A sermon for the Sunday in Christmas when the child Jesus is greeted by Simeon and Anna, Luke 2:21-40 .
There is a popular mode of preaching that presents Mary and Joseph as political refugees displaced by Roman power. They are often referred to as homeless, and Mary is sometimes described as a pregnant unwed teenager. I would be a little afraid to look back to sermons I preached at the beginning of my ministry in fear that I would have said just such things.
There is power in that picture. It carries an emotional impact: the mother of our Lord going from inn to inn knocking at doors and turned away until finally offered a barn. It is a powerful image. It invites us to compassion and care of the poor. It affirms that spiritual vision that the beggar who approaches us could be an angel in disguise, of the truth from Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats that “as you did it to the least of these you did it to me.”
So I don’t want to turn us away from the recognition that it is among the poor the Christ comes to us. But this idea of the homeless and abandoned refugees is not fair to the writer of our Gospel, for this is not the picture that he presents to us of the birth of Jesus. The picture Luke presents is that Jesus is born among the faithful poor.
It was the King James translation that told us “she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7) But the word that the King James elected to translate as ‘inn’ is the same word that Luke uses when Jesus sends his followers to arrange for what we have come to refer to as the “upper room” – a guest room where Jesus could celebrate the Passover meal with his followers. This word that the King James planted firmly in our minds and in our children’s Christmas pageants as an ‘inn’ refers to a ‘guest room’ in a home.
The world that Mary and Joseph inhabit isn’t a world with motels. It is a world where travelers stay with members of their extended family. You may have never met them, but if you had family in a village, and came to that village, and informed whomever you met of your lineage, they would direct you to members of your kin and your people would provide you with lodging.
As I have talked about before, the typical peasant house was a one-room building. One end was at ground level and the other was raised a few steps. The family slept on the upper level and the animals were brought in to the lower level at night. The warmth of the animals provided heat for the family during the night, and there would be a depression in the floor at the edge of the upper level with feed for the animals. Such a single room house would have an attached room with its own exterior door that was used for storage. It would be cleaned out and provided to guests if they came. So the picture Luke presents for us is that when Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem and are directed to the homes of their extended family, the guest rooms are already in use, presumably by people of higher social standing. Mary and Joseph are not turned away, they are welcomed into the house where the women attend the birth and the child is laid in the fresh hay of the manger.
The picture is not of a homeless family, but of a faithful community taking care of those in need. This is very important to recognize: the portrait Luke gives us is not of a homeless and friendless couple, but of a faithful community taking care of those in need.
Where does the Christ child come? He comes to the faithful. He comes for the world. He comes to gather the scattered. Glad tidings are announced to the outcast shepherds. But he is born amidst God’s faithful people.
This is a very important idea for us to ponder: Christ comes into the world among God’s faithful people. It is among God’s faithful people that Christ is revealed to the world. Christ is revealed to the world where travelers are welcomed and protected. Christ is revealed to the world where the hungry are fed and the sick tended. Christ is revealed to the world where the obligations of charity and hospitality are lived.
Christ is revealed to the world among the people who show kindness and mercy, who do justice and grace, who welcome the outsider and care for those in need. That’s what it means to be the body of Christ in the world. Where we do those things, Christ is made manifest to the world.
Christ is not revealed to the world among the angry and harsh. Christ is not revealed to the world among the vain and self-righteous. Christ is not revealed to the world in the glories of the temple but in Simeon and Anna who have eyes to see and voices to sing of God’s salvation.
It is among the faithful that the Christ is born into the world. And Luke is careful to describe the people in his narrative as faithful. Zechariah and Elizabeth show themselves faithful to the word of the angel in the naming their child John. Mary shows herself faithful to God by responding to the angel’s message saying, “Let it be to me according to your word.” Mary and Joseph are obedient to God in naming the child Jesus. Mary and Joseph show themselves attentive to the observance of God’s commands regarding circumcision and the rituals of purification in the temple. And we have read today about the pious fidelity of Simeon and Anna.
Even the outsiders in Luke’s account, the shepherds out in the fields, showed themselves faithful by following the angels’ word and going to see the child. The whole point of the narrative is that God has not worked through the reigning families in Jerusalem, but through the faithful poor.
So this narrative is both promise and call. It proclaims to us the faithfulness of God who draws near to save. And it sets before us this image of the faithful, inviting us to be that faithful community thorough whom Christ comes to the world.