Once upon a time, there was a young woman named Mary. She and her family lived in the region of Galilee, which had once been a wild frontier, a mysterious land that was home to many and owned by no one but God, the Creator of All.
Mary knew the stories of this land — of freedom and adventure and blessing, but they sounded like fairy tales from long ago, before there was famine and war, before temples were destroyed and stronger nations sent them into exile or ruled over them right here.
Mary also knew the scriptures, the words from worship, the promise that God would send someone to free the people. A new king was coming (it seemed he was always almost here) who would give everything instead of taking it, who would rule with peace instead of fear, who would bring a slice of heaven all the way down to earth, a sign that God hears and cares and saves.
Mary knew the land and the stories, but mostly she knew how to settle. She knew how to accept what was hard about living under the Roman Empire, under King Herod of Judea, under the pressure of being a young person who didn’t have much say over her future or power over her own body. She knew how to accept the facts and roll with the punches and keep the peace… but late at night, in the dark hillsides of Nazareth, she prayed to God for something more.
And so we have to wonder how Mary felt when the angel called Gabriel showed up at her home one day, greeting her in the name of God, calling her a blessed and favored one.
“God is with you.”
Scripture says she was troubled.
Does that mean afraid? Confused? Creeped out?
The angel explained that she had been chosen for a special blessing. And not one of those gentle, polite, hashtag blessed blessings. She had been chosen to carry the Son of God in her body, to protect and nourish him, to be his mother and bear God’s love to the whole world.
It was laughable news.
It was dangerous news.
It was unbelievable news!
Mary asked about the logistics. How, exactly, was this supposed to happen when she was a virgin, engaged but not yet married, still so young and on her own? Would her fiancé believe her? Would she be able to do this?
Gabriel had a plan to prepare her fiancé Joseph’s heart for this blessing, and he assured her that her cousin Elizabeth would be a safe and understanding friend during the pregnancy. It was hard to imagine, but she would not be alone.
“God is with you.”
Mary found her courage. After all, feeling scared is part of being brave. “I will serve God. I will do this,” Mary said. And, with her simple and vulnerable YES, the world began to change.
Mary went to stay with her cousin Elizabeth for three months. There, they bonded as women, as mothers to be, as bodies that were already preaching the good news. Elizabeth’s warm welcome and excitement encouraged Mary. It gave her hope and peace and joy and love she didn’t know she needed. And, with that, she began to sing.
It sounded like Hannah’s song, a hymn she knew from scripture, a song of thanksgiving for a blessing that would flow through her, not to keep but to share, because it was meant to grow and love many. Mary sang about how this blessing was changing her soul and her spirit. It was setting her whole identity toward God in a new way, aligned with a freedom that she had not experienced under Emperor Caesar Augustus, under Governor Quirinius, or Herod of Judea.
These earthly kings had taught her plenty about every man and woman for themselves, about the scrappy desperation of hiding who you actually are, about the weary work of falling in line and deferring dreams.
God’s favor, the Angel Gabriel, the Holy Spirit, this rogue blessing — they gave her the confidence she needed to sing about a different kind of power, a kingdom in which everything gets turned upside down and inside out, a love that could not be broken by fear or sword or even death.
When Mary returned to Nazareth, Joseph was there waiting to tell her about his dream. Joseph said,
“An angel came to visit me, Mary.
I was scared, but I believe you
and I want to be part of this.”
You see, sometimes when we’re scared or feeling left out, we just need an invitation to participate, to be part of the story. The angel shared the news with Joseph and gave him a job to do: he would get to name the baby Jesus.
They were married and traveled together to Bethlehem as a family. The roads were crowded. Everyone in the whole kingdom had to travel to their hometown so they could be counted. The Emperor lived far away from his subjects, and I think he liked it that way. Still, he wanted to add them all up to see if he was the most important king in the history of the world. He was hoping it was a big number, which would make him feel powerful.
When Mary and Joseph got to Bethlehem, the town was filled with visitors. Their family members and friends already had too many guests. The hotel signs glowed NO VACANCY and campgrounds were full. Air B&B wasn’t invented yet, but they would have been booked, too.
Mary and Joseph wandered through Bethlehem until they were tired and hungry and completely out of luck. And that’s when Mary’s contractions began. She was breathing and pushing and crying when, finally, an innkeeper came outside to take pity on them. The innkeeper said,
“We’re all out of rooms,
but you can use the stable.
It’s clean and dry and all we’ve got left.”
Not exactly fit for a king…or was it? Joseph shooed the animals, opening a place in the straw for Mary to lie down and labor. It wasn’t exactly peaceful or private:
Make Loud Barnyard Noises:
(Quack, Moo, Baa, Cluck, Neigh, Heehaw…)
But it would do just fine. There, in the humblest of settings, in the midst of creatures great and small, in the still beauty of night, in King David’s hometown, right under the nose of King Herod, Jesus slipped into the world. God in flesh. Heaven on earth. Holy love in the sweaty arms of new parents.
They looked him over, every inch, taking in his tiny fingers, the arch of his foot, his long eyelashes and wide yawns. They kissed his forehead and whispered promises they didn’t yet know how to keep. Their love stretched.
God was magnified.
God was up close and right here.
Like so many new parents, Mary and Joseph cherished those first moments with Jesus all to themselves, the quiet miracle of birth that was just for them.
But it never lasts long. Word gets out — announcements are made, visitors come knocking and gifts are bestowed. New life cannot be contained. The celebration is contagious.
You’d think a newborn king would make the evening news,
that his first visitors would be royalty or the religious leaders in town
would have seen this coming and brought blankets or a meal to this family.
But the first invitation is to people on the edges. Shepherds who have been sleeping in the fields outside of town with their stinky sheep all night.
An angel appears to the shepherds while Jesus is still a brand new secret. And the shepherds are terrified. The angel said,
“Don’t be afraid.
I have good news and great joy to share.
The Savior of the World
has been born in Bethlehem tonight.
Go and see for yourselves —
he is wrapped in bands of cloth
and lying in a manger.”
The angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth!” When they left, the shepherds went into town to look for the newborn king.
Sure enough, those angels were right. The shepherds found Jesus wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger. They told Joseph and Mary everything they had seen and heard in the fields, which was amazing. Mary kept all these words in her heart to treasure and ponder.
A bright star rose in the sky over Bethlehem. Most folks in town didn’t even notice it, but from far away in the east, it looked like the brightest star in the whole universe. Wise Magi from far away lands saw the star rising in the sky and knew that this was an important sign. They traveled for months, using the star like a map that guided them all the way to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem where the star beamed above the house where Jesus and his family were staying. Imagine traveling all that way, following a star on a hunch that this was the beginning of something brand new, a sign from another nation’s God that all of creation is being liberated with love.
When they arrived, the Magi presented Jesus with gifts from their treasure chests. They said,
“We give you gold, a symbol of your royalty,
frankincense, a symbol of your divinity,
and myrrh, a symbol of the death
you will suffer for all people.”
They returned home to the east by other roads so King Herod would have a harder time finding Jesus and his family. There were more dreams, more angels, more migrations by night and prophecies fulfilled and promises whispered.
It was beautiful and dangerous.
It was darkness and light.
It was heaven on earth.
It was God in the flesh and love for the whole wide world.
And it still is.
God of Love, be born.
Come all the way into our lives,
like a quiet miracle at first,
and then like loud fanfare
that changes everything.
up close and right here,
for the whole of creation. Amen.