A sermon on Luke 2:1-20 delivered to LaSalle Street Church on 12/24/22, Christmas Eve. The manuscript is edited below for reading, and you can find a recording in the full service via this YouTube video.
“Who would willingly choose this horrid condition?”
I wish I could tell you this heart-wrenching question came up in a particularly meaningful pastoral visit or even that I wrote it in my own journal on an especially hard day. “Who would willingly choose this horrid condition?” No, that question actually comes from this cute little book called The Holy Ghost, by John Hendrix. It’s a collection of sweet and sometimes irreverent comic strips about the friendship between a squirrel and a blue ghost who happens to be the Holy Ghost.
In one strip the squirrel is in the hospital, lamenting about his suffering and describing how lonely he feels in his pain. The Holy Ghost sits with him and listens patiently. Finally the squirrel shouts that great existential question about life and human nature: “No one asked me if I wanted this body! Who would willingly choose this horrid condition?”
The Holy Ghost gently replies, “Hmm. Only one person comes to mind.”
We are here tonight to celebrate that one person. All these candles and carols and (amazing, bespoke [!]) readings are our best attempt to respond in a genuine way to the story that surprises us year after year. We’re celebrating the one and only person who chose this so-called “horrid condition” of life in a human body.
Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus goes to great lengths to set up the geographical and political circumstances of the event. Many of us have read this passage so many times through the years that our attention might glide right over all the talk of emperors and governors and a census.
I suspect that Luke, the apparent author of this gospel, includes all these details as a sort of origin story for Jesus the Messiah. Luke wants to show that Jesus is, indeed, the Savior that faithful Jews had been waiting for. Luke connects all these dots between the Old Testament and the life story of Jesus to show how this one particular infant who grew up in Nazareth satisfies all the little biographical details foretold in ancient Jewish prophecies. Like how, for example, the prophet Micah said a “ruler over Israel…from ancient times” would come from Bethlehem. Or how the prophet Isaiah described a righteous Savior who would descend from the line of Jesse, that is, King David.
But there is another effect of all these complicated census circumstances, an effect that Luke may not have intended: They remind us that, as Benjamin Franklin put it, “nothing is certain except death and taxes.” The birth of Jesus occurred during a complicated and tedious political situation…because we’re always dealing with our own complicated and tedious situations. There was never going to be a moment in human history when everyone was just sitting around, patiently and consciously waiting for the Messiah. The people were always waiting in the midst of a census, or the busiest time of their work year, or amid wars and rumors of war. Inevitably Jesus was going to arrive during a contentious midterm election, or during pandemic lockdowns, or maybe even during a terrible winter storm that has interrupted many of our holiday travel plans and even threatened the lives of people without stable housing.
The angel in today’s reading from Luke might have made this announcement just as easily to a line of people at the DMV trying to be sure they had all the right documents to meet the requirements for a Real ID, or to an elementary school classroom full of students too excited for winter break to follow a single instruction, or to a tired dad on hold for an hour with his insurance company trying to understand how much he owes.
In our story, this angel made the announcement to a few shepherds doing their job on an ordinary night. Listen again to the sequence of events: “An angel of God appeared to them, and the glory of God shone around them, and they were terrified.”
That detail about the “glory of God [shining] around them” is so curious to me. Why would the glory of God terrify these shepherds? In the dark landscape of a pre-industrial society, I imagine the sudden appearance of a majestic creature surrounded with bright light would surprise and frighten any of us. As the shepherds stand there terrified, the angel tries to assuage their fear and tells them, “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Sovereign God. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
I’ve tried to put myself in their shoes, to imagine this scene. After the initial shock of the appearance of this angel started to wear off, I wonder if they began to imagine a sensation that was something like vertigo. Have you ever felt it, vertigo? It’s a total loss of balance, a kind of spinning in which your body temporarily loses its orientation to the world.
I must have been fourteen or fifteen years old when I was a high school student at a summer church camp called Camp Koinonia in central Texas. One night we were outside, singing praise songs around a fire. I remember looking up and seeing the stars, and the ground began to shift underneath me. Until then I had always perceived the night sky as a kind of flat wallpaper, or a painted ceiling above me. But something about that night changed my center of gravity. Suddenly I perceived the night sky in three dimensions. I became aware I was seeing massive suns, billions and billions of miles away. I was no longer sitting on solid ground; suddenly I felt like I was clinging to the side of a rock, holding on for dear life as our planet hurtled through the expanse of space. I might have even dug my fingertips into the soil, just a little, to make sure I didn’t fall off the face of the earth.
