Christmas is a time of giving gifts, and later on today, you will, no doubt, be receiving and unwrapping lovely surprises and not-so-surprises from your nearest and dearest. Tonight we hear the Christmas story, and discover that here also is a gift, all wrapped in pretty paper, glitter and tinsel, and containing something very special. Though in some ways, it’s more like the present in pass the parcel, where there are lots of layers and wrapping, and if you are very lucky, you might find a little something tucked between the sheets of paper as an extra prize.
Unwrapping the multi-layered parcel of the Christmas story is also like those direction posts in tourist towns – York has a lot of them – which tell you which way the Minster is and where to go to find the Viking museum, giving you pointers about what to look for. The Christmas story is a story in which the details matter, and often we think we know the story so well, that we miss the point.
The way Luke tells the story, it begins with a decree from the Emperor Augustus. Let’s stop right there – we usually skip the Emperor Augustus. He was born Gaius Octavian, the great-nephew and adopted heir of Julius Caesar, and took charge of the Roman Empire from 27BC. He was the first Roman Emperor, and he thought a lot of himself. He called himself ‘son of god’. He took on the name ‘Imperator’, or Commander. He also added ‘Augustus’ to his name, which means majestic. He worked hard to maintain his world-conquering power, and changed the world by force.
In contrast, we come tonight to hear the story of a baby born in humble circumstances, who really was – is – the Son of God, who didn’t claim power, but was the power; who didn’t assert majesty but was utterly majestic; who changed the world not with violence but with love. The way Luke tells the story, he is making a point. There may be an Emperor in Rome, but here was the real King.
That’s what I mean about the pointers – the little details in the story that show you something important about what is going on.
Bethlehem was a little village not far from Jerusalem. People lived simply in two or three roomed houses, with one of the spaces kept for the animals in winter – the animals helped to keep the whole house warm, they were protected from the elements and protected from thieves. That is the area we generally call the stable. We often think that the baby was born as soon as Mary arrives in Bethlehem, but the story says “while they were there” – in other words, they got there and got settled in and were able to make preparations. Joseph was descended from King David, and a lot of the family lived in Bethlehem. That’s why he and Mary had to travel there for the census. The extended family would never turn away a family member, especially when his wife was near to term. That would have been so shameful! In the culture of the Middle East, you show honour to guests, because that honour reflects well on you. Bethlehem was too small to have a hotel. The word translated as ‘inn’ means a space for visitors, or guest room. But if the space allocated for guests was full with other visitors, you needed to find somewhere suitable for the woman to have her baby. It wasn’t winter – the scholars say it was either autumn or spring, and the animals were outside. So Mary was given this space, the stable, to have her baby. The men would have been sent away and the women and the local midwife would have helped her deliver the baby. And when the child was born, he was all wrapped up and placed in the manger.
But there are other layers in the packaging of this story. Luke uses a number of puns – words that sound like other words, and these are pointers to the real meaning. The word often translated as ‘inn’ sounds like a technical word often used for the holy of holies in the Jewish Temple, the really sacred, special place where God dwelt. The Hebrew version of the word we know as manger sounds like an ancient word for Jerusalem, and recalls a line in Psalm 2: ‘I have set my king in Zion’. And the manger is also important because it is comes into the next stage of the story, because the angels tell the shepherds that’s the sign for finding the special baby – lying in the manger.
The first people to visit the new born baby are shepherds. Shepherds were poor people, unimportant and uneducated. They were very ordinary folk, nothing special. In the eyes of the religious authorities, they were even regarded as unclean. Now there’s a bit of unpacking the parcel to be done here. You know it really, but did you ever make the connection? ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ – Psalm 23 – we often read it at funerals, one of the most loved and comforting psalms. And it’s a theme picked up by the prophets who talk about the leaders of Israel as shepherds. When this baby grows up, Jesus tells a lot of stories about finding lost sheep and how he is the good shepherd. Sheep and shepherds are really important in the whole story. And it starts right at the beginning. The shepherds come to visit the Good Shepherd.
So it is these people, guarding their sheep, who are given the privilege of a vision of angels dancing in the sky and praising God. A baby is born and all the angels of heaven rejoice! The angels tell them about the baby that has just been born in Bethlehem, the City of David, and is lying in a manger. Sure enough, they find the baby, and then they have such a story to tell about what they have seen and heard.
And another layer of the story is that Jesus comes first to ordinary people. They see the glory of the angels and hear the good news they bring from God.
Christ is born in Bethlehem! And we come here, year by year, to worship with the shepherds at the manger. Christ has come to us, to ordinary people. And when we look more deeply at the simple story about a baby being born, we see more clearly how God was giving us so many signs that this special baby is God’s Son, and that he has come because God cares.