Scripture - Luke 2:15-20
Luke 2:15-20 (Common English Bible)
15 When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” 16 They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. 18 Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. 20 The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told.
I grew up with this definite image of how the birth of Jesus came about. I’m not even sure of where this idea came from - but maybe you all can relate to the story as it is so often told. I have the image of an incredibly pregnant Mary on the back of a donkey that Joseph is leading into Bethlehem. They stop at an inn and are told by the innkeeper they have no room. They stop at another inn - same story. No room. A third innkeeper has compassion on the couple, seeing as Mary is about to give birth, and says that there’s a stable round back. They make it just in time because lo and behold, Jesus is ready to appear and Mary wraps him in swaddling clothes, lays him in a manger with no one else but Joseph and the animals in attendance. Jesus is rejected even before his birth, alone and apart from the rest of humanity except for his nuclear family - and that somehow, we have to go find him out in the stable to worship him - that we have to go to him because he’s this figure that was somehow marginalized at birth.
What if the birth took place in a different way?
If we carefully look at the text, what the birth narrative actually says, and understand the traditions around hospitality and homes present in first century Palestinian culture - we might find a story that fits more consistently with the idea that Jesus comes into our ordinary lives in surprising (and disruptive!) ways and turns everything upside down forever.
Much of this comes from the writings of Ian Paul, who is an adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary and serves as an adjunct minister at an Anglican church in England. He writes every year about this - how Jesus wasn’t born in a stable. That one fact makes all the difference. (Drop the link: https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/jesus-wasnt-born-in-a-stable-and-that-makes-all-the-difference/)
But how? Wasn’t Jesus laid in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger? Isn’t that where animals eat? And if Mary and Joseph were where animals ate, wouldn’t that be in a stable?
Well, yes, Jesus was laid in a manger - but that wasn’t necessarily in a stable. That idea probably got traction in the middle ages, where medieval illustrators got the notion of the oxen and donkey being present in the story (a reference to a verse in Isaiah, by the way). The illustrators assumed, then, because animals were kept in a stable, then that’s where Jesus was.
But what about the inn?
The word translated as “inn” in verse 7 of Luke’s 2nd chapter in the original greek is the word “kataluma”, which more accurately refers to a room in a private house where travelers received hospitality and where no payment was expected. The design of first century Palestinian homes supports this, where families would live in a one room house, with a room in the back or on the roof for travelers, and where animals would bed at night in a lower compartment adjacent to the main room. There would be divots in the floor of the main room by the animal compartment or “stable” filled with hay for the animals to feed at night. (Incidentally, the recommendations of midwives at the time based on archaeology was for new mothers to place their babies in these hollows for use as a cradle.)
The home most likely would have been one belonging to relatives of Joseph - even distant relatives. The culture of hospitality at the time meant that if Joseph was returning to his ancestral home, he was honor-bound to seek out members of his family, and they would have received him. All he had to do was recite his lineage, and he would have been welcomed and received as family.
So the likely scenario is this: Mary and Joseph travel to Bethehem, Joseph’s ancestral home. The family guest room is already full, with family members who have arrived earlier, so they have to stay with the family in the main house. (Or, the guest room isn’t big enough for Mary to give birth in). Mary gives birth there; she would not have given birth alone, but would have been attended to by the other women of the household or midwives. She lays Jesus in the animal feeding trough, right in the center of everyday life. People are in and out of the home, including the shepherds who have received this wondrous message from the angels as they were tending their sheep. The text says, “16 [The shepherds] went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. 18 Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully.”
And we find Mary through this experience, taking it in, considering what this all means.
For me, this means that when God chose to come down as one of us - as Love incarnate is born into the world - it doesn’t happen in a far away place, distant from the rest of humanity. It doesn’t happen in a neat and tidy guestroom, special and prepared and reserved for honored guests. It happens right where life happens. Messy, chaotic, life.
And if that’s where Jesus comes into the world, if that where love is waiting for us, if Jesus bursts onto the scene right in the middle of everything - then maybe that’s where we can find Jesus too - in the midst of our everyday life with its routines and its chaos. Jesus is Immanuel - God with us - and that means we don’t have to go off to some specially prepared place where everything is just so, but we can find him right where we are. Because God came as one of us.
As Ian Paul puts it, “For Luke, Jesus isn’t pictured as born ‘over there’, away from everyday life, inviting us to visit once a year, but at the heart of the home, asking whether we too will make space for him. He isn’t pictured as poor and outcast (not here at least) asking what we can do for him, but as a child of hope and promise, asking what he might do for us. He isn’t pictured as rejected, inviting us to pity him, but as welcomed, asking us whether we will welcome him too.”
