When I was a freshman at BGSU, I had a part in the theatre department’s production of the play, “Our Town.” It was a small part—the part of eleven-year-old Rebecca. Rebecca is only onstage during the first act, and most of her lines are ones where she’s squabbling with her older brother George. But it’s Rebecca whose voice closes the first act. She and her brother are staring out the window at the night sky, and as they marvel at the moonlight, Rebecca tells George about a letter her friend Jane had received from her minister when she was sick.
“On the envelope it was addressed like this,” Rebecca says, “To Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire.” Her brother is unimpressed.
“But listen,” Rebecca says, “it’s not finished: United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God.”
With that, the first act comes to an end, and the audience is left to think about how the small town of Grover’s Corners is intimately connected to all of humanity, the entirety of the universe and, indeed, to the very mind of the Creator. Maybe you’ve had similar thoughts while looking at a star-filled sky, thinking that here we are in the village of Whitehouse, in Lucas Co., Ohio, on planet Earth, which is part of our Solar System, which is part of the Milky Way, which is just one galaxy among billions in the universe. These thoughts can lead us to wonder at this kind of cosmic ladder that seems to lead in the direction of God.
The story of Jesus’ birth as Luke tells it is very much like Rebecca’s story, but in reverse. Rather than spiraling out from one small speck of a place into all of eternity, Luke starts out in the center of earthly power and spirals inward to the place where eternity meets us.
As we’ll hear shortly, Luke’s account begins in Rome, with the Emperor Augustus and his order that all the world should be registered. The order went down from there to Syria, where Quirinius was governor. From there the story focuses even more narrowly, first on Nazareth in Galilee, and then on a town described by the prophet Micah as the home of “one of the little clans of Judah”: Bethlehem. But this zooming-in isn’t finished. From the town of Bethlehem, Luke continues to an inn where there was no room, to a particular shelter of some kind and, finally, to that smallest and most insignificant of places: a manger.
Through a journey from the palatial halls of imperial power in the center of the known world to a feeding trough in a small, backwater town, Luke reveals what Christmas is all about. Christmas isn’t about us craning our necks to find a transcendent God. It’s about God coming to us. If there’s anything that should fill us with wonder, it’s the simple and mysterious fact that God came to us.
We spend a lot of time doing things that we hope will draw us closer to God. We pray. We study. We worship. We serve. And all those things are right and good. They are the evidence of our faith in God—our heartfelt response to God’s grace. But, we can get so caught up in looking for God beyond ourselves. Like stargazers looking to the night sky, we imagine God “out there” in a somewhere far beyond what any scientist has dared to dream of. “Out there” is where we picture the God we wonder at. It’s the God “out there” who takes our breath away and boggles our minds—the God of majesty and power, the God of all creation, whose canopy is the stars.
But tonight, we turn from looking for God “out there” in the heavens. Tonight, we look “in here.” We look into the manger that’s right in front of us, where God passed by the earthly powers that ruled the nations, past the middle managers, through successively smaller, to one available room and one manger, occupied by one baby, who seems no different from any other human baby, except…
…that that baby was God. God who came into our world through the normal, messy struggle of childbirth. God who was wrapped in the clothing his mother had so tenderly prepared for him. God, whom the angels announced. God, whom curious shepherds came to see and wise men from far away would eventually greet with the help of a star. The all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present God came to us in the form of a…baby. A baby. A baby. Take a moment and let that thought settle in your heart. Take a moment to simply rest in the wonder of this unimaginable act of love for and solidarity with us.
God came into our world in the most common of ways. In doing that, God hallowed our human existence, the places we call home, the work that we do, the lives that we live. God showed us that our humanity is beautiful, and precious, and intimately connected to a God’s plan for the world. Just as God made the manger bed a holy place, God makes our lives holy, too. God didn’t look down at us or look down on us. God came down to us.
In a few moments we’ll light candles and sing “Silent Night” together. We will gather in a semi-circle, beginning at the side of the nativity scene and forming a circle through the pews. When it’s your turn to light your candle, tip your candle into the flame of the candle next to you. Then hold your candle upright, while the next person tips his or her candle into yours. As the candles are lit, we’ll join in singing “Silent Night,” a song that invites us into the wonder of this night, when God came to us.
We know what kind of life the baby in the manger would grow up to have. We know what kind of death he would suffer. We know that he would be raised from the dead and retake his place at the right hand of his Father, all so that we might have life and have it abundantly. But tonight, let’s keep our minds and our hearts right here, because this is where God is. Let’s stay in this moment, because this is where God is. Let’s allow ourselves to be filled with wonder that God has come to us and abides with us, our Lord, Emmanuel. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young