2 In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. 2 This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. 3 Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. 4 Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. 5 He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. 6 While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. 7 She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.
Announcement to shepherds
8 Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. 9 The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.
10 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. 11 Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. 12 This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said,14 “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”
15 When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” 16 They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child.
Thoughts on the passage:
Christmas usually is a time of great planning. For my family it means orchestrating the schedules of five families, including seven young kids. On top of getting the times right, we need to balance the dietary needs of people including, several with food allergies. Even with all of this, in many ways we are still lucky since we are only dealing with one other extended family and do not have to navigate the challenges of step-families or extended travel needs. I am sure many other people’s plans are far more complicated and stressful than ours. The biggest problems with and plan is that things never go the way we want them to.
My first year in ministry, Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday. This meant I would be taking part in four worship services, one in the morning and three in the evening. Fortunately, I was only going to have to lead two of them. For the other two, I would be assisting Rory Swensen, the senior pastor at Park. On top of all of that, this was my last day in Baxter before I headed to the Twin Cities to celebrate Christmas with my family and then I was going to get married and go on my honeymoon. As you can imagine, it was a busy day.
Perhaps not unsurprisingly, it was also a day that did not go according to plan. The morning worship went fine, and I spent the afternoon packing and getting ready to be gone. I left my apartment in the middle of the afternoon, planning to go to Park a little early so I could meet with Rory to figure out how I was going to help with the 5:00 service. I was more than a little surprised that I got a call from Rory while I was on my way across town. It turns out that Rory become ill during the morning worship services. So ill, in fact that he had left in the middle of worship at the first service. He had hoped to go home, sleep it off and be ready for the evening. He was not sure that this was not going to happen.
Now, instead of getting ready to maybe say a prayer and read some scripture I was in charge of the whole service. This was not how I planned on things going. Not only did I need to figure out what to do for worship. I also needed a new plan for eating since I was supposed to go to Rory’s home for dinner that evening. Fortunately, the rest of his family was in the same boat since none of them wanted to get sick either. After the 5:00 service we all trooped over to Perkin’s for dinner. Luck continued to not be on my side. My food was the last to arrive and came only minutes before I needed to leave. My next service was at Cragun’s Resort, a place I had never been before, and I left with barely enough time to get there on time. I then had to find my way through the winding catacomb of stairways and hallways to find the room where the service would be held. It was an interesting experience.
The story of course does not end there. Rory had started a tradition of preaching two different Christmas Eve sermons, one for each service. Since I had used my one sermon already, I then had to dig a little deeper and come up with a second sermon to give at the later service. While I might have enjoyed having more time to eat, the waiting at Perkin’s did have one blessing to. It gave me enough time to put together some ideas for my second sermon. When I got back to Park, I had enough time to scratch a rough outline onto a piece of paper. Rory’s wife, Beth, still thinks it was a better sermon than my first one.
I bring up the story of my first Christmas, the reality of Christmas planning, because our gospel lesson today is all about a plan that had gone totally wrong. Mary and Joseph get engaged and begin to make their plans for marriage. Then Mary gets pregnant by the Holy Spirit and Joseph decides to break off the engagement. When Joseph is visited by an angel, everything is back on again, only now it needs to be rushed to take place before the child is born. If that is not enough, after the wedding, but before the birth, a decree comes out from Rome that everyone needs to return to their home town. Mary and Joseph are forced to leave the comforts of their new home and make the nine-day trek back to Bethlehem to be with Joseph’s family. Not only does Mary need to make this long journey while pregnant, she will be leaving the support systems they would have had in place in Nazareth to help her with the birth. To add insult to injury, when they arrive in Bethlehem, the home is so full of people that they get put in the stables. So much for the best laid plans of Mary and Joseph.
Of course, the whole history of the Bible is the story of watching people’s plans get all mixed up when God gets involved. God calls the young and the old, the rich and the poor, men and women; puts aside the plans they have for themselves and instead gives them a new plan to follow. God does it for us as well.
Mary and Joseph think that they know what their life has to offer, until they let God be in charge and then everything changes. They are not the only ones whose plans go up in smoke. Caesar Augustus thinks he has everything under control when he calls for a tax, but little does he know that the actions he takes out of greed God is using for something more. Herod thinks that he has it made as the local ruler of Israel, but he is also in for a surprise when a new king is born, not in his palace but in a stable in Bethlehem.
How do you react when the plans change? I know there are times that I get upset and frustrated when things change. I like to know what is coming and find it hard when my expectations are not met. Sometimes there are parts of a plan that I have really been anticipating and find myself off-balance when they do not happen as I had planned. Usually my struggle then is to accept things as they are and not as I wished they could have been.
One of the things that made those first Christmas Eve services manageable is that I was not attached to the way things had to happen. I was able to accept changes because I was willing to give up the control I had over things and instead to react to what the world was bringing me. I was able to navigate the sudden changes because I was willing to let go of the plans I had and make new plans instead. I think there is wisdom to be found in this. I think we all do better when we are able to recognize that part of following God is letting go of what we want and instead listening to what God wants.
Mary and Joseph do this and so they take the journey from their home in Nazareth to a stable in Bethlehem. They leave the comfort and safety of their own space for a strange and new place that God is calling them. They let go of their own hopes and expectations and instead follow God. When they do this, something amazing happens, they give birth to a child, who is born in the city of David, who is heralded by angels and greeted by shepherds and worshipped by kings. When they let their of their own plans they begin to take part in God’s plan, which is working to save us. Surely that is glad tidings of great joy to all people. Let us also journey to Bethlehem and worship this newborn king!
Questions to Ponder:
What does it feel like for you when you have to change your plans?
When is a time in your life when nothing went according to plan and it still turned out alright?
What plans do you think God might have for your life that are different than your own plans?
Wondrous God, you come into our hearts in small and simple ways, like a child, born in a manager. As we get ready to explore again the miracle of your birth among us, prepare our hearts and minds to let you rule them. Take away from us all of the distractions and temptations to follow others instead of you. Help us to be faithful to you. Amen