In many ways St. Luke was very lucky. As he observed the growing enthusiasm for the message that Jesus’ followers were offering to everyone they encountered, Luke was able to see what was being said and what was being written and, when discovering that something was missing, he just filled in that part. It happens to have been the beginning of what became Luke’s gospel but, more importantly, for all time it became the story of the birth of Jesus, our Christ. We are accustomed to the phrase “the good news of Jesus Christ” but in Luke’s day both he and St. Mark were well aware that the Greek term for ‘good news’ was usually used in reference to something that the Roman emperor or Roman empire had achieved. This ‘good news’ was then a political as well as a theological claim. What we take as so innocent was, in fact, politically charged.
The Toronto Star editorial wrote today: “What Christianity teaches us is that the birth of Christ was an event of epic simplicity, modest circumstances, a small , intimate family setting. A manger. Lowly beasts. Humble parents. The miracle of new life.
“It was all about—as were most of Christ’s later teachings—turning convention on its head. In that stable in Bethlehem, the weak were strong, the humble mighty, the powerful defied, the stranger to be welcomed”
Luke’s story has inspired artists and writers, teachers and preachers, moms and dads, the rich and the poor and this evening even those of us gathered virtually. It is a story that touches us deeply. It is also a story that theologically adds significantly to our understanding of Jesus. No one had video cameras or cell phones to capture the birth or to follow Jesus through the early years of his life. His followers then, and now, relied on stories as a way of capturing some of the nuance and significance of how this wee babe with no home and such an uncertain future could change the world. For change it he did.
The earlier followers of Jesus were, of course, Jews. So for Luke it was absolutely critical that this baby be able to trace its roots back into his Old Testament ancestors and particularly to be in the line of David. Luke ensures that for those who only knew Jesus the man that there is also a story of Jesus, son of David, son of God. This baby had roots so deep in the Hebrew narrative that any Jew would recognize what Luke was doing…the Messiah, the Christ would be a descendant of David and Jesus was exactly that descendant argued Luke.
Luke faced the challenge of trying to tell the whole story of Jesus in a new way and he knew that there would have to be a beginning. Our Advent journey every year leads us to that beginning as we make our journey to the manger and discover afresh that God is with us and was made known to us in the birth of a child, something we all know and cherish.
For most of us this will be one of the most challenging Christmas Eves that we have ever faced. We are cut off from friends and family and except for the 4 people here in our Sanctuary this evening we are even cut off from our place of worship. Let me assure you that being here as 4 people presenting this worship experience is nothing like being here with all of you participating, singing, praying, coughing, and yes even some sleeping. People build community and it is the absence of community that hits us hardest this year of the corona virus. As the lockdowns are extended it is perhaps even difficult to imagine that there might ever be a time of and for ‘good news’. When we feel lonely and afraid it is very difficult to hear good news and further even to imagine good news.
I have a young friend whose name is Dave. He is a kind and unassuming guy. He is also a brilliant writer who composes a lengthy Christmas message in poetic story form every year parts of which I have shared with you on many Christmas Eves. This year, when it would have been so easy to focus on how hard life is for us during the Covid lockdown, Dave wrote about Christmas for those civilians during the Second World War who would go night by night into the safety of the subway tunnels of the Underground or Tube as it is called in the United Kingdom. The story is about Billy, his sister Martha, his mother and his grandfather as they mark Christmas Eve underground with the constant concern for Billy’s dad who is fighting the war and it has been a month since they last heard from him. Dave writes:
“The people all huddle together under blankets, coats and rugs, even
faded copies of the latest paper. But one can hardly feel the cold in this festive atmosphere. There is laughter and merriment; eyes are twinkling, old jokes are being told, rousing toasts are being made. Tonight, they are all determined to enjoy the holiday season and exploit it to the upmost…
“Billy smiles and takes pleasure in the festivities. His sister points further down the platform to two figures in rubber masks kissing under some artificial mistletoe, to the amusement of everyone…
“An image flashes through Billy’s mind: a familiar smile, kind eyes…but he pushed the picture out of his mind. Not tonight. There would be time to remember and to envision and to hope against hope…but not tonight. He snuggles against Martha. His sister looks down at him briefly, as if she knows what might be going through his mind and cuddles him back. Billy closes his eyes and listens to the beautiful singing and the feisty accompaniment of the band:
There’ll be bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover
Tomorrow, just you wait and see
There’ll be love and laughter
And peace ever after
Tomorrow, when the world is free…
(Billy’s) stomach grumbles slightly, but
he ignores it. He shouldn’t be hungry.
The ladies had come by a few hours ago
with refreshments and Mum had
bought the family a meat pie
and hard biscuits to share, as
well as some watery tea.
It was hardly a feast but Billy
was grateful…or tried to be.
There is a suggestion from
the crowd for the band to play: Away in a Manger.
Away in a manger
No crib for His bed
The little Lord Jesus
Lay down His sweet head
The stars in the bright sky
Look down where He lay
The little Lord Jesus
Asleep on the hay…
“It is his father’s favorite carol.
The familiar face surfaces again in his mind
and this time Billy cannot hold back a tear
which he bats away before it can stream down
Tonight is for celebration.
The band finally finishes its performance and
the Christmas festivity begins to die down…
“His mother kneels down beside them and
helps them snuggle into their sleeping bags.
Mum and Martha whispered a quick prayer together.
Billy said the Lord’s Prayer in his head and prays for
the only real wish that mattered this year…for the return
of his father the hero, the man who only last Christmas had held Billy
in his arms while the family sang carols…
And God willing, some day when
this madness is over (thought Billy) and the need
for heroes ends,
Christmas will come again…
above ground and with his family complete once again.”
What struck me about this and Dave’s much longer Christmas message is that it reminded me, as I hope it reminds you, that we are not the first to suffer through lockdowns and pandemics whether they be caused by a virus or the violence of war. History gives us many examples that suggest we need to keep our own challenges in perspective. I find that hard to do personally as I’ve not lived any of the other challenges that have afflicted our world prior to this virus. Others have, as Dave reminds us, and they have not only survived, they have thrived.
It seems to me we would be well served this Christmas if we could ask ourselves “How do we make a proclamation of ‘good news’ when we are in such dire Covid straits?” Perhaps it is through our mitten tree or the food drive or connecting with friends and strangers. There was a time when people descended daily into the underground network for safety, rest, nourishment and yes, hope. Luke knew that there needed to be a simple and positive message that would appeal to those who were inclined to listen and follow this man Jesus. People thrive even in the midst of adversity if they have a sense that somewhere or in someone that there is indeed “good news”. The shepherds found it. Billy found it. You and I may find it as well. It begins at a manger and leads to the miracle of new life.
With Luke, we take the good news to others. That privilege begins for us once again this evening as we too gather at the manger and sing together “Joy to the World! The Lord is come…”