As we look to be unafraid to choose love in a world bound by uncertainty, as we strive to hold on to hope, bring peace, and practice joy - it starts here. In this year where we cannot hold on to our traditions and routines very easily, where many of us cannot make the pilgrimage to visit family and friends, the fact that Jesus meets us right in our very homes, coming as a surprising, disruptive, but welcome presence, who will turn our very lives upside down, is important to hold on to. It gives us the courage and the strength to choose love again and again - because we don’t have to have it all perfect, we don’t have to have everything prepared and just so, we don’t have to go away and have some spiritual experience - we just have to start right here, wherever we are, and chose to welcome Jesus - sometimes welcoming him each and every day.
Jesus was born among family, right into the center of home and life. May we let Jesus be born in our homes, in our lives, in our hearts. And may we do so knowing that as we choose love, we do so for the sake of a world that God so desperately loves - as we work and pray for the healing and redemption of us all. Amen.
Scripture - Luke 2:1-14
Luke 2:1-14 (Common English Version)
2 In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. 2 This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. 3 Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. 4 Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. 5 He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. 6 While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. 7 She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.
8 Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. 9 The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.
10 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. 11 Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. 12 This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, 14 “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”
When was the last time you genuinely experienced joy? Like, the kind of joy that bubbles up without you having to think “oh, is this joy I’m feeling?” - the kind of joy that is an easy and natural response to something outside of yourself, like hearing good news or listening to that favorite song on the radio or catching that spectacular moment of beauty?
If you are anything like me, it might be tough to think of a moment. I am lucky in that I have two sources of joy constantly around me. Watching Genevieve and Michael - especially when they interact - is one of my greatest sources of joy. Outside of my kids and the spontaneous dance parties in the kitchen, being ambushed with hugs, or getting swept up in their laughter - experiencing joy is something more often than not something I have to practice.
It’s a bit, I think, like the shepherds in the field, who instead of feeling joy at the presence of the angel, felt terror. Even the news that the heavenly host came to bring - wonderful, joyous news for all people - it seemed to take a moment for the shepherds to share in that joy. It’s amazing news for a people who had been waiting for so long for the Messiah to come among them, waiting for the one who would deliver them, waiting for the one that came to make all things right.
It’s like they had to be reminded of what joy meant - what it felt like and how that joy can not only transform us but others as well.
I love how the Illustrated Ministry devotion for this week invites us to think about joy as a practice we can cultivate and not as something where you either have it or you don’t. Sometimes we need other people to come alongside us to teach us how to nurture joy within ourselves. (I think that’s why kids are such great teachers - they don’t overthink these kinds of things). For me, those teachable moments are when Genevieve wants me to come over and twirl to a song on the radio...or when Michael gives me an extra treat he’s managed to wheedle out of Gail at the dump...or when Michael holds up something he’s created with such pride and joy...or when Genevieve does something silly just to get me to laugh.
In these times where so much of the world seems uncertain, where fear and anxiety are in the air that we breathe, when many of us are operating at reduced capacities, when the emotional energy it takes to get through a day can sometimes feel like more than we have - it is more important to ever to find ways to practice joy as part of our routine.
Joy is not some luxury that we have to be in the right frame of mind to experience, nor is it a fleeting grace that lifts our spirits for a moment before we dive back into the doldrums of daily life.
Joy is something we can practice - and much as we practice any skill, be that the piano, knitting, woodcrafting, writing, patience, running, etc, to increase our capacity, we can do the same with joy. We also practice those things we may be good at already, but know that we’ll lose it if we don’t use it. I’m a good flute player, but incredibly rusty after many years of neglecting my practice.
So we’re going to do some brainstorming together - going off of what we shared at the beginning of those moments of joy - and we’re going to think up some practices together - and one of them may spark something within you and how you experience joy - and we’ll commit to practicing joy together this week.
So what might help you develop or deepen a practice of joy? What might that practice look like?
Seeing the positive in a negative situation
Sit with a clear mind for a few seconds, look at something and remember why you have it
Practice gratitude (perhaps at the end of the day), list the things you are thankful for
Seek joy and acknowledge it when you a find it (and remind yourself you are looking for it!)
Walk and get outside and noticing what is around you
Slow down the pace of life
Practice random acts of kindness
Pick one or two from this list to practice this week. We’ll check back in with each other during joys and concerns to see how we’ve done and how those practices sat with us for the week.
Because here’s the thing - if joy is not a spontaneous luxury but a practice, it becomes a tool we can use to face challenges, to overcome fears, to help us move beyond ourselves and into an expression of God’s kingdom that is infectious. Ever notice how joy is infectious? It’s something that is meant to be shared, and that is part of God’s power residing within us. If joy is a practice that we can hone and use, then we can help others access that same joy - and it’s one way that we can both bring lightness and laughter to our daily life and sustain ourselves and others through the heavy, harder times.
