What would you say if you’d run up on the manger, stable, backside of the inn, or wherever it was that Jesus was born that first Christmas? For a moment, put yourself in the shepherd’s sandals. Maybe you’re just some random person walking by on a moonlit night going home after getting off the second shift down at the bread factory. After all, that’s what Bethlehem means, “house of bread,” bread town. You know it was a one-company village with everybody pulling overtime shifts down at the plant to turn out kosher sugar cookies. It was a typical day. No one got off work for Christmas because Christmas wasn’t an official thing yet. December 24th was just December 24th and the next day was December 25th. Nothing happened; you got up, went to work, went home, and did it again the next day. It’s like that old joke people used to tell me in England, what do you call Independence Day in England? July 4th. It was just another day.
So there you are, amidst your regular day, you stumble upon a woman who has just given birth. Her husband is there. Maybe she’s surrounded by livestock. By that, I mean the scene is far from idyllic. It stinks and smells like the barn that it is. The woman is exhausted. The man is overwhelmed. The baby is crying. Perhaps a few shepherds from the surrounding countryside have recently arrived and are babbling incoherently about angels, peace, good tidings, and heavenly glory. What do you say? Do you say anything? Do you stop and stare? Or does this train wreck of an image, not the one we see in Renaissance art but the real one, cause you to think, maybe I better keep on moving; this looks a little too strange for me to get involved. Are you concerned they’re going to ask you for money? What do you do? What do you say? Do you speak to the mother, the husband, or the baby? Is it a halting hello? Do you offer help? Maybe you start with an introduction? My name is Richard, but my friends call me Richard. No, you think, that sounds stupid. What do you do in such a strange, out-of-place situation?
Do you realize what’s happening? Jesus has only been alive and on the planet in flesh and blood form for five minutes (or less), and he’s turning our world upside down! We have our routines, lives, and ideas about how life, religion, society, and relationships should function and operate for all time. Within moments of encountering this baby, we don’t know what to do or say; everything we thought we knew gets tossed out the window, and we’re forced to rethink how we interact with other people and the world around us. His mere presence does this; before he speaks an intelligible word, he preaches a parable, calls a disciple, or dies on the cross. Jesus’ birth swings into human history like a wrecking ball. Here is the truth of Christmas Eve: there is nothing we can say or should say. We marvel at the mess he’s made of our attempts to order our lives. We gaze upon the rubble of our personal and collective sins. We survey the destruction of, as Paul wrote to the Philippians, our “selfish ambition and conceit.”
Tonight, we stand speechless and prepare for Christ to wreck everything we hold precious because this infant has come to teach us that our priorities and values are painfully distorted and that everything, we claim to be holy is not so. It is a powerful assertion for someone to say they speak in the name of God. The infant reminds we dare not make such claims without first dwelling in humility and silence and being willing to let this child wreck our carefully constructed ideas of who and what God is this Christmas, just as he did that first Christmas in Bethlehem.