Call to Worship
Seven centuries before Jesus’ birth, the Prophet Isaiah looked for One who would come to bring hope and light:
The people who walked in darkness
Have seen a great light;
Those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
On them light has shined.
Upon the birth of his son, who would later become John the Baptist, the Priest Zechariah sang:
By the tender mercy of our God,
The dawn from on high will break upon us,
To give light to those who sit in darkness,
To guide our feet into the way of peace.
In the decades following the ascension of Christ, John the Evangelist declared:
What has come into being in him was life
And the life is the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
And the darkness did not overcome it.
Tonight, we celebrate the arrival of Emmanuel—God-with-Us. In Jesus, God comes into our lives and our world in a new way—in flesh and bone. This night stands in and beyond time as the epicenter of human history through which the past is redeemed, and the future holds its breath.
Like the shepherds so long ago, let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us. Let us kneel at the manger to offer our worship, praise, and thanksgiving to God for the most precious of all gifts who is born this night.
Living God, on this holy night we gather to stand with shepherds, amazed at your glory; to sing with angels, rejoicing in your work; to wait with Joseph, trusting in your promise; to sit with Mary, cradling your love. May the good news of this night inspire us to tell the world of our great joy: for to us is born in Bethlehem a Savior, the Messiah, Christ the Lord. All glory and praise to you forever! Amen.
Scripture/Luke 2:1-7 (NRSV)
1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she 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.
Message/The Innkeeper’s Wife
It’s been quite a night! If I had the energy, I’d get up and stoke the fire for some warmth, but all I can do is sit here and think about what happened. I’ve been up all night and new day is getting ready to dawn. And I have a story to tell, that, in one way, is the most ordinary story in the world, another child born, another mouth to be fed, another turning of the world’s endless cycle of life. And yet, at the same time, it is the most fantastic, be it puzzling story, I could ever share. I guess this is why I can’t sleep, I suppose. Just too much stuff running around the old gray matter.
Business has been great! My husband and I run an inn in Bethlehem and I’ve never seen the streets so crowded with people—all thanks to Quirinius, the governor of Syria, who called for a census. Every man must return to the town of his birth to be registered and then pay their tax obligation. Who would ever think of paying taxes as good news? But our business is booming, and I can’t complain at all. The “no vacancy” sign is out front because we have folks sleeping just about everywhere on the property. And I mean everywhere. In the lobby, the hall, even in the stable.
Oh, the stable, yes, that’s where my story begins. You see, last night, about eight or so a couple came to the door. He, older and serious and earnest-looking; she, young and frightened, and heavy with child. She was about ready to pop! I smiled at them because I know the feeling myself, having given birth two seven children. But I could tell that, being such a slip of a girl, this was probably her first, and there’s nothing scarier than the first time. The man seemed so much older—at first, I thought he was her father. I told him that we didn’t have any more rooms available. But he was determined and wouldn’t take no for an answer. We were at capacity. There just wasn’t any place to put them.
In a way, I thought it kind of funny, him looking for a room that late in the evening when there were so many travelers on the road. Was he kidding, thinking that there would be an empty room anywhere in town? But he stood his ground. I like that in a man. Firm, modest, concerned about his wife’s situation. So, I folded my arms, smiled at him, and stood my ground too. He gestured towards the girl and told me what I already knew—and I told him that didn’t change anything—but then, I had a thought. About the only place that I could think of was the cowshed outback. It’s where we brought the animals in for the evening.
It was warm and out of the wind. For a small price, I told him that I would bring water and blankets to them there. And wine and bread, if they could afford it.
He looked at me for what seemed to be forever, mulling the idea over in his head. He was desperate, but what I liked about him is the fact that he didn’t over-react, he didn’t just blurt out his frustration. There was a quiet dignity about him. He turned ad asked the girl, Mary her name was, and explained the situation. She, too, had a crackle of fire in her eyes. She was young, but there was a way of wisdom about her, a sense of endurance, a spirit of tenacity. But, like the gentleman, was also desperate. How could she not be? How would anyone not be given the same circumstances? Anything is better than nothing, is what her
face seemed to say, and neither of them had the luxury of time to figure it out. They needed help and their options were limited.
I know I can be a bit hard-headed sometimes—who wouldn’t be after raising seven children—but I really felt for these folks. Sometimes, in business, you have to put your foot down, make a quick decision and take a stance. But these folks were simply trying to survive—they seemed willing to accept whatever they could find. I remember how I felt prior to giving birth to my firstborn. Had I been in a similar situation, I would have moved heaven and earth to find a place to stay. This old fella and this young girl, standing there in front of me, far from home in the dead chill of a winter’s night and nowhere to go. ‘We’ll take it,’ he said.
