I don’t know if any of you have ever been involved in theatre—in high
school, college, professionally, or in a community theatre but, if you have,
you know that most of the important stuff, the real stuff—happens back
stage. That’s where gossip, jokes, and the aches and pains of life are shared.
Back stage is where you hear how one of your fellow actor’s Uncle Martin
really is a Scrooge and how it affected the family’s life, or how someone’s
cousin is battling cancer, who is getting divorced, whose daughter just
graduated magna cum laude, and who is a grandfather for the first time.
The birth of Jesus was not unlike being backstage. After all the
Christmas hype, which begins before Halloween these days, after several
weeks of Christmas music, after the release of a new major films like “The
Force”, the birth of Jesus seems like anything but center stage. And even
2000+ years ago, Jesus’ birth was not a drama that occurred in the wings of
the stage— it was a back stage event. God, the Creator of heaven and earth,
came to live among us not in pomp and circumstance, not as powerful and
mighty, not center stage, but as a little baby, born to anything-but famous
parents. God came in backstage, where the real stuff of life was
Mary and Joseph came into town with hundreds of other travelers. And
Bethlehem wasn’t the only busy place. The Emperor had ordered everyone
to return to their hometown to register for taxes. So it wasn’t like walking
down the street to register to vote. The whole of the empire was on the
move that winter. Center stage was Rome, from whence the decree had
come, and Emperor Augustus was the principal actor. Judea was a small
province, important only because it served as a link between Egypt and
Syria, and Bethlehem was a speck in the desert.
Even farther from the center of the action was the stable on the edge of
Bethlehem where an insignificant couple from Nazareth were staying the
night. On the way there they must have heard the stories from other
travelers. They may have been stopped by a soldier a long way from home
who didn’t want to be there anymore than they did. One can imagine that
they chatted with the innkeeper when he brought the hay and heard about the
difficulties of trying to play host to an overcrowded inn. They may have
talked with travelers who brought their donkeys or camels back to the stable
to board for the night, hearing stories of long travel and hardships on the
way. They may have heard from the stable boy who brought the hot water
needed after the birth of the baby. Perhaps his mother was ill, or his father
died young, leaving him to care for the family.
Whoever the people were and whatever their stories, you can bet that
Mary and Joseph had their baby in the midst of the real stuff of life. God
came down at Christmas to live among us. God didn’t have to. The
Almighty could have just kept sending prophets to tell us how much we
were loved and how we needed to behave. But we didn’t seem to be
listening. And so God chose to come right into the midst of it all. When we
celebrate Christmas these days we do so with pomp and circumstance, with
majestic songs and abundance of food and gifts and decorated houses.
Christmas certainly seems center stage to us. And yet, the truth of that first
Christmas, that God comes to us in the midst of real life circumstances, is
still true today. For in the backstage of all our celebrating is the real life
stuff of relatives who are struggling with illnesses, or brothers and cousins,
aunts and sisters, who are serving in the military far from home, or concern
about keeping our jobs in the midst of a buy-out, or knowledge that there are
people in the town where we live who don’t have enough to eat or to buy the
clothes they need. God comes in the midst of news of terrorist shootings,
and racially motivated injustices and murders, and environmental disasters
caused by corporate greed. And still God comes.
God comes to remind us how much we are loved by God, no matter who
we are, where we are from, or what we do, or what we face in life. God
comes to be present with us in the midst of our real lives. And what
difference does it make, this presence? What does it matter that there was a
baby born in the back of beyond 2000 years ago? Why do we celebrate the
birth of this particular child? Four months from now Christians will
celebrate another significant event in the life of this child, and that is the
death of this child as an adult, 33 years later. Without the events of Jesus’
life and death, we wouldn’t be celebrating tonight. And without the birth of
Jesus, he would not have lived to show us the fullness of God’s love. The
fullness of God’s love was that everyone matters to God, everyone. The
innkeeper, the stable boy, the soldier, the Samaritan, the tax collector, the
woman caught in adultery, the man who betrayed him, the beggar by the
road. The fullness of God’s love is that each of us matter to God, each of us,
you and I.
The fullness of God’s love is also the truth that God’s love is more
powerful than the most powerful Emperor, more powerful than the richest
corporation, more powerful than radical extremists, more powerful than
death. The birth of Jesus invites us into that powerful presence of God’s
love. The difference it makes is the difference between life and death.
Included in the invitation into the powerful presence of God’s love, is
the call to share the experience of that love, to pay attention to the real
life stuff of the backstage in our own time. Who needs our attention?
Who is the overworked innkeeper? The struggling stable boy? The lonely
soldier? The weary traveler? And what can we do to make God’s presence
known to them? Jesus is God’s gift to us, but his love is a gift that is meant
to be given away. Let us go forth from this place this night intent upon
giving away that which we have received, the love of God in Christ Jesus.