Our gospel today picks up where we left off a little over a week ago. On Christmas Eve, we heard how Mary and Joseph journeyed to Bethlehem to be registered. We learned of how there was no room for them in the inn, and how they ended up delivering little Jesus, the savior of the world, in a room designated for animals. Exhausted, they placed him in a manger, in bands of cloth, making the best of an awful situation. We also learned of some unsuspecting shepherds who experienced an angelic encounter. An angel appeared to them in the fields and told them of the messiah who had been born, where they could find the messiah, and what they could look for – that manger and those bands of cloth.
Today we pick up where we left off. The angels leave, and the shepherds decide to check out the story. They visit with Mary and Joseph, confirm the story, and then share their experience with the tired couple. We are told Mary treasures the words, but ponders them too. She is clearly still figuring all this out. Meanwhile, the shepherds go back to work, praising God. And Mary and Joseph go back to work too – following the circumcision customs, but perhaps, more importantly, following through with what they were asked to do – naming Jesus as the Angel commanded.[i]
What I love about this story is that no one acts alone. Mary gets the bizarre news of her pregnancy alone, but then her cousin Elizabeth affirms her and confirms the good news. Shepherds are minding their business when the angels appear to them. They could have stayed at home that night, but they go and share the news. Mary and Joseph go on a scary journey that seems to be making one bad turn after another. But then shepherds come and give them a good word. Even the naming of Jesus takes place in community – at least a rabbi or priest comes and performs the naming right, knowingly or not, naming the child the same name the angel gave Mary – Jesus, or “Joshua, meaning salvation”[ii].
Going at things alone is part of our contemporary mindset. We place a value on people being able to fend for themselves. The number one goal of parents is to teach their children independence. And Lord knows we hear a lot of, “I do it by myself!” at our house these days. In and of itself, independence is not a bad thing. We have gifts and talents of which God expects us to be good stewards. But going at life alone can have the opposite effect of what we think. By glorifying independence we forget the inherent dependence we all have. If nothing else, we are certainly dependent upon our Lord and Savior, without whom nothing would be possible. But Jesus teaches us that community is equally important. Jesus was never a lone ranger in his ministry. He understood the people of faith to be a community – to need each other for learning and understanding. Unlike what the world might have us believe, life is not all about independence. Quite the opposite, we need each other in this crazy journey of faith – to learn from each other, to challenge each other, to support each other, and cheer each other on when we get weary.
As our children and I were reading our Advent and Christmas devotional this week, we learned about Simeon and Anna, whose story comes in the verses just following the passage we read today. If you remember Simeon and Anna are elder members of the faith, living and working in the temple when Jesus is to be presented. The devotional asked us what elderly people we know and what they teach us. I was surprised to hear my seven-year old jump in with all sorts of idea about what our elders teach us. She said that our elders have lived a lot longer and so they have a lot to teach us about the world. She said they can help teach the children how to live and what they can do in the world. When I asked the question about what our elders teach us, I had expected the standard, “I don’t know.” Instead, I got a response that showed a great deal of insight into how much we need each other – young and old, rich and poor, male and female, liberal and conservative – if we are going to survive in this journey of faith and life.
All the parts of our Christmas story are a bit like a puzzle. Each piece is important in its own right, but once you put the pieces together, the puzzle reveals something much more valuable. Though the parts we hear about during Christmastide are some of our favorite parts, they are just pieces in the puzzle. The story of Jesus would not be complete without angelic appearances, shared stories between cousins, and tired, weary people sharing good news together. Mary would have nothing to treasure and ponder without the ragtag community that has gathered around her.
The same is true for us. Our Christmas story is a beautiful story. But unless we share the story in community, unless we share our story in community, we only get a partial glimpse into the good work Christ is doing in our lives. We need each other to encourage and support each other in the faith journey. We need each other to interpret God’s movement in our lives, and to teach us wisdom. We need each other in those moments of treasuring and pondering our own story. Today we give thanks for the tremendous community of faith who help us in our journeys toward Christ. Thanks be to God! Amen.
[i] Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 36-37.
[ii] Craddock, 36.