I wiped my hands on the towel that was tied around my waist and gestured to the girl. Come here, precious one,’ I said. ‘I’ve been around this block a few times, and when the time comes, nature will take its course. You’ll know what to do and I’ll come and check on you when I can. Come this way.’ I led them round back of the inn. The barn where our animals sheltered was no more than a rough covering of brush and hay propped against the overhang of the wall and shadowed on two sides by large cypress trees that grew in the yard. It was a simple lean-to, but it would just have to work.
The animals were a bit restless. They’re not usually disturbed this time of the evening, but I could tell that they sensed something was going on. Oh, and the smell, well, you can imagine what that would have been like. We didn’t have time to clean it out each day, and if we did bring in fresh straw, it was usually early in the morning, I felt another wave of pity for the girl and called for one of the servants to bring a bale of clean straw from inside. I pushed open the makeshift gate, clapping my hands to get the animals—a cow, a couple of goats, and a few scrawny chickens—to move out of the way for our guests. I attempted to make the corner of the stable as comfortable as I could, and when the fresh straw arrived, I made a seat for the girl and put the remainder of the straw into one of the feeding troughs. ‘You can lay the child here when you need to sleep yourself,’ I said.
Just as I was about to leave to give them some time to settle in, her water broke. Bless her heart, she just looked at me pleadingly, completely unprepared for what was about to happen next. Had her mother not taught her anything? She let out a whimper and the animals, sensing something was happening, began banging their hooves against the ground, snorting, scratching, restlessly. Her husband looked away. He was useless. Men usually are at times like these, so I did what any experienced mother would do and took action. Beckoning for her husband to help, we lay her down, albeit awkwardly, into the straw. And then we waited.
And through those long hours of labor; through the choppy waves of strong and mounting contractions, through the calm waters of boredom and wondering if the baby would ever show up; through all the screaming and crying out; I sat and held her hand, wiping her brow and regaling her with stories of my own seven births, as if that would really help her at all. I guess they were my way of somehow relieving the tension of the moment, trying to commiserate with what she was going through. After a few hours, my husband came out to see what was going on. ‘What a pretty sight this is,’ he muttered angrily. ‘There are paying customers to be looked after inside, and dishes to be washed, you know.’ Then he stomped
Her husband—Joseph, I gathered his name was—paced, as most men do in times when the anxiety is high, and the air can be cut with a knife. He was what you might call a traditional father. He didn’t really do much. He just kept muttering—or was he praying—I wasn’t quite sure—that all this was from God and was safe with God. ‘Well, you’re safe with me,’ I told him. ‘Now hold this cloth and wipe her face when I tell you.’
In the darkest hour of the night, perhaps two or three o’clock, the baby crowned. And with several final thrusts, he was out, his face looking up in wonder at the world, eyes blinking and gawking. I pulled him free and held him up for his mother to see: a little boy, all green and gray. I didn’t have to do anything to make him catch his breath. The breath just seemed to rush into him, and he filled his lungs and let out a wild, piercing cry. I had to laugh, ‘Loud enough to wake the dead,’ I told his mother, ‘or at least our sleeping tenants. He’s a strong little fella.’
I wrapped him in a cloth and brought him up close to his mother. That’s always a precious moment, as old as the world itself and as new as the dawn. She held him and stroked his cheek. He was born, this baby. He was ok. He was well. And his mother seemed to be fine, too. Even the furrows left her husband’s worried brow, shifting his facial muscles into a smile; a sense of relief knowing that baby and mother were safe. What a place to be born, I wondered to myself. A barn—and the only witnesses, a few mangy animals. And I found myself amazed at inner strength of this couple and their newborn son. Turning her face towards me and smiling, the mother shared, ‘His name is Jesus.’ And I nodded. It wasn’t the most original of names, but it was a good, strong boy’s name, highly appropriate for one born under such primitive conditions.
Well, I thought, that was the end of it, and I could go on to my own bed and get at least a few hours of sleep. As the girl slept, exhausted from the ordeal of childbirth, the baby, too, closed his eyes for a nap. Her husband took the child and, after holding him for few minutes, placed him in the clean straw of the manger that I had prepared. I told him that he ought to get some sleep too, but I could tell that he wouldn’t. His part had come, and he seemed happy to watch and wait. So now I’m back here, watching and waiting myself. You see, I can’t sleep. This birth and this odd couple have touched my heart in a way that I can’t
really explain. The inn is quiet and everyone else is asleep, but I’m sitting here now, wide awake.
