And Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
We didn’t have a Christmas Pageant at St. David’s this year, but I’ve got a story about a Christmas Pageant. Those of you who are familiar with Christmas pageants know that it’s all about hierarchy and status, and from year to year the players work their way up through the ranks from sheep to angel to donkey to shepherd to innkeeper to Joseph or Mary. In the normal developmental cycle, after you’ve played Mary or Joseph, then you’re done. Off to high school for you! So there was a middle-school kid named William who was passed over when he thought it was definitely his turn to be Joseph, and they made him Inn-Keeper Number One, again. You who are faithful pageant-watchers know the first Inn-Keeper’s line: Sorry, no room at the inn. Well, when pageant night finally came, William was still really mad that he didn’t get asked to play Joseph. When Mary, big with child, and Joseph and the donkey came to the Inn to ask for a room where they could spend the night, William said “sure, we’ve got loads of room. C’mon in.”
This would’ve changed the whole story. The fact that there was no room at the inn is central to who Jesus is and who we are.
It is not difficult to imagine that the stable was probably not the kind of place any of us would want to spend the night, let alone have a baby. The Word becomes flesh in a dark, untidy place. God reveals his will for humankind by being born into a particular human family. Family, as we all know, is sometimes the most untidy place of all. God’s will is to dwell among us, wherever we are and whoever we are.
In choosing such an unlikely person as Mary to be the bearer of the Christ, and such an unlikely place as a stable for the Christ child to be born, God begins to turn the world upside down. Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls this “the great reversal.”
Most of the stories we hear about Jesus all year long are about this reversal, about the Kingdom of God being revealed in unlikely, untidy places and unlikely, untidy people. This “unlikelihood of God” begins at Christmas. God is Savior and comes to us in the flesh. This is cause enough for celebration. Even more glorious, however, is the fact that God becomes human in such an ordinary place and in such an ordinary way!
We are just as unlikely recipients of God’s grace and favor as Mary and Joseph. Maybe even more so. And yet God comes to us in Jesus, not only whenever we gather in this place, but always, everywhere.
How will Jesus turn our lives upside down? What can we do to live into this great reversal of all things that we proclaim when we celebrate the incarnation—the enfleshment—of God in Jesus? There are clues throughout Luke’s Christmas story.
Jesus will turn our lives upside down if we look for signs in unlikely places. Imagine that God gives us signs, in the same way that God has guided Mary, and Elizabeth, and Joseph, and Zechariah, and the shepherds with signs since Luke’s story began. When the angel Gabriel tells Mary about her cousin Elizabeth being miraculously with child, he says for nothing will be impossible with God. This phrase inspired the title for a children’s Christmas story by Madeleine L’Engle, called The Glorious Impossible. If we look for signs of God in unlikely places, we will likely find “the glorious impossible.”
Jesus will turn our lives upside down if we say yes to something outrageous. Imagine that we are Mary, asked to receive the Holy Spirit and bring God into the world. In a sense, we are. At any moment there is some miracle of transformation waiting to be born in each of us and capable of bringing transformation and peace to the whole world. What is it?
Jesus will turn our lives upside down if we imagine that we are living as wanderers, in search of a home in which to spend the night. Imagine that we are Mary and Joseph, pilgrim people. The roof over our head provides a way-station from which to do the work God has given us to do. For many of us, this church is our way-station, our gathering place for helping Jesus build the Kingdom of God.
As followers of Jesus, as worshippers of the kind of God who is present in a tiny baby born in a manger, we can change the world. But we need to follow the movement of the story….We need to zoom in from the totality of the whole world to the place where we are: our own untidy place, our own opportunity to say yes, our own way-station in the kingdom, and the signs we see of the unlikelihood of God in our midst.
As we pay attention to the unlikelihood of God, we can become unlikely partners in the transformation of the world. And to that we can say: glory to God in the highest!