Sssshhhh. Sorry to shush you, but the baby’s back there sleeping – finally. Poor Mary has been trying to get him to sleep for awhile now. Which, for the record, is not easy to do in an animal stable! But hey, it’s better than nothing. Normally I’d imagine you’d find it hard to believe anyone being born in an animal stable. But I know that’s not the case tonight. After all, it’s why you’re here.
I find myself just sitting there and looking at him. My newborn son – I mean, like just newborn! So small, so fragile, lying there. Taking little breaths in. It is a gift in and of itself, just gazing upon this new life that you have been given.
I wonder what he’s dreaming right now. I’m sure he’s dreaming something – we all dream. They say that people dream most every night; it’s just that we don’t remember it when morning comes. And even the ones we do remember – they soon fade away, like a morning mist burning off with the rising sun.
I know what it’s like to dream. Not all that long ago, I had a dream that I remembered long after I woke up. It’s still with me today. It’s hard to forget dreams when they have angels in them – and even harder when those angels tell you something you need to hear. I know this all sounds insane – I hear myself talking about angels in dreams, and I wouldn’t fault you for thinking I was crazy. To be honest, with the way my life has been the past year, I sometimes wonder myself.
It all started one normal afternoon when my fiancé Mary came to see me at the carpenter’s shop. I could tell by the look on her face that something was wrong. Very wrong. And it scared me, honestly, because I loved this woman and could not wait for her to become my wife. We had grown up together, practically; and I had known for a while that she was the one, long before I approached her father to ask his permission.
And none of that changed when she told me she was pregnant. I still loved her. But man, was I ever confused and hurt – and yes, a little angry. And the thing is, it wasn’t that I didn’t believe her when she told me where this child had come from – not trusting her was never something I considered. I just didn’t understand it. How could this have happened? And why her and me? We were no one special – just a young Jewish couple trying to make it in a first-century Palestinian, Roman-ruled world. That was everyone’s story, not just ours. We weren’t anyone special.
And I guess that’s why I so easily let everyone convince me that only option I had was to let her go. “It’s allowed by our customs,” they said. “It’s the only way to save your reputation. Don’t worry about hers. It’s gone. Think about yourself now. Think about your future.” And as much as it pained me to imagine that future, a future without her, it seemed like it was the only choice I had.
So when I went to bed that night, I had it all planned out: the next day I would dismiss her, quietly. No fanfare. No public mudslinging. I would sacrifice my love for Mary in the hope that both of us, in the long run, would be better off apart. That was the last thought in my mind as I drifted off into sleep. It was not the most restful night, I’ll assure you. It was unsettled, much like what my life had become.
And that’s when the dream came, and with it, the angel.
People are always asking me what the angel looked like. I think they’re trying to test me – like if I can’t describe it, it probably never happened. But see, that’s the thing with dreams. They are real, as real to us as the waking world. But they are not something that can be expressed with a single sense – sight, sound, smell. They’re deeper than that. Like trying to describe what an ocean breeze looks like, or the sound of love. I was so much more aware of the angel’s presence than its appearance – the very divine entering my subconscious, where my guard was down and I was open to receive and listen and hear.
And what I heard the angel say was undeniable, staying with me long after my sleep was over, long after the usual fog of last night’s dream has lifted. I can still hear the angel as if it were speaking to me today. “Joseph, Son of David,” the angel called me. Which was strange, I remember, because my father’s name was Jacob, not David.
Anyway, it continued:
Joseph, do not hesitate to get married.
Mary’s pregnancy is Spirit-conceived.
She will bring a son to birth.
And when she does, you will name him Jesus.
Because he will save his people from their sins.
I remember in that moment having a ton of questions. Who is David? Why should I get married? What do you mean this baby is of the Spirit? Why should I name him Jesus? How exactly will he save people from their sins?
I had so many questions, but dreams are rarely two-way communications. They are ethereal. And I knew, as my sleeping mind filled with those questions, that they were not meant to be asked or answered. At least not then.
