Scripture LUKE 2:1-20
“In those days . . .” As Luke tells the story of Jesus’ birth, that’s the way he begins: “In those days” (2:1). In those days, an edict was issued by the emperor Augustus that everyone in the land should be registered with the Roman government. And by telling us who was emperor and who was governor, we have some idea when this story takes place. It’s as if we began a story by saying, “In those days, when Bill Clinton was President of the U.S. and George Voinovich was governor of Ohio, . . .”
When Luke begins his story with a reminder of “those days,” though, he’s doing more than just giving us historical details. He’s also calling to mind the feel of an earlier time. It was a heavy time, a somewhat arid time, a time when nothing was quite right. In those days, Mary and Joseph were ciphers, hardly worth paying attention to. In those days, while Mary was pregnant and due any day, to obey the edict from the emperor, she and Joseph had to make a long and arduous trek to Joseph’s family home. Despite popular folklore, there’s no mention of a donkey in the story. And that likely made the journey even more difficult. In those days, in other words, life was a struggle. It was a challenge. It was a trial. In those days.
We know those days, don’t we. Those days when a pandemic went on and on. Those days when, in Ohio, records were shattered and almost 16,000 new cases of COVID-19 were reported yesterday. Those days, when, after nearly two years, the virus not only seemed not to have ebbed, but had apparently gained strength, and just now, of all times, at Christmas. Those days when family visits had to be postponed, when a favorite play or concert had to be canceled, when we were petrified at the onset of symptoms in ourselves or in someone we loved. Those days when loneliness seemed to grab us by the throat and threaten never to let us go. Those days when we didn’t know if life would ever return to what we might think of as normal. Those days when everything was upended, and we could feel a barely suppressed rage boiling underneath, and tears of grief just below the surface. Those days when, as a teacher reported just this week on NPR, not a day has gone by when that teacher hasn’t found another teacher in the bathroom crying.
And of course it’s not just the pandemic that has happened “in those days.” In those days, spouses and parents and children have died, and businesses have struggled and failed, and tornadoes have raged, and the culture has undergone seismic shifts, and marriages have been stretched to the breaking point, and Black people have too often been discarded, and depression and anxiety have skyrocketed, and the well-being of the earth has been pushed closer and closer to its limit. In those days, life has far too often been a debilitating and discouraging mess. We know those days, don’t we.
And of all the unlikely scenarios, what should interrupt “those days” and startle Mary and Joseph and shepherds and everyone? What shakes up the disheartening dissolution that has happened “in those days”? It’s what happens, says the story, “this day.” “This day,” something absolutely new and full of wonder happens: “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (2:11). To you is born this day in Chagrin Falls and Bainbridge and Solon, to you is born this day in Atlanta and Austin and Eugene, to you is born this day in Paris and Lagos and Beijing a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
Those days? Oh, yeah, there are definitely those days, those painful, empty days when discouragement may reign and all may seem lost. The word of God to us tonight, though, is that, even in the midst of those days, there is also this day, when the living Christ is born and comes to life and camps out with us. Right here. Right now. A holy birth changes everything. This very day.
Those words of the angel to the shepherds shatter everything that goes on in those days: “Do not be afraid,” says the angel (2:10). Or the angel might have said, ‘Do not despair; do not give up; do not let your anger win the day, do not succumb to your anxiety. Something else is going on this day, a radiant something else that dwarfs your fear or your anxiety or your frustration or your rage.’ “To you is born this day . . .”
In no way does Luke mean that the events of “those days” will suddenly vanish. “This day” of holy birth doesn’t erase “those days” of loss and failure and challenge. What this day does, what the birth of the Messiah does, is say to us that your life is about so much more than the tentacles imposed in those days. All the challenges may still remain—who of us thinks COVID is going away anytime soon, after all? No, it’s not that every struggle in life is suddenly resolved and a fairy tale ending undoes all evil and challenge. It’s more that something else happens that’s even more important than the ruptures and losses, and it puts the difficulties and pain of life in an entirely different context.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said something to the effect that we should walk through the world not as though we’re tethered to the earth, but rather as though we’re suspended from heaven. That suspended walking may look the same as the tethered walking to a bystander. But in truth it’s an entirely different walk. Tethered to the earth can feel heavy-laden and morose, while suspension from heaven feels unencumbered and floating, and has a certain lilt to its step. Rather than feeling bound, a walk suspended from heaven feels free and hopeful and full of possibility—even when the circumstances themselves don’t change.
This day a Savior is born. And nothing is quite the same. Adam Hamilton, a Methodist minister in Kansas, says how odd it is that the baby in Luke’s story is right away laid in a manger. Luke is the only writer to use the word manger in the entire New Testament. A manger is a place where animals go to be fed. Hungry animals find their fill. They are nourished.
This is what the birth of the Messiah does for us: with that birth, we are fed. We are given our fill. We find our deepest nourishment. Whether we know it or not, we are all, in some sense, ravenous. We are hungry for something we may not even be able to identify. If you’re like me, you want to throw off your weariness and feel deeply rested, you want to let go of the tightness in your shoulders, you want to know that what you do matters, you want grieving people to be comforted, you want oppressed people to be treated justly and treasured just as they are.
When the baby Jesus is laid in a manger, it’s a way of saying, ‘You will be fed. You are being fed. God is offering everything you need. On this very day, you are suspended from heaven.’ No matter what is going on in your life, God is walking with you, with a hand outstretched, just waiting for you and me to take that hand, and to walk with God, and to know the amazing and freeing gift of a love that simply will not let us go. You and I are at that manger now. And a banquet is set for us there. Take it in. Be filled and nourished by it. It is there for us—this day.
And no matter what is going on, no matter how bad things may seem, there’s not a day that goes by, there’s not a moment that goes by, that we cannot be part of that very love, that we cannot, indeed, be bearers of that love. This day a child waits for you to put your arms around them. This day a parent looks forward to your call. This day a suffering friend will be filled and nourished by your presence and your care. The love that we receive, and the love that we offer, are the eternal manger of blessing. That love, received and offered, is the nourishment that fills us and sustains us and lets us walk suspended from heaven. That love is what takes an ordinary moment and electrifies it. It’s what takes a sorrow and gives it a patina of grace. It’s what transforms an otherwise mundane moment into a moment of hope and joy. A holy and redeeming love. Given by God to you and me. This day. This very day.
It’s that love that God shows to us. And it’s that love that we are privileged to be able to share. “During America’s Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln sometimes went to the hospitals to visit wounded soldiers. One soldier who saw Lincoln come into the ward for a visit spoke of it years later, saying: ‘I had a good home, and I had learned in church that God is compassionate. But I don’t think I understood compassion till the day that I saw suffering in Lincoln’s face. The boy in the next bed was dying, and the president sat there for two hours with this lad, clutching his hand. The Secretary of War and a couple of generals were trying to move the president along—I think for a cabinet meeting. But Lincoln wouldn’t move. He sat there in the stench and in the noise and he talked with that boy about home on the Sangamon River. The president talked with him till he died. And I saw the tiredness in [the president’s] face and the sadness of his eyes and then I knew things about God that I’d never known before’” (email from Proclaim Parish Publishing, Dec. 13, 2021).
Yes, in some ways, “those days,” those days of struggle and strife and weariness—those days are still with us. But this very day, something else is happening, as well. You and I are being nourished at a holy manger. We walk this earth suspended from heaven. God is being born in our midst. So do not be afraid. Do not give in. Do not succumb to despair. This day a Savior is born, who is the Messiah, the Lord. Thanks be to God.