Do you think the shepherds might have been feeling a little bit of that vertigo, too? The angel has just told them that the Savior is born, and that the baby is nothing less than the Sovereign God. These shepherds work with livestock, so they’re familiar with a manger. But the angel just told them the Messiah is lying in a manger, wearing cloth just like their own clothing. That collision of the ordinary and the supernatural had to be jarring.
Can you feel their goosebumps? Suddenly this typical night just became the most important night in human history. Suddenly they are major characters in a story that stretches many years before and after them. Suddenly they are thinking about the enormous, powerful, terrifying glory of God, which is usually invisible to them. I imagine one of these shepherds glancing at a sheep and remembering Genesis 1, thinking about God creating everything from nothing, speaking sheep into existence, along with the grass and the stars. Suddenly everything that has felt solid and predictable and mundane is fluid and alive, held together against the power of chaos only by the very hand of God.
The shepherds find their footing, and they catch their breath, and they go to Bethlehem to meet the child. Nothing will ever be the same again.
Throughout this season of Advent, our worship life here has revolved around the theme of “Walk in the Light.” It’s a phrase from Isaiah 2, one of many prophecies in the Old Testament. Here in this moment in this story, these shepherds are, quite literally, walking in the light of God. And it leads them to Bethlehem, to Jesus, this baby lying in a manger.
There is still so much we do not know about the birth of Jesus, even the mechanics of it. Theologians have spent the last 2,000 years trying to understand all the specifics of how it worked. What does it mean that Jesus was simultaneously fully human and fully divine? If we take the gospels of Matthew and Luke at their word—that Mary was a virgin when she became pregnant—what does that mean for Jesus at a molecular level, like, what was the deal with his DNA? Did Jesus know that he was God from day one, or was it a dawning revelation as he grew up? I think all these questions are merely a way for us to try and recover from the vertigo of God becoming human, this seemingly impossible claim at the center of our faith that shifts the center of gravity.
We don’t know all the mechanics and specifics of God-in-flesh. What we do know—as best we can tell—is that in all of recorded history, only one person has willingly chosen to take on this condition of human life. Only one person willingly chose to take on the certainty of death and taxes. Truly! We all know that Jesus faced death in the crucifixion, but if you read the gospels you find stories about Jesus dealing with taxes, too. Jesus took on the existential suffering of human experience, and he also took on the mundane humiliations of everyday life.
His choice was an expression of great love. Nothing about the life of Jesus was inevitable. You know that, right? Luke goes to great lengths to show that Jesus checks all the boxes of Old Testament prophecy, proving to those who took the Old Testament seriously that Jesus was the one they were waiting for. But that doesn’t mean any of it was inevitable. Philippians 2 contains that famous passage about the incarnation, describing how Jesus “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—[and, I would add, obedient to taxes]—even death on a cross!” Nobody throws everything away for no reason. These decisions only make sense if the guy making them is driven by a deep and powerful love.
My hope for you and for me and for all of us this Christmas—as we celebrate the birth of Jesus and pause from our normal routines—my hope is that we might have a new encounter with the strangeness of all this, with the kind of vertigo the shepherds might have felt as it dawned on them that God was lying in a manger. I want us to experience that loss of balance, that spinning, because those moments of disorientation can remind us that God is no stranger to all the mundane humiliations of our lives on earth. They can remind us that God has not left us on our own to figure all this out, no, God has walked in our very midst to do for us what we could not do for ourselves.
The gospel of Matthew tells us, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet [meaning Isaiah]: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means “God with us.”’”
Each of us is here through the miracle of birth and life and survival; we get the joy and pleasure of walking through life with one another, finding ways to show love and mercy to each other. But only one person chose to be here with us. This is “good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”
So let us walk in the light that leads us to Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us. Let us follow in the footsteps of the shepherds, who returned to the fields, “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen.” Let us carry the good news of God-with-us into the ordinary and mundane circumstances of our lives.
Nothing will ever be the same again.