My brother used to write copy for a vast video game empire run out of Montreal. One of his gigs was to write lines for people to read while they introduced the new games every year at the giant video game company convention, hosted by Famous Comedian Human. Despite not having any knowledge of gaming whatsoever, I would watch the livestream each year, to loyally support my baby brother’s endeavors.
My favorite all time bit, by far, was the year a French game engineer came onstage and introduced a game for the Nintendo Wii by reciting extremely mundane information about physical exercise, but in a very, very thick French accent. “Ex-yer-ceyes ees bor-hing! No one wants to do eet. But now! Wiz zis ah-mayz-ing gahm! Yu too! Can ex-yer-ceyes your way to a nu layfe!” It was like listening to the most bored existentialist philosopher muse about the banality of push-ups on the banks of the Seine. It was genius.
Christmas sermons are difficult for many the same reasons exercise game pitches are. We know this stuff! Most of your audience knows this content, and little else! You have them for this moment, and possibly none others. How are you going to make it interesting enough for them to listen to you, while not overplaying the hand you’ve been dealt?
This year, I elected to go the French accent route. Tell the story, tell it simply, and double down on what makes context unique.
Here’s what I said.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
December 24, 2019
Bethlehem is a small town. It was in the first century; it is today. There aren’t actually palm trees, and from time to time it does snow. It’s up in the hills, you see, so it can get pretty chilly. You can grow some wheat there, and the hills make it good for sheep grazing. Because it’s only about five miles from Jerusalem, sheep are a big deal—both to feed the larger city, and for Temple sacrifices. But that’s basically all you have. Some people, some sheep, some houses. That’s it.
But my point here, is that it’s a small town. It’s a boring place. It’s not special, it’s not pretty. It’s not magic. And it has never known for anything in particular. It’s not Jericho which grows oranges. It’s not Sepphoris up north that’s the trading hub. It’s not Rome with the seat of power. It’s just…it’s just there. There once was a famous king that came from Bethlehem, but now all that glamour and magic are done. And it’s back to being a boring little town by the time that the gospel of Luke starts talking about it.
And not only are we told that this is happening nowhere important, but we know that Other People—no where near our story— are definitely in charge now. Caesar Augustus in Rome. Quirinius, over the whole region of Syria. The gospel writer takes pains to remind us that other people are calling the shots. Far away people. Important people. People who are not in this story. OUR people aren’t in charge. And we know that because everyone is getting moved around randomly so Caesar can count us up and get more taxes. As the story starts, everyone is in chaos—a whole big mess. What kind of leader would throw the known world upside down like this? Honestly!
And so, Joseph and Mary come down to Bethlehem, because of some long-distant ancestor no one can quite recall, and on the command of a ruler no one has seen. And in the middle of this mess, she has a baby.
And it’s as if all the chaos and confusion that has led up to this point suddenly snaps into sharp focus. Here are these rather ordinary people, Luke tells us, who are following irritating bureaucratic orders from far away like anyone else, ending up in a perfectly unremarkable town, on a perfectly unremarkable night.
And then, somehow God shows up.
Right then, right there. In the middle of all that everydayness. God shows right up. In the flesh of a tiny human baby, squalling, fussing, shocked into life. In the arms of an exhausted mother, and a worried father. In the straw of a dark space meant to shelter animals, because it was the best they could find. In the midst of where no one expected and in the most unprepared, unready place—God showed up.
And the first people who get the news that God has shown up are not the far-off rulers with their decrees. Neither are they the rich and powerful who could at least get the baby a proper bed. Shepherds show up. The night-shift workers of the first century. The people who worked hard just to scrape by, and don’t get noticed. The angels come to them and announce that for them, FOR THEM, a savior has been born.
The story of the Incarnation is a story of the absolutely ordinary transformed by God so that nothing would ever be ordinary again. It’s a story of God breaking into the mundane rhythms of human existence to transform what it means to be human, and what it means to live on this earth. What we can hope for, and what we can expect.
At Christmas, with the birth of Jesus, God transfigures humanity, and begins to dwell with us as one of us, to show us what a life lived out of pure love looks like. Jesus comes to us and shows us what a life lived in the power of God’s love looks like. What our world can be when we live into God’s reign, and not the empires of this world. He challenges oppression. He mocks hypocrisy. He embraces the sinners and the lost. He heals the sick and the hurting. He comforts the poor and the outcast. And not even the fury of the Roman Empire and death itself could stop him for long.
In Jesus, God comes to us and takes on what it means to be human, so that humanity would never be apart from God again. In Jesus, God wraps up our human lives in the arms of Divine Love. In Jesus, God finds us in the midst of wherever we find ourselves in this life, no matter where that is. Because in Jesus, God has forever bound us to Godself.
Just think—in the birth of Christ, God broke into that quotidian stable, in that humdrum town, in the middle of that everyday governmental chaos. So now, God is just as present in our most basic of circumstances, in the minuteae of our lives. God shows up, like God did that night all those years ago.
God shows up when we are exhausted and frustrated. When we are scared by the empires of this world and their raging. When we are excited and triumphant. When we are grieving and in pain. When we are rejected and abandoned. God shows up, like God showed up on that night.
Because through that little baby, God showed up, and will keep showing up, for you and for me, forever.