Christmas Eve 2019

“Mary treasured these words and pondered them in her heart.” When reading this verse, I have always envisioned Mary as a wise woman, someone with profound emotional intelligence, who understands what is happening and keeps her precious memories. Luke’s original language suggests this is a bit off. That word “treasure,” you know, in English connotes either precious stones and metals, or keepsakes, or my sweetest memories. But its usage in Luke’s Greek has to do with guarding, locking away safely. Mary began locking up these things. And that word “ponder” is better. There’s thinking. The Greek word Luke uses literally means “throw-together.” You throw things together and see what they mean together. Luke literally says, “But Mary began guarding all these things that had happened and been said, and threw them together.” In other words: after the Shepherds said their piece, Mary began asking herself, “What the heck is going on?”

There’s a lot. Mary has had an angel tell her, “You’re having the Holy Spirit’s baby.” She’s visited her pregnant elderly cousin, which was weird in itself. Then that cousin called Mary “The mother of my God.” So, Mary spontaneously sung the Magnificat. That doesn’t even begin to cover the events described in tonight’s Gospel reading. That’s a lot for Mary. That’s a lot for us. We have all that, plus the other readings. We had Titus say God is training us. Training us? On Christmas Eve? Man, I’m on break. And then there was Isaiah 9. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this passage, but this year verse 5 really struck me: “all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.” I know in our family I value our annual Christmas tradition of setting fire to my shoes and blood-stained clothes. So, I’m with Mary. “What is going on?” I think tonight we maybe are not going to get a firm answer.

Mary’s understanding, like the human life of Jesus, is just beginning. And what God is going to do is just beginning. On the day of Jesus’ birth, it did not look like God was doing well. A decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. That’s the way Romans talked about their empire: it was “all the world.” They knew there was a lot more; they willfully ignored that and pretended their corner was everything. They also insisted the world was at peace because they’d beaten everybody. This was not the peace of which the prophet Isaiah wrote. Peace is a major theme in Isaiah. As strange as it may be for us to think at Christmas of burning soldiers’ equipment, for Isaiah this is wonderful news: no more war, we’ve incinerated the stuff with which we fight. That’s not Roman peace. Roman peace is “Behave yourself or legions will slaughter you.” Roman peace is also a lie. The legions are busy quelling rebellions, conscripting locals, crucifying carpenters. But, hey, they’re in charge, and Augustus wants to know how much stuff he’s got. And that’s the hint we get that God is about to start something.

In the Bible, Censuses are bad. God does not like them. In 2 Samuel David orders a census and God hits David with a plague. That’ll teach you to count your people! Well, we know something is going to go wrong for Augustus. Ironically, this census forces Mary—pregnant with God’s baby—into Bethlehem, the most appropriate setting for the birth of Israel’s Messiah. It is the beginning of something that will end with peace such as Isaiah prophesies. It does not immediately topple Augustus from his throne. He dies in 14 CE of old age. And Isaiah’s prophecy has not yet come to pass. But the work begins. As Mary begins recording her memory of all that happens, God begins drawing all the world to peace. It’s enough that the angels who usually sing to God all day are singing to the shepherds.

Like Mary, we may begin guarding all our observations and asking, “What is going on?” We hear that America’s place in the world is slipping. (We usually say this when our political party is not in power.) Regardless, we are supposed to be an exceptional country, the fulfillment of biblical promises not unlike Israel in the Old Testament. Well, tell this to biblical Israel. Or to Rome. Or the British Empire, or the Spanish Empire. You get the idea. Maybe things have not been what they seemed. We hear of rights being taken away, of goods and services denied on personal religious grounds or by governmental action. This is not supposed to happen. Well, tell it to minorities—especially darker skinned ones—who’ve been dealing with this their whole time in this hemisphere. Maybe things have not been what they seemed. We hear of imminent church collapse. Lutherans are supposed to go extinct in like 20 years. On the coasts in this country Church attendance has plummeted and congregations have had to reinvent themselves. That’s made it to the upper Midwest, now. That’s not supposed to happen to Christ’s church. Well, tell it to the churches of Europe, already considered outdated a century ago, ravaged by two world wars and haunted by the terrible truth that many joined with nationalism midcentury. Maybe things have not been what they seemed.

On this celebration of Christ’s birth, it may seem that God is not doing so well, lately. Or, maybe we’ve willfully ignored brokenness and now it’s gotten difficult to maintain that willful ignorance. Maybe the loss of those illusions is the beginning. Just like how Luke telling us “the Emperor decreed a census” is the hint that God is about to shake the world, so our loss of illusions about the world may be the hint that God is still shaking the world. For, it is always times such as Mary’s, times such as ours, times such as now that God works. God is present in now. At Christmas (and at other holidays) we’ll hear, “Shouldn’t every day be for this?” Shouldn’t every day be about peace on earth? Shouldn’t every day be about giving to those less fortunate? Yes. Only don’t let the everyday detract from the now. Don’t let God always present take away from the awesome fact that God is here, now.

To you is come this day in the city of Valparaiso a savior, who is Christ, God. This will be a sign to you. He will be wherever people are suffering, especially if that suffering is due to the action or inaction of other people. He will be where he is spoken, for he is God’s word of love for all. He will be gathered from among us, lifted up before us, and then broken and poured out for us. It will be enough that like the angels at Jesus’ birth we’ll do our own off-heaven version of the song the angels sing to God all day. It will be a lot, not to mention all the other stuff—the candles, the hymns (some beloved and some new), the shuffling of those around us, and, afterward, the bundling of everyone home, to the world God is shaking. It’s a lot, just as it was a lot for Mary.

If we pause, we may join with Mary, and begin asking ourselves the question that sounds so beautiful in our translations of Luke but that boils down to, “What the heck is going on?” Maybe, like Mary, we don’t get a firm answer, tonight. But God’s work is beginning, right behind the veil our willful ignorance has hung. The work that draws the world to the peace Isaiah prophesies is beginning. The good news that trains us to be God’s people is taking form. May our question, Mary’s question, be the beginning of our seeing how in our now God is still shaking the world.