And to this day I cannot explain why, when I woke up, I did the exact opposite of what I went to bed thinking I’d do. All my family and friends were dumbfounded – and it didn’t exactly reassure them when I said it was because of an angel in my dreams! But I didn’t care. I did precisely the thing no one expected – which is not my style! Mary and I were married, and I told her I would treat this baby as if it were my own. We made the conscious decision to embark on this journey together, knowing full well it would be a complicated and long and winding road, but knowing we would have each other.
And a winding road it has been! A road that has led us here, to Bethlehem, to the land of my family. A road that has led us to an animal stable in the innkeeper’s backyard, and to our precious baby boy being born in a dirty manger, used just this morning to feed the animals. A road that has led to us this incredibly odd gathering of wayward shepherds and barnyard animals, all of us illuminated by the strange bright star shining above us in a dark night sky.
And I know what you’re thinking, by the way. Don’t worry, I’m used to it. You’re wondering if I feel insignificant in this whole thing, since that baby back there is not really “mine.” You wonder if I feel like I’m just being dragged along for the ride; a convenient pawn in a cosmic game where my presence is not entirely necessary. It’s funny, because I think we all feel that way at some point in life, don’t we? I mean, there are times when we feel totally in control, everything’s going our way, we’ve got a grip on things. We have our calendars and agendas and things are playing out exactly as they’re supposed to. And then there are times when we are blindsided by something we least expected, something we never saw coming. It rocks our world to its core, and we feel our grip slipping. Our calendars and agendas are pointless, and we feel so insignificant and useless and small.
I’m not saying I’ve never felt that way before. What I’m saying is that it’s different this time. It’s different because of that dream, and that angel, and that baby. I mean, you and I live in the blink of an eye, and we get so caught up in our own “stuff” that it’s nearly impossible to see the larger picture, to see outside ourselves. Which is sad, because the truth is that it is only in looking outside ourselves that we can begin to understand how much we really matter.
For me, that understanding came when I figured out why the angel called me “Son of David,” even though my father’s name was Jacob. See, that angel was thinking far beyond what my feeble mind could ever imagine. The David he was referring to was the great King David – my ancestor centuries before, and the one to whom God promised a Messiah, the one who would “save us from our sins.”
Don’t you see? I am a Son of David! It was my donkey that carried Mary on our journey to Bethlehem; it was my persistence that convinced the innkeeper to give us what room he had. In a few days I’ll take the baby to the temple to be circumcised; in a few years I’ll raise him as a carpenter so he can continue my trade until it is time for him to do what he is here to do.
I am a Son of David. But not just me. We are all sons of David, and we all get to prepare the way for Jesus. We prepare the way for Jesus when we let love guide us instead of fear, peace instead of violence. We prepare the way for Jesus when we build bridges instead of drawing lines in the sand. We prepare the way for Jesus by not just making room for the least, the lost and the otherwise left out, but embracing them as brothers and sisters. We prepare the way for Jesus on this night by creating space for him in our holiday busy-ness, when preparations and parties and plans distract us from the bright star shining in the night sky.
We prepare the way for Jesus, because he is Emmanuel. What a beautiful word, don’t you think? Emmanuel. Beautiful not just in sound but in meaning. You know what it means? It means “God-is-with-us.” I love that – a complete sentence in a single word; a complex yet very basic thought. God-is-with-us.
And my hope for you on this night is that you’ll come to understand what Emmanuel really means, for you and for the world. I mean, look around us. We’re just trying to make it through the day; the challenging circumstances that life can dish out. We are born, we live, we die. We encounter change constantly, some good, some bad. We are shouting joyfully from the mountaintop one day, mired in the pit of the lowest valley the next.
And yet, you know what? That baby sleeping back there? His name is Jesus. Emmanuel. God-is-with-us. God with me as I defied every expectation to do what the angel said. God with the two of us, as we traveled to Bethlehem trusting only in God and the kindness of strangers. God with you as you come to this place on this night, brought here for any number of reasons, seeking sweetness for your joy-filled season or soothing peace for your troubled soul.
God with you when you’re rejoicing and celebrating, and God with you when you’re mourning the loss of what once was. God with you when all seems right with the world, and God with you when everything seems all wrong. God with you when you are certain in what you believe, and God with you when you’re more certain about what you don’t.
God with every one of us, now and always, because he is born to us. To me and to you. He is here, he is finally here! Merry Christmas to you all.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN.