Text for Preaching:     Luke 2:1-7

Call to Worship:         Luke 2:15-16

Responsive Reading:  Luke 1:46-55


            What do you think Mary wanted for Christmas?

            She had become pregnant around the end of March so she had figured out that she would give birth right around Christmas time.  It would be wonderful.  She and Joseph would bring their newborn baby home to a warm house in Nazareth.  The Christmas tree would be decorated with ornaments and lights.  The family would all be there, taking turns holding the baby.  Mary’s mother would make the traditional foods, the whole family would sit down for Christmas dinner and every heart would be filled with warmth, joy and contentment.  That was what she wanted for Christmas.  The gift of family and a new baby

            Well, it didn’t quite work out that way, did it?  Getting pregnant before you were married was not the way you were supposed to do it.  And when Mary and Joseph told people that her pregnancy was God’s doing, the neighbors would roll their eyes and speculate behind their backs regarding what had really happened.

            Then, when she was about half way through her pregnancy Mary was told by Joseph that they would have to be away from home at Christmas time, because the emperor far away in Rome had decided that he needed to get a count of how many people were in his empire.  On top of that, when they got to Bethlehem, they learned that there was no vacancy in all of the motels, so not only did they have to spend the night in a barn, but that’s when she went into labor.

            “Wait a minute,” Mary might have thought.  “Nine months ago the angel told me that my baby would sit on David’s throne and would reign over his people forever, but what the angel promised doesn’t seem to be coming true.”

            And then a bunch of shepherds, low class people who couldn’t read or write and who used a lot of rough language, came into the barn and told her and Joseph an amazing story—again having to do with angels who told them pretty much the same thing that the angel had told Mary, something about the baby being a savior.  And as Mary was changing Jesus’ diaper there in the barn, she and Joseph and the shepherds turned all of this over and over in their minds.  They pondered how what was really happening seemed so different than what the angels had promised.

            A few days after the shepherds had gone back to their flocks, some magi—just the opposite of the shepherds, high class, wealthy and educated—brought them expensive gifts.  And they told Mary and Joseph about a star leading them to Bethlehem.  And as if that hadn’t given Mary enough to ponder, after a few days Joseph told her they would have to run for their lives and become refugees in Egypt for awhile, because another angel had come to him and told him that King Herod was killing all the babies around Bethlehem who were under two years old.

            This was not what Mary had wanted for Christmas, and so she pondered these things.  Over and over in her mind, she tried to reconcile what the angels and the shepherds and the wise men had told her with what she was actually experiencing.

            For many people Christmas is the happiest time of the year.  Even Buddhists in Thailand—who know almost nothing about Jesus—get into the “Christmas spirit.”  In the Airport Plaza shopping center in Chiang Mai there will be a huge 30 foot tall Christmas tree decorated with blue lights.  Thai people—and especially Thai business people—love the story of Santa Claus and the giving of gifts.

And when you ask Americans what they love about Christmas,  many will get a dreamy, sentimental look in their eyes and talk about how when they were children the holiday was magical.  How they believed in Santa Claus and how they would turn off the lights in the living room and gaze for a long time at their family Christmas tree decorated with colored lights and how they couldn’t wait to open the presents.  And there would be Christmas cookies and the glow of candles in church and that warm, secure feeling that came over them because mom and dad and grandpa and grandma were all there together. 

But are you aware that for many other Americans, Christmas is the worst, most painful time of the year?  The father of one friend of mine died just eight months ago, and everything about Christmas—putting up the tree, Christmas carols, the family meal with a now empty chair—makes her miss her dad even more.  Another friend of mine is going through a divorce.  Another friend who is gay is really frightened about what will happen to him when Donald Trump becomes president.  Those homeless people we serve every third Friday—today there will be no presents, no Christmas tree, no family gathered around the table for Christmas dinner.

And Mary pondered these things.  She kept turning them over and over in her mind, because what she was experiencing in real life did not fit what she expected would happen.  What God was or was not doing in her life did not fit what these days we experience as this romantic, sentimental, Santa Clause, winter wonderland story about how Christmas is supposed to be.  The song says I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.  It’s not supposed to rain on Christmas Day!

God bless Mary, the Son of God which was born into our lives through her, did not change the world in ways that would convince folks who don’t believe what angels of one kind or another keep telling them.  Because poor people still can’t find room in the inn.  Because powerful people still slaughter innocent children.  Because families still become refugees just to survive.

What Mary and Joseph got for Christmas was Jesus.  What Mary and Joseph got for Christmas was a God who in effect came down to assure them in that in all the ups and downs of life he was always with them.  The pictures of King Bhumibol I treasure the most are the ones where he is stooping down to greet peasants.  Getting his head level with theirs. I can’t imagine how that act would make those poor farmers in Esarn feel.   Paul said of Jesus, “He did not count equality with God a thing to be held onto but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, appearing to us in human form.”

Some thirty years later, Mary would stand at the foot of the cross on which her son was dying, and no doubt she was again pondering how what she was experiencing could fit with what the angels had promised.

When you get to be my age, you spend a fair amount of time looking back at your life, how life is a road with many ups and downs, twists and turns, where at times God feels so close you could almost reach out and touch him and at other times feels completely absent. 

As I look back at my life, I recall that story about the footprints in the sand, you know the one about how in the good times there were two sets of footprints on the shore, one being mine and other belonging to Jesus.  And then during the hard times there is only set of footprints, because that’s when Jesus was carrying me.

Mary pondered because her life had not turned out the way she had expected, God had not behaved the way she thought he would.  The one thing she knew, was that God had been in her and with her every inch of the road she had travelled. 

You know, all of us were inspired by Chauwarin’s sharing last week.  How at the last minute when all seemed to be lost, miraculously everything turned out well.  God sometimes answers prayers in that way.

But if the story had not had that kind of ending, if the graft and power grabbing in Chinese society had prevented the project from being successfully completed—something that happens in all of our lives—our brother here could still praise the God who joined us as a child born in a homeless shelter, in the form of a human with feelings, successes and failures, joy and sorrow like you and me.

You shall call him Immanuel which means God with us.

Some of us here this evening are feeling on top of the world.  Others may feel like the weight of the world is a burden too heavy for them to carry.  Either way, the Christmas story is for you.  This great and wonderful God who created you in his image is with you.  That’s where his power is, not in making the world the way we want it to be, but by living in you and walking with you transforming you by his presence and love into the person you were created to be.

“How can this be?” Mary asked the angel when told that she would give birth to the Son of God.  When we ask that question, Mother Mary will come to us and invite us to ponder the story.  It won’t answer all of your questions, she will tell us.  What it will do is tell you that are deeply, deeply loved.