A stable, Mary and a baby. The basic image of Christmas as you find it on the front of our order of service. Joseph may be there too, and a shepherd or two and even the odd angel. A static image, evoking feelings of calm and peace, of soothing and comfort. Christmas a time that is supposed to find us calm, relaxed and settled in a warm, friendly and fairly sedate family atmosphere with good food, nice wine and some comfortable chairs to lounge in.
Strangely enough the story these images are derived from is not a calm and peaceful story at all. On the contrary: It is a story full of movement, excitement and unexpected happenings.
To start with there are Mary and Joseph, travelling to Bethlehem because of some silly decree issued by an inconsiderate Roman emperor who never stopped to think about the implications his command would have for ordinary people. 8 Months pregnant Mary has to struggle her way to Bethlehem because of it. Swollen feet, aching back and tummy muscles and decreased stamina notwithstanding.
After arrival in Bethlehem things only get worse: a frantic search for a place to sleep ensues, as the first signs of the arrival of a little one start to manifest themselves. As a young mother faces labour without any of the necessary preparation or support there is the last minute, desperate scramble to find something resembling a cot to put the child in and the impromptu tearing up of a few clothes to swaddle it in.
Frenetic all the way!
And we, modern 21st century people who come from a culture where creating optimum circumstances surrounding a birth has become a priority for any new parents, may wonder how Jesus ever grew into the man he was with a start like that: bumped along for days on the way to Bethlehem, he came into the world surrounded by a lot of stress and anxiety, with no clean sheets or fresh water at hand, and laid in a crib filled with health and safety regulations defying straw.
When God comes to earth says Luke, he is, from the start, born into life as it is: imperfect and marked by unwarranted circumstances and unexpected twists and turns.
An unexpected pregnancy, an unanticipated and ill prepared trip, an unforseen lack of available accommodation, and the impromptu arrival of a newborn. Isn't that life very much as it is experienced by most of us?
Full of surprises and unforseen circumstances? With us forever unprepared for whatever will hit us next?
I don't know about you, but mine is, or at least feels that way some of the time: full of surprises, not all of them pleasant, and you never know what is going to be around the next corner..........
In the fields, outside, we find the shepherds. And that, really says enough about who and what they were: creatures of the dark, physically removed from decent society, huddling together with thieves and robbers and other folk that didn't want to show their faces inside the city walls for fear of being arrested.
Hardly congruent with the picture of a silent night spent in calm and peaceful pastoral bliss that some of the Christmas carols present us with!
They are people in the midst of life's insecure and fragile equilibrium: Threatened by wild beasts, the unreliable joining them around their campfires the shepherds are people who are eking out an existence against the odds. They would not have earned much, and their lively hoods would have been under constant threat. Not much different from how most of us struggle through life really.
But there is more to these shepherds and why they figure so prominently in the story: Apart from the fact that they were the down and outs of 1st century society, their occupation was at the same time used as an example for the good conduct of a king. A good king at the time was to be like a shepherd to his people, protecting them and caring for them like a shepherd would for his flock. And by surrounding the birth of his Messiah with shepherds Luke indicates that this is where he sees the roots of this Messiah to lie: With shepherds and shepherding, in the good tradition of King David who also started his career as a shepherd (and many other biblical heroes for that matter).
The Christmas of those shepherds as it is described in the story, again full of movement and unexpected surprises:
Scared stiff by the sudden appearance of an angel they are forced to move, off to the stable and on to the city to tell others about the good news.
There doesn't seem to be a quiet moment in the gospel story as Luke tells it. Apart maybe, from when the shepherds enjoy the music of the angel choirs in the fields and that is only because they have to catch their breath before they plunge into the next part of the story.
Luke's story is full of frantic activity and unrest rather than a serene mood of expectancy and pious preparation. Joseph and Mary on their way to Bethlehem meet with all sorts of unexpected calamity and the shepherds in the fields are totally unprepared for the change of direction their plans would take.
A bit like our lives don't you think? Especially in the time leading up to Christmas where everything and anything often seems to happen all at once: calamity, unexpected twists and turns, pleasant surprises and unwelcome complications added to the normal flow of life that is often exciting and unpredictable enough as it is.
When God comes, Luke says, he comes in the middle of that hectic and out of control existence, to people that are ill prepared and not ready to receive him, most likely frightening the living daylights out of them in the first place.
At the heart of Christmas there is not the peace and calm of a silent, holy night but the message that anywhere, at anytime, with anybody, God could be born, no matter what else is going on, no matter how hectic or frantic life gets or how challenging the circumstances are.
At the heart of Christmas the message is that God seeks to come to birth in life as it is, full of surprises, full of the unexpected, ill prepared for the coming of a Messiah and not ready for a revolutionary change of direction by any stretch of the imagination. And still, God comes, vulnerable like a baby, asking for our care and attention so the seed of peace. love and healing can grow and come to fruition in the world. In Christ and through him in us as we seek to follow his lead. Amen.