On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, we split up the gospel of Luke. On Christmas Eve we hear about the registration, and how all the families have to travel to be taxed. That part of the story is when we learn about there being no room in the inn, and Mary giving birth, wrapping her child in bands of cloth, lying him in a manger. But today, we get the part of the story I love. I know the multitude of the heavenly host has inspired many a Christmas carol, but I like the very last part of the story: the part where the shepherds have gathered with Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus, where others gather with them to marvel at the shepherd’s story and Mary ponders everything in her heart.
I like this last part, because this last part is the most normal, intimate moment we get in the birth narrative of Jesus. Everything else is so chaotic – people migrating, hustling for space to stay, likely arguing about who gets to stay where. Then there is the birth of Jesus itself, not only without modern medicine, but in the roughest of conditions. Birthing children is hard enough as is – I cannot imagine the messy, loud scene of childbirth under such conditions. And finally, the shock of not only an angel of the Lord, but also the chorus of the heavenly host in the middle of the night where there is usually no sound is mind-blowing.
Instead, I prefer the quiet scene at the end. That is a kind of scene I can imagine. Of outcasts thrown together, sharing stories, bonding over the craziness of the night. Of an exhausted mother and father and shepherds lounging around, wondering what all this means. Of the moments of silence when everyone’s eyes settle on baby Jesus who has finally drifted off to sleep, watching his chest rise and fall, wondering what else might rise and fall because of this tiny baby. I imagine the bonding that can only happen at three in the morning, that can only happen through a people filled with hope in a hopeless world, that can only happen when God sweeps through your life in a bold way.
That’s why I love today’s service so much. Last night was the night of holy chaos – of kids with pent up excitement for Christmas day, of dinners being prepared, trumpets leading us in song, and the loud chatter of old friends and family greeting one another. But today, we enter the church in quiet, with no music to distract us, perhaps having left behind piles of wrapping paper or needy family members, having turned off our radios so that we can tell the old, old story. On Christmas Day, I like to imagine we recreate that holy, intimate night, where old friends and strangers gather around the mystery of the incarnation, wondering what Jesus has in store for us today. All we need is a little straw and sleep deprivation, and we can almost imagine ourselves there.
That is why when Margaret and Jim asked if we could renew their wedding vows on Christmas Day, wanting something quiet and sacred to mark their sixtieth wedding anniversary, I said an emphatic, “Yes!” Marriage is a sacred institution too – where we welcome friend and stranger alike, where we sometimes meet people who change our lives but we never see again, where we share intimate time, and where we ponder what God is doing in our lives. So, gathering again, sixty years later, we too gather like a band of misfits, sharing stories of marriage, of Jesus, and of community. We let down our hair and marvel at the holy mystery of God, holding holy moments of silence like gifts, and giving thanks for the God who makes sixty years possible.
The other reason I love the idea of renewing wedding vows on a day like today is because today is a day of hope. When God incarnate comes into the world, we are given the gift of hope – the promise that life will change dramatically. As we ponder the baby Jesus with those in that quiet room, we also slowly fill with hope, knowing that God is doing great things. The same is true of marriage. When I marry two people, I never know how the marriage will go. I am hopeful that the two will get to do things like celebrate sixtieth wedding anniversaries, but honestly, hardship and separation are equally likely. But we marry people anyway because we have hope – hope that God is doing a new thing between two people, and will make those people better through God. As Margaret and Jim recommit themselves to one another today, we again claim hope that God will do amazing things through their marriage, bringing blessing to all of us, not just to the two of them.
Our prayers for Margaret and Jim today are not just for them. They are for all of us. We need wisdom and devotion in the ordering of our common lives as much as they do. We need to recognize and acknowledge our fault when we hurt others, and seek forgiveness of others just as they do. We need to make our lives a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, and reach out in love and concern for others as much as they do. All of that ordering of our lives is made possible by what happens today. When God becomes incarnate in Christ, everything changes. In that intimate space where strangers, exhausted, afraid, and full of hope, came together in the mystery of a miracle, life is changed. Our gathering here today, to honor the incarnation, to celebrate the blessing of long marriage, and to create a sacred moment of intimate community, is the way we take the first step in living life differently – living a life of sacred incarnation. Thanks be to the God who showed us the way in the incarnation of God’s only, begotten Son. Amen.