to Bethlehem from Galilee, even as she was great with child. While they were in Bethlehem, she borne a son, wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manager, because there was no room in the inn. An angel of the Lord came to them, and they were surrounded by the glory of the Lord, and they were afraid. “Fear not!” the angel says, “I bring good tidings of great joy.” The angel then tells of the prophecy of Jesus’ birth as a multitude of angels joined the first before they went back into heaven. The shepherds who were in another field made haste to come see what had happened in Bethlehem and found Mary, Joseph, and the Christ child lying in the manager. Then they went about the business of spreading this good news of great joy, as Mary kept these things in her heart, and then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God.
In the face of a system that doesn’t make space for Mary and Joseph and that demands that they travel to give their due to the Roman emperor, the angels come and proclaim that they bring good tidings of great joy. No doubt, Mary and Joseph likely found this time to be joyful, but also worrisome, and I’m curious what they thought as they were “sore afraid” as this version of Luke puts it. All along, they knew this wasn’t normal; they knew that this child was borne of the Holy Spirit, and even as they said ‘yes’ to God’s call, they were still uncertain and fearful. I love this part of Luke’s account, because what Luke is writing here isn’t a perfectly historic account, it’s a theology; Luke is writing the beginning of the greatest story. Everything has changed because of what happened this night, and I love that Luke keeps the fact that Mary and Joseph were afraid, when he could have easily filtered that detail out of the experience, but instead we get this very human start to the greatest story ever told.
One of the difficult things about the joy of Christmas, is that it can be hard to remember that it’s just the start. Many of us have been preparing for this day for weeks; in a lot of ways it feels like we have arrived at the mountain top, it can feel like we did it and we are done. But the story we hear this Christmas morning is not the end, it’s the beginning; the good tidings of great joy that the angels proclaimed to the Holy Family doesn’t end today, and it doesn’t even end with the 12 days of Christmas; this great joy will go on to change the whole world. This great joy will grow up and live a life that defied the systems, this great joy will go on to become a light to enlighten the nations, and this great joy will cast a vision of a life so dictated by love that thousands of years later, folks will gather in good times and in bad to celebrate this coming of this very great joy.
This is why we are here today; we come today to celebrate, to partake of God’s holy communion together, and give thanks for the faithfulness of Mary and Joseph as we celebrate Christ’s birth. But as we leave, it’s important to hold dear that this is just the beginning. It’s important to go out and proclaim not just the good tidings of great joy like the angel and the shepherds, but also to continue to live our lives shaped by the way in which this great joy, the Christ, lived his life and of the life to which we are called in our baptism.
And the truth is, Christmas matters very little if we don’t let this great joy shape our everyday lives. The reality of God being with us, the reality of this story that starts this happy morning, is that it can filter and affect every part of our lives. Every part of our lives changed when the Christ child was born. The challenge comes to carry this great joy into the everyday, normal parts of our life; the challenge is to navigate this whole life holding dear to the good news of great joy that the angels proclaimed that night to Mary and Joseph, and to remember that it’s just the beginning. It’s just the beginning and when we go out into the world and let our lives be continually shaped not just by this great joy, but also the life that this great joy will soon go on to live, we, like Mary and Joseph, can change the world.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY for Christmas Day 2019.