The fire’s gone out. A few embers are struggling to stay alight, fluttering and flashing, but with nothing to feed on. If I get some kindling and gently breathe on them, the fire will return. But not forever. I don’t know where these thoughts come from, the fire burning low. A new fire kindled. Warmth and security, heat, and light. I need them so much, and yet as I turn over the dying embers of my life—because that’s how it seems to me, that’s what I’m thinking about, all the beautiful things that are lost to me, all hopes and dreams that have died in me—in the end it will go cold and expire. Where is the fire and where is the light that
will burn forever, radiant, and beautiful?
Now there is a commotion outside. A lot of noise. Probably some drunks, trying to find their way back to their overnight quarters. I crack open the door to see what’s going on. It looks like some shepherds have showed up. Bunch of vagrants, they are! Always prodding around, letting their sheep graze where they’re not supposed to! What mischief have they been up to? And why are they here, disturbing the sleep of that poor, exhausted girl and new baby? What is they are shouting about—why all the fuss and excitement? A king born in Bethlehem? Peace to the world? I’m so tired and confused.
Suddenly things fall silent again as the emptiness of the night imposes itself on the moment, and on the horizon the unhurried beginning of a new day creeping slowly upon us. What’s going on? What happened here this night? Who is this child who has visited me? Whose coming into the world have I shared? There is a strange and ominous foreboding upon me. But also a spark of pure, uncompromised joy. After all, who isn’t moved to wonder at the sight of a newborn child? I turn back into my room and notice that the fire is suddenly burning brightly again. I watch as the flames dance in the hearth. My goodness, what has been kindled here, in my hearth, in my heart, in my soul?
Lighting the Christ Candle
Tonight, on one of the longest nights of the year in the northern hemisphere, we are reminded that the light of Christ has come into the world. Scripture reminds us of our expectations of the One who would come to bring light and life, forgiveness and salvation:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2)
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. (John 1:9)
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
Four Sundays ago, we lit the Prophecy candle and remembered those who first spoke the promise of the coming Christ child.
Three Sundays ago, we lit the Bethlehem candle, a symbol of the preparations being made to receive and cradle the Christ child.
Two Sundays ago, we lit the Shepherds’ candle, remembering the first people who shared the good news of the Savior’s birth.
Last Sunday we lit the Angels’ candle and were reminded of the hope fulfilled in the first coming of our Savior and of our continuing hope as we anticipate his coming again.
Tonight, the Advent season ends. We wait no longer. That great event for which we waited has happened. God’s promise of a Redeemer is fulfilled. Christ Jesus is born.
We light the Christ candle with praise to our God who brings joy to the world.
The Christmas Prayer
We give you thanks, O Holy One, for the light that has come into the darkness of our brokenness and sin, for your truth that comes into focus, for the pathway of salvation that has opened, for the blessing and joy of your people.
We give you thanks for the feet of those who bring good news and prophetically speak of your promised peace; and for all who offer friendship and comfort, food and shelter, healing and hope.
We give you thanks for your gift of the Church, the Body of Christ, and for all people of faith whose embodiment of your way of peace razes the walls of prejudice and hate.
We give you thanks for our nation and for every nation where wisdom reigns, where leaders work for the well-being of the poor, so that no one is hungry or homeless, and children are valued and nurtured.
We pray for the courage to be good stewards of all that you have given us—our time, talent, and resources; our relationships with those close to us—our families, friends, and neighbors; as well as those whom we are called to love and welcome—the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant; the oceans and rivers, the air and the soil, and all creatures large and small—that your creation might better reflect your purpose and vision.
We pray for those whose flesh is harmed by poverty, sickness, violence, and cruelty of any kind, that the Word-made-flesh may so fill your world with the power to heal, all will be made strong and whole.
These prayers and praises we humbly offer up to the throne of heaven, with the words that Christ himself has taught us:
The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in deepest night, are lit up with a brilliant sight. Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. The spread of his influence and of his peace will never end. Therefore, go out into the world with great joy, and the grace of Bethlehem’s matchless Child, the love of the God who never ceases to amaze, and the fellowship of the Spirit who never wearies, will be with you this holy night and evermore. Amen.