So this week, let us go forth to practice joy - knowing that as we do so, we are deepening our experience of God’s kingdom in and around us, and bringing hope and peace along with us as well. Amen.
Scripture - Luke 1:46-55
Luke 1:46-55 (The Message)
46-55 And Mary said,
I’m bursting with God-news;
I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened--
I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
beginning with Abraham and right up to now.
You’ve probably done some form of personality test - there are many out there - Meyers Briggs is the one that most people are familiar with, where it categorizes you into one of 16 types based on how you interact with the world and how you process information.
There is also the Enneagram, which is a system gaining in popularity, particularly in faith traditions. There are 9 types, arranged graphically in a circle, labeled by number and each type is nuanced further by how one reacts to stress, how one grows as a person - it’s a really fascinating system designed for self-discovery and there are free tests out there and if you want to learn more, I’ll drop the link in the chat (https://www.enneagraminstitute.com/).
So I am an enneagram 9 - which is known as the peacemaker. 9’s are people, in general, who seek to create peace. At their best, they are able to bring people together and heal conflicts. They are the ones who are continual seekers of internal and external peace - both for themselves and for others. Their key motivations are wanting to create harmony in their environment - admirable - but also a motivation for 9s are to avoid conflicts and tension and to preserve things as they are.
So when I read this morning’s scripture passage - which, incidentally, is one of my favorite pieces of scripture in the Bible - there’s a part of me that is intensely uncomfortable, because what Mary sings to Elizabeth is, on the surface, very much not about creating peace - but about the opposite. There is nothing about preserving the status quo in what God’s about to do. God knocking down the powerful - nothing peaceful about that. God sending rich folks away empty-handed - nothing peaceful about that. God humbling the proud - doesn’t sound peaceful to me. Even as we look at God lifting up the lowly, filling hungry bellies, extending mercy and grace - all good and wonderful things...that many of us, I think, would love to see happen, but we want that to happen without changing and challenging the systems that perpetuate hunger, injustice, and poverty.
When many of us think about peace - we think about the absence of conflict. We think about everyone “getting along.” We think about stability...and balance...and comfort...and that our external circumstances must be in alignment before we experience peace as an inward reality. There’s peace in a global sense - peace on earth, goodwill to all...and peace in the individual, “at one with everything” sense. Peace can be elusive, intangible, unquantifiable - a hoped for dream as opposed to a lived reality.
And yet, here we have Mary - Mary, who understood that life under Roman rule meant that “peace” was enforced by violent means; Mary, who was unwed and pregnant in a culture where she could have been put to death; Mary, who sings out this song of God’s glorious deeds and favor in a time when the injustices of her community mean that peace - deep peace inside and out - could not be reality.
Still Mary sings. She sings of peace in these very specific ways - echoing the tradition written of in the Old Testament - where just and lasting peace isn’t an elusive, ephemeral state of mind or a reality without discomfort. Peace - God’s peace - is a concrete change in circumstances; it is a rewriting of people’s lived reality. It is, as Mary sings of it, a reversal on a cosmic scale - and it looks different for different people.
As the weekly Illustrated Ministry devotional puts it - to those who have been impoverished and oppressed, [peace] feels like finally having a full belly. To those who have been privileged, it feels like a rumbling stomach, like a reckoning of all that they’ve gained at the expense of others. It feels like laying down the weapons by which that advantage is gained and picking up tools for building a more equitable and beautiful world: like swinging a hammer, like dipping a paintbrush, like digging in the dirt, dropping in a handful of seeds; like kneading bread.
This peace is wild and dangerous and threatening - and more so the more public it becomes. Kind of counterintuitive in a way, The more this vision grows, the more people catch on to the deep, lasting peace that God ushers in as we live kingdom lives, the more the systems of the world work to undo it - and taking aim at the powers and principalities of the world means becoming a target as well.
Yet the angel told Mary - “do not be afraid.” Those words weren’t just about carrying the child. Those words were also about being the one to birth this peace into the world. We are called to be the same bringers of peace - God’s peace - in that same tradition of God’s promises to Abraham right up to this very day and beyond.
I have two questions for us to think about as we consider being bringers of God’s peace - and we’ll use the idea of peace linked with justice, as a concrete change in circumstances, a rewriting of people’s lived reality.
I invite us to remember that peace isn’t just a nice feeling or an absence of conflict, or a comfortable space we inhabit - and that’s a challenging thought to many of us - myself included - who would much prefer everything to hum along as normal. But maintaining that comes at the expense of justice - God’s peace comes through role reversal, through tangible realignment of material circumstances and priorities, and that means God’s peace comes through discomfort and challenge - but we need not be afraid - for God will be with us.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and three year old son and 6 month old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.