Sermon for December 24, 2021

Christmas Eve, Luke 2:1-20

Think of it. Can you imagine the Christmas story without the creche and its figurines – Mary and Joseph with the baby Jesus in the manger, the animals in the barn because there was no room for them at the inn, the shepherds, the angels, the star of Bethlehem?

These are constitutive elements of the story recorded in Luke’s Gospel. They have been at the heart of Sunday School Christmas pageants for generations. [Even here today, the features of our beloved biblical Christmas story were made clear when our children lovingly placed the figurines in their proper places in the manger scene at the altar].

Moreover, the characters and configurations our manger scenes appear in the lyrics of so many of our beloved Christmas Carols – “Away in a Manger,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Silent Night,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “What Child is This.”

I’m here to tell you this night that none of the features of the Christmas story would have been possible without the interruptions of a government bureaucracy in Mary and Joseph’s life. It’s true, a bureaucratic mandate made it all possible. Remember how the story in Luke begins: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”

So, it was a government directive for a census that made possible all of the elements of our beloved Christmas story. If a registration, a census, had not been ordered, then Mary and Joseph would have had no reason to travel from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem. Then there would have been no occasion for there to be no room in the inn. And no stable and no manager and no animals and no shepherds and no angels.

Our beloved Christmas story was made possible by a government directive. Imagine that! How profane. How devoid, seemingly, of the holy. But also how incredibly significant.

All of this reveals the radical contingency of our lives and our circumstances. So much of our life experience is dictated by circumstances beyond our control. And so much occurs by seeming happenstance.

I like to tell the story to my son, Nathan, that he and I would not exist if it were not for the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad which had a steam locomotive maintenance facility where I grew up. My mother travelled from South Dakota to live in my Illinois hometown because one of her sisters was married to a steam locomotive mechanic who was transferred to work in Monmouth, Illinois. My mother went to live with them, and when my dad came home from WWII, he fell in love with the pretty young blonde from South Dakota who was singing in the choir of the Lutheran Church. The rest is history, and here I am. Without the railroad job of my Uncle Soren, I would not exist as who I am today, nor would my son.

You all can tell similar stories. And I encourage you to do so, for it’s a compelling exercise.

The radical contingencies our lives and circumstances can be frightening. It seems so random. If one little piece is out of place, our lives, who we are, would be entirely different, or we might not be at all.

But here’s the thing that makes all the difference: God enters into the particularities and peculiarities of human history, our stories, to advance the divine will.

So be it that all of the elements of the Christmas story which we hold dear came about because of a governmental bureaucratic decision about taking a census. God used all of that for sacred purpose, and when it’s all said and done, we would not have it any other way. Isn’t that right?

What otherwise seems random and beyond our control is used by God for God’s purposes, very much under God’s guidance and control.

This is a significant feature of the sacred mystery in the story which treasure and which we, like Mary, ponder in our hearts on this holy day.

Here’s another mystery. The baby Jesus grew to be the one who was lifted high on the tree of the cross for our salvation. His being put on the cross was the result of yet another governmental directive, an order of execution. And yet, God made good of that, too, by raising Jesus from the dead for the life of the world.

In all of the changes and chances of life, the message is that we cannot escape God’s good and gracious will for us and for all of humanity.

That’s one of the central meanings of the sacred story which we celebrate at Christmas and in all of our Christian stories. Thanks be to God. Amen.