Meditation on Luke 2:1-20
Pastor Karen Crawford
Christmas Eve 2020
The Presbyterian Church, 142 N. 4th St., Coshocton, OH 43812
What does Jesus look like? I am sure I asked that question long ago. The answer came in Vacation Bible School at my Lutheran church in Damascus, Maryland, one summer in the early 1970s. I made a wooden plaque with a picture of Jesus from a Christmas card–and painted it with shellac. That picture of a handsome Jesus, with wavy, flowing light brown hair and a well-groomed beard—looking like he just sat for a portrait at Olan Mills—smiled at me from my bedroom wall for many years.
Later I would notice many other pictures of Jesus, looking different. Somebody finally told me the truth—maybe it was in confirmation class! Nobody knew what Jesus looked like. Nobody was around with a camera and sketchbook and charcoals in Jesus’ time.
One of my favorite symbols and tradition of Christmas is the Nativity scene or creche, as we called it when I was a child. I used to tell and retell the Christmas story—my own version, anyway—with those painted ceramic figurines. My brother and I used to argue about their correct arrangement on a layer of fluffy cotton on top of a table or the piano. I think the story is that my Mom, when she was a teenager, saved her money and bought the figurines, one by one, at a five and dime store. There were kings and camels, a donkey and horse, sheep and shepherds. There were angels—one that hung from a hole in the roof of the barn and one that stood and looked fully human, except for white robe and wings. And yes, there was Mary in blue, with Joseph, and the baby in a manger. If I had to check the race/ethnicity box on that creche, I would check White or Caucasian, non- Hispanic.
But that never troubled me. Jesus looked like he belonged to my family—and I belonged to his! He looked like me! That brings me to a simple, theological truth. On Christmas, we celebrate and give thanks for the God who loved the world so much that He became one of us—and suffered all the humiliations of humanity and more than we can imagine, for our sakes.
Heaven came to earth for love, a humble baby in a manger, because there was no room at the inn.
You could say that Jesus arrived at the worst of times for the weary peasants of Judea in the Roman Empire. Or, you could say that he arrived at the best possible time for weary peasants of Judea in the Roman Empire. This was the “first registration” for the Empire, demanding that “all the (Roman) world” be registered for the census, so they could be taxed. This meant that young Mary, in her 9th month of her first pregnancy, had to travel with Joseph, her betrothed, 100 miles over rough, rocky terrain on foot from Nazareth to Bethlehem—to the city of David, not necessarily where he was born but from which his ancestors had come. This would be frightening for poor peasants like Mary and Joseph, as the strong arm of Rome imposed its power and will on those who didn’t have any voice and didn’t otherwise matter to the Empire. Tax collecting had been handled on the local level before that, with Jewish officials employed by the Empire collecting what was “due” and keeping some for themselves as a commission—in effect, getting rich off their less wealthy neighbors.
This first registration was taken, Luke says, while Quirinius was governor of Syria. This is a Byzantine mosaic of Mary and Joseph registering for the census before Governor Quirinius:
But the hope of Mary and Joseph is not in Caesar who commanded their trek. Their hope is the same as ours! In the God of Israel, who goes with them and dwells with us, still!
What touches me in this passage that we read every Christmas is the important role of the shepherds in the salvation story. For they are the ones who are off the grid, so to speak, in the “region,” living in the fields. Why aren’t they reporting for the Roman census? They are right in the trenches, working a thankless job necessary for their economy and way of life, if not the people’s very survival. While the rest of the world is sleeping, they are keeping watch over the flocks. These invisible, marginalized, voiceless workers living in the fields—not the rich and powerful ones of the day—are those whom God chooses to send angels to bring the “good news of great joy for all the people good news of great joy for all people” —not just one or two, but a whole multitude of heavenly hosts, praising God singing,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
One of the most surprising things about our Luke reading happens after the angels return to heaven. Like Mary, the shepherds believe without question the message of the angels. They become the bearer of the good news. They go “with haste” to Bethlehem to tell Mary and Joseph what the Lord has made known to them.
And Mary, a poor, voiceless, invisible peasant, who, up to the birth of the Messiah, King of kings, Lord of lords, and Prince of Peace, hasn’t mattered to the Roman Empire one whit except to be counted for tax purposes, listens intently to them. And she treasures all these words spoken by the voiceless, marginalized shepherds living in the fields, watching someone else’s flocks by night. And she ponders them in her heart.
The shepherds return to their fields to do their important work of caring for the sheep—but they will never be the same. These first evangelists are “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”
Do you wonder who else they tell?
The message hasn’t changed or lost its relevance after thousands of years, and if anything, grows more astounding by the day. My Nativity scenes have become more diverse and inclusive as Jim and I have collected many from different countries and cultures over the years. And we no longer take them all down after Christmas. They remain displayed all the time to help keep the message of Christ’s birth—and the joy that it brings—always in our heart and on our minds.
I no longer wonder what Jesus looked like. The whole debate is silly. It’s a stereotype to say that Jesus had to look a certain way because, after all, His father was GOD. As Colossians tells us, “the Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.”
The manger is the beginning of a journey for Christ that will lead all over Roman Judea, to Jerusalem and the cross, and, ultimately, the triumph of the empty tomb—and the promise of resurrection for all who believe in Him.
So, my friends, as you celebrate Christmas tomorrow in a much simpler, quieter way than you have in the past, remember that the first Christmas was simple and quiet, too—and a lot more stressful! It was the worst of times for God’s people living under the strong arm of the Empire. And it was the best of times for God’s people and everyone. For the message brought by angels and shepherds is GOOD news of GREAT JOY for ALL people.
Brothers and sisters, go and tell the world!
Heaven came to earth for love. A humble baby in a manger, because there was no room at the inn.
Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, thank you for the miracle of Christ’s birth – in the worst of times—for being willing to descend to earth and become one of us so that we might be saved from our sins and live with you eternally. Thank you for entrusting the message to the invisible, marginalized and voiceless—the shepherds, proving your preference for and concern for the poor and outcast and your love for all people. Who are the shepherds today, Lord, whom we may be overlooking, those who need our help and friendship? Build up our faith in the God of miracles of mercy and reveal to us the needs in our midst and how you want us to meet those needs. Fill us with the loving spirit of Christmas in our hearts all the yearlong, with praise and song on our lips with the multitude of angels: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” In Christ we pray. Amen.