Together, Christmas and Easter form the bookends of Jesus’ mortal life. He is born, he dies, and he rises to live again. I have often said that without Christmas, Easter is exactly what you’d expect from a god—to conquer death. Christmas shows us that God is fully human, and so when he comes to die and rises again from death, his resurrection is a true sign of God’s power over the chaotic forces that seek to destroy life. And on the other side of the bookshelf, as I’ve often said, without Easter, Christmas is simply the story of a child born to poor parents under the oppressive hardship of an occupying force in their country who ends up becoming a good teacher who ultimately dies the same kind of death that anyone would expect.
Christmas needs Easter, and Easter needs Christmas. For us to appreciate what happens on this night—God coming down from heaven and becoming incarnate of the Holy Spirit as a true human—we have to appreciate that this birth among us, however miraculous, is “for us and for our salvation.” This confession, “for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven,” is a twofold confession that must be believed in tandem to have meaningful purpose for our lives. And so as we go into the sermon tonight, I invite you to remember why Jesus came among us in the first place. Not to cast a morbid pall over the night, but to remind us that this night, with its glorious birth, is but a harbinger of the greater birth to come—not only for Jesus, but for us whom he came to bring back to relationship with God. Jesus Christ was born to save—to save us, to save you…
Let us pray. May only God’s Word be spoken and may only God’s Word be heard; in the name of Jesus. Amen.
Many couples, when they’re expecting, come up with a plan for what to do when it’s time for the baby to be born. In fact, doctors encourage women to think about what they’ll do and to have a plan in place. A bag packed and ready to go to the hospital. Have all the necessary insurance and emergency contact information in a convenient place to grab on the way out the door. Know which route you’re going to take to the hospital. Know what check-in is going to be like when you arrive. And even before the fateful day, many couples will participate in Lamaze classes to prepare both mom-to-be and her partner, or whoever will be with her, for the actual delivery process—what with practicing what to do when contractions hit and how to breathe most effectively, etc. etc. etc.
And then the time comes. And things oftentimes, many times, don’t go anything at all as planned. There’s the stereotype of the fumbling dad who can’t keep his head about him as he rushes about the house trying to round up everything his wife needs before leaving for the hospital—all while she’s breathing quick, shallow breaths and clutching herself in pain, shouting, “Hurry! The baby’s coming!” And yet—in most cases, despite things not going according to plan, the baby arrives, and things turn out just fine. Even though everything that was planned didn’t happen, mom and baby are happy and healthy, if not both a bit traumatized—mom from pushing a small human being out of her body and baby from suddenly leaving the warm womb of its mother and entering into a completely new world where it has to breathe on its own, all wrapped up in cloth, a sensation very different than the watery home it had known for its whole existence. Things don’t necessarily go according to plan, but everything turns out for good in the end.
We have to imagine the same was true for Mary when it came time for her to deliver Jesus. In fact, we have to imagine that the same was true for Mary from the time that she found out she was pregnant. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know many women who find out they’re pregnant who haven’t, as the Bible euphemistically puts it, “known a man.” And I definitely don’t know many women who find out they’re pregnant when an angel shows up to tell them about it. I don’t think that was Mary’s plan—even if I don’t know the specifics of her family planning. Few, if any women plan on a virgin birth that they find out is coming by an angel…Yet that’s what happened.
And then there’s the actual birth itself. Mary probably expected that she’d give birth to Jesus like all the other women in her family and her community—surrounded by the women of the town, and in particular Jewish midwives trained not only the arts of childbirth, but also in the rituals and prayers of the faith. Mary probably expected that Jesus’ delivery would be no different than other babies of the time. But that all changed when Emperor Augustus demanded that everyone return to the cities of their ancestry to be registered and taxed—to conduct a census of the empire.
And so Mary’s plan for Jesus birth was turned on its head. They end up trekking from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea, about 90 miles by foot, and if you walk it straight through, without stopping, about 30 hours. We know that journey had to take longer because Mary was pregnant, and so we can safely assume that it took them a week or more to walk that distance. Despite the romanticized depictions of Joseph leading a donkey along with Mary riding atop it, we have no actual Biblical evidence to tell us that’s how things went down. More than likely, Mary walked the whole way along with Joseph. That definitely wasn’t the plan.
And then when they finally get to Bethlehem, they can’t find any place to stay. The only place available to them is a stable—among the animals. Instead of the women of her family and her community assisting and supporting her through giving birth, Mary is left surrounded by beasts of burden and her husband, who would’ve never under normal circumstances been present at the childbirth. Childbirth was completely and totally the purview of women—women’s work, if you will. And yet the midwife, if you will, for Jesus, the Son of God, God’s promise made flesh and blood among us—was someone you’d least expect—a man, a carpenter with rough hands, not at all trained in the arts of childbirth or the rituals or prayers of the faith. And still, this is the birth that God chose among us. Things didn’t necessarily go according to plan, but everything turned out for good in the end. Things didn’t go at all as planned, yet God still showed up as promised.
That’s an important message for us this night—and always, to be frank. The message of Christmas for us this year, and at all times, really, is that things don’t always go as planned, yet God still always shows up as promised. In fact, we might make all the plans in the world, and nothing goes at all as planned, and God surprises us and shows up in ways that are exceedingly better than we could’ve ever imagined. When the angel Gabriel declared to Mary nine months before Jesus’ birth that she would bear a son, he told her that he would be great, that would be called the Son of the Most High, that the Lord God would give to him the throne of his ancestor David, and that he would reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there would be no end.
Mary heard those words, and she “did know” from the angel Gabriel that Jesus was going to be extraordinary, but she couldn’t imagine what it meant that he would fill the throne of his ancestor David, and that he would reign over the house of Jacob forever, or that of his kingdom there would be no end. We know what all that means, more or less. We know that means, quite like his name says, that he has come to us for our salvation, for our healing, for our restoration in relationship with God. We know that because we know what God’s plan was—a plan to take care of us, not to abandon us, a plan to give us a future with hope. “For surely I know the plan I have for you, says the Lord,” declares the prophet Jeremiah, “a plan for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
This was, is, and forever will be God’s plan for us, his people. A plan, a testament of God’s steadfastness, if you will, declared to Adam and Eve in the garden, retold to Noah, to Abraham, to Moses and the Hebrews at Sinai, and through prophets down through the ages. And Jesus is the new testament of that plan, of that steadfastness, a testament made real for us in a way that we probably don’t really expect, or plan for—as a small defenseless baby.
And this baby will grow up, live with us, laugh with us, cry with us, teach us, eat and drink with us, and ultimately die not only as one us, but for us. Die for us in a way that doesn’t conform to how at we might plan for God to hand over to us the gift of life everlasting, life with him forever. But that’s precisely the plan God has because that plan doesn’t end with death. That plan ends with life—or perhaps begins again, with new life, with a new birth, both for God and for us. In Jesus, God has a plan to turn things around, to turn things upside down, to defy all expectations, all strategies, all assumptions, all plans, and show us a new way, a new design, a new plan.
In Jesus, things didn’t necessarily go according to our plan, but everything turns out for good in the end. In Jesus, God’s will is done. Things don’t always go as we plan, yet God still shows up as promised, according to his plan—a plan to take care of us, not to abandon us, a plan to give us a future with hope. A plan for a life lived with him, with meaning and purpose that comes, not from ourselves, but from our relationship with God, with Jesus, God-with-us, our Emanuel, whose birth among us we are blessed to once more celebrate again this night.
For unto us a child is born, a son is given. Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth.
In the name of the Father and of the Son of the Holy Spirit. Amen.