I have no illusions about this night.
I know that there are two primary motivations at work in the annual Christmas worship or holiday celebration.
There are those who are moved by decree, and those who are motived by “Let’s go and see.”
For most of us, it’s a mixture of the two at work really.
“You will go to church….” The parent informs the child.
“You will go to your parent’s….” The spouse informs her partner.
“You have to get a gift for …”
“You have to attend the office party, the social gathering, the play we have tickets for…”
All kinds of decrees are issued this time of year, (whether you realize it at first or not.)
It may not be Caesar Augustus directing your travels or compelling your actions, but we all have felt the compulsion of family pressure, or of expectations placed upon us, or of spousal obligation, family responsibilities, societal expectations, or ….well, you name it.
You name it because you have felt it, perhaps still feel it.
We are under decrees of one kind or another, and so part of what resonates with us about this night and this story is recognizing that Mary and Joseph couldn’t catch a break either.
There are certain things required to be done.
Certain expectations that must be met.
No one likes it, but we do them anyway.
And then, as “Murphy’s Law” dictates, if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong, especially if you are you are under decree to do something.
So it is that Luke records that while the couple are complying to Caesar’s decree, the time came for the child to be born.
One more complication in the midst of the unwanted trip, like a flat tire on the way to your mother-in-law’s.
One more thing you were dreading that might happen, that actually does happen.
Ill prepared, and in the worst of possible situations the child is born without any of the things you had laid up back at home for this event.
No “pack and play.”
No place to stay, no doctor, no midwife, and no family nearby to help out.
Under the pressure and obligation of the decree, you make do as best you can given the circumstances.
The baby is laid in manger.
Swaddling clothes are fashioned out of whatever you are wearing or have packed along. The spare tunic is now catching urine and poo as it is torn into strips to wrap the child.
Living under decree is often not much fun.
We feel the imposition of it on our lives, the “nothing went as I thought it was supposed to go” disruption, and we wonder what it is that we’ve done to deserve this.
If it is not decree that motivates you this holiday, then it is most likely curiosity. There is a “go and see” element at work this time of year as well.
“Let’s go and see how they’ve decorated (the church, the public space, union station, etc.)”
“Let’s go and see the children’s program, there’s always one or two laughable mishaps by the kids there.”
“Let’s go and see mom, or the old home place, or drive past the old house, the old farm, down the old main street of the hometown once again while we’re there.”
If we aren’t being compelled out of guilt, we are sometimes we are pulled out of gratitude, desire, nostalgia or curiosity.
The Christmas story has that element as well, of shepherds wanting to “go and see” if Angel’s words are true.
You have to admit that it’s not much to look at really, just a baby wrapped up in a manger, an inconvenienced family, the mess of animals and straw.
Still and all, it is what was promised, and it is curiously a touchstone to the words of the messengers.
Much like our wanting to go and see the old home, the old farm, the old main street, …as shabby and unimpressive as it might be to anyone else’s eyes, to your eyes it is confirmation of something important.
A tangible sign of a life once known.
A reminder of a time when we were loved, or felt safe and secure, or at least knew predictably how the next day would unfold.
Our “go and see” travels in locations and memories anchor us to promises made, and better times, and a sense of faithfulness that somehow reaches into the here and now. As tears well up and emotions rise looking out over the changed but familiar scenes and the flood of memories, we might even whisper to ourselves, “what have I ever done to deserve this?” This sense of privilege in living, this sense of giftedness, this joy of what has been and is promised to the future.
So, I’m not sure why you are here tonight, out of a decree made to you, or out of a sense of curiosity to go and see what all the fuss is about.
I’m not sure if you’re finding what you expect to see or whether you’re wondering why you came in the first place.
I only know that if you are feeling either decree or “come and see”, you are in good company, for those are the things that made up that first Christmas.
This is real life, and this is what God comes stumbling and tumbling into.
God comes into a world of obligations and mixed motivations.
God comes vulnerable and yet insistent, as only children can be.
God comes both to capture our attention, and to escape the notice of kings and princes.
God comes, in the midst of decrees and “go and see’s, and our lives are not the same because of it.
And we might even find ourselves asking, as we contemplate it all, God made flesh and coming into this world. “What have we ever done to deserve this?”