My earliest memory is of travelling on a plane. Airline regulations have changed since I was a child but back then, rather than buckling children up the entire flight, adults would simply put a blanket on the floor and lay small children under their feet to sleep. One would hope, as anyone who’s traveled with children has hoped, that the child would drift off for a good few hours making the trip somewhat manageable.
One long flight home my parents attempted such a maneuver. I remember, however, laying on the fuselage floor wide awake attempting to entertain myself and soon noticed a black dress shoe just within reach. Supposing it to be my father’s I reached out to grab it. It quickly became apparent that this wasn’t, in fact, my father’s shoe as the leg to which it was attached suddenly jerked backwards and out of sight. All this to say, my earliest memory is of traveling somewhere; of leaving someplace and arriving someplace else.
When we read the story of Jesus’ birth as described in the Gospels we find all kinds of travel language. In fact, as we conclude the season of Advent, we might remember that Advent simply means “arrival”. This is a story is about comings and goings, exits and entrances.
If we were to ask ourselves, “why was Jesus born in Bethlehem?” we might come up with a number of theologically profound or spiritually satisfying answers. We might think of Matthew’s Gospel and consider Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem as the great fulfilment of Israel’s hopes for God to deliver and restore them to former glory and, as Matthew puts it, to “save his people from their sins”. Or we might consider John’s Gospel and conclude that Jesus was born in Bethlehem because he, mysteriously and surprisingly, is the “Word made flesh”, Creator God come to live amongst his creation bringing light and life to the cosmos. Or we might offer our own answers to such a question, no doubt extrapolated from these stories and our own personal experiences. Why was Jesus born in Bethlehem? There are many responses to that question.
Luke’s Gospel serves up a somewhat curious, rather unexpected answer to such a question. Jesus, according to Luke chapter 2, was born in Bethlehem because of an inconvenient government regulation. His parents travelled some 130 kilometers south from Galilee to Bethlehem to register in a census that served the Roman empire’s taxation efforts. Put bluntly, and historically, Jesus was born in Bethlehem because Caesar Augustus (the trumped-up nephew of Julius Caesar) needed to sort out just how much capital should be levied across the vast empire in order to build his cities, fund his wars and feed his soldiers. Jesus was born in Bethlehem because of an inevitable, unavoidable tax season. This is one way in which Luke chooses to describe Jesus’ arrival.
Looking further into Luke’s narrative we see a trend emerge. We meet Zachariah and Elizabeth, an old, barren couple of no real consequence in the grand scheme of Jewish religious life, but who are unexpectedly singled out for greatness and told they’ll conceive a son who will dramatically shape Israel’s future. We’re introduced to Mary, a young country girl with no social stature or political clout, who will also miraculously bear a child ordained to fulfill ancient hopes and turn the world upside down. Once Jesus is born Luke tells us of shepherds tending sheep in a nearby field, invited by angels to meet the baby.
Shepherds, we should note, were not sanitary, cuddly characters as often depicted by aesthetically pleasing nativity sets and elegantly illustrated Christmas cards. Shepherds were social and religious outsiders, ceremonially unclean and presumed thieves given their nomadic lifestyle. Shepherds couldn’t even give testimony in a Jewish court of law as the establishment thought them unreliable witnesses. What a wonderful, ironic twist that it is the Bethlehem shepherds who are invited to witness Christ’s birth and who first share the news with others.
And therein lies the point. In this story, over again, God choses to make the outsiders insiders and regards, with great favour, those hardly regarded at all. Jesus’ life story is about the opulent emerging from the ordinary, the mundane giving rise to the magnificent. In Jesus, God enters the routine, the commonplace, the everyday. Through Jesus, God is found not far off, high up, or unreachable; but near, low down, and touchable.
Many of us enjoy the usual generic Christmas traditions; trees, turkeys, stockings and so on. But your family, like mine, might also adhere to the odd peculiar tradition. For example, in my house Santa Claus didn’t leave gifts under the tree but instead in a sack at the end of the bed. I can tell you he had his work cut out for him, trying not to wake me, and must have placed the Knight home at the back end of his run to ensure I’d be asleep upon his arrival. But each year he managed to pull the stunt off, and around two or three in the morning I’d wake just enough to rub my eyes, peer through the darkness and spy the outline of what looked to be a bag of gifts at the foot of my bed. Once assured that Santa had indeed delivered on his word I’d fall back to sleep, or at least try to, and pray the sun would hurry up.
Every Christmas Eve my regular, ordinary, old room was made special. In my shadowy room, at the foot of my shadowy bed, something had arrived that changed it and changed me.
I remember one special year when I woke up and peered through the darkness to see something that blew my nine-year-old mind entirely. For a moment I wondered if my eyes deceived me but in the end I couldn’t doubt my senses. At the foot of my bed sat not one but two heaving bags of gifts! Jumping up I turned the lights on, took a closer look, drooled over the contents, and commended myself on an exemplary year of good behaviour. Grinning from ear to ear I returned to bed.
John’s Gospel speaks of Jesus’ arrival this way:
“So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son…From his abundance we have all received grace upon grace.” (John 1.14,16)
John puts poetically what Luke states historically. The arrival of Jesus, the gift of abundant life and light to the world, is an arrival we might all benefit from. But unlike the giving we receive from parents, loved ones or from Santa himself, Jesus gives to all unconditionally. Jesus’ love and abundant life is offered to us not on the basis of our exemplary good behavior, or possible lack thereof, but on the basis of his unfailing love and faithfulness – not on the basis of who we are, but of who he is.
This is, of course, why Luke is sure to include the shepherds in his story. Shepherds were on the naughty list. Some of us might imagine ourselves to be on such a list as well. But it doesn’t matter – when it comes to Jesus everyone’s invited. That’s the message from the angels to the shepherds:
“Fear not, I bring you good news of great joy for all people. The savior has been born in Bethlehem.” (Luke 2.11)
This news, brought to the shepherds, and to us today, is news that we can each wake up to and peer through the darkness to see and enjoy for ourselves. This news transforms the places and spaces we call home. The opulent and ordinary have married, the magnificent has merged with the mundane, and the abundance of God through Jesus is readily available to be enjoyed anywhere by anyone.
If Christmas tells us anything it’s this: In the end, we needn’t be afraid. The world may be filled with old and often bad news, heaping despair and discouragement onto our doorsteps daily. But there is today, above and beyond (or rather below and near) good news of great joy for all of us.
There is one who will not tax you, but treasure you. There is one who will not oppress you but offload your burdens onto himself. This is the good news of great joy about the God who loves and welcomes you.
I welcome you today to believe this good news and to trust Jesus, receiving all he gives this Christmas. I welcome you to remember you’re not alone or forgotten. Instead, you have been remembered, you are closer to God than you might think, and you are loved.