Our kids here at First Church have been learning the nativity story in a hands-on way. With hot glue, popsicle sticks, little wooden dolls, and scraps of fabric, they have crafted mangers and baby Jesuses, Marys and Josephs. On the way home from church after one of these creative sessions, my kid informed me that in her version of the nativity story Jesus was a triplet. Indeed, she had tucked three little babies into her roomy manger. Their names, she told me, were Jesus, Josie, and Joseph Jr.
The psalmist urges us: “O sing to God a new song.” Kids are good at this, as the manger project reminds me; they’re always finding fresh angles on what has become too familiar to the rest of us. Creativity is also the very essence of God. It is because God is doing a new thing that we can sing a new song. God’s newness is not novelty for its own sake. It is, as womanist theologians often put it, the making of a way out of no way, the crafting of possibilities in the face of impossibility.
As Luke’s nativity story opens, Caesar demands that “all the world be registered.” The people had to be counted so that they could be taxed. Not in order to serve the common good, but to enrich the emperor and tighten his grip on power. Roads and palaces had to be built, soldiers armed, borders defended, territories enlarged. And the corollary, of course, was that the ordinary people would become poorer, hungrier, and sicker.This story sounds so familiar, doesn’t it? Despite our longing for equity, peace, and mutual flourishing, too often the ways of empire—fear, scarcity, and violence—appear to be the only practical solutions, the only response possible.
And yet, my friends, on this night, God is doing a new thing, and creation is singing a new song. Against the backdrop of Caesar’s seemingly absolute grip on power, God launches a counter-narrative. A child is born—in the humblest of circumstances. The simple humanity of the infant Jesus serves as a mirror. Jesus is God-with-us because his face shows us the divine in every human face. The community around this vulnerable baby expresses the sacredness of creation as a whole—his ordinary, brave parents; the unnamed, unsung people and animals who welcomed these refugees into their home (in that time and place livestock would have been kept inside with the family, not outside in a barn); the shepherds, despised for their rough and dirty work, chosen to be the first to celebrate the wondrous news. God’s angel messengers sing with joyous defiance of the emperor’s decree that impoverishes the many in order to enrich the few: the child born in the city of David embodies “good news of great joy for all the people.”
The writings of Howard Thurman amplified our hearing of the nativity story this night. Thurman was a Black American born in the segregated south in 1899. He was a minister, philosopher, mystic, and a mentor to Dr. King. In conversation with Mahatma Gandhi, Thurman developed a theology of non-violent resistance to oppression that deeply influenced the civil rights movement. I am struck by Thurman’s description of angel song as a breathless beauty that “throws all of the rest of life into new and creative relatedness” and his declaration that “life is saved by the singing of angels.” In saying this, I don’t think Thurman was speaking sentimentally. The life of Jesus shows us that the song of the angel chorus “on earth, peace” is not some intangible dream. It is a practical, possible, real-world alternative to the so-called “Peace of Rome.”
God is with us, laboring beside us to bring forth newness, as this very night, innocent people continue to suffer and die in the birthplace of Jesus. The normally exuberant celebration of Christmas in the holy land is canceled. Reverend Munther Isaac, pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem has said, “If Christ were to be born today, he would be born under the rubble.” Rev. Isaac was one of a number of Christian leaders from Bethlehem who hand-delivered a letter to President Biden in late November. Here is one part of their letter:
It is time everybody can live with dignity in this land. The Palestinian and Israeli children deserve to live, hope and dream. Siege, violence and war cannot bring peace and security. A comprehensive and just peace is the only hope for Palestinians and Israelis alike. We are writing to plead with you to help stop this war. We want a constant and comprehensive ceasefire. Enough death. Enough destruction. This is a moral obligation. There must be other ways. This is our call and our prayer this Christmas.
Because God is doing a new thing, we too, can sing with the angels, sing a new song. We can grieve for the suffering of the hostages and their families with the same tears we shed for the children of Gaza. We can condemn the atrocities of both Hamas and the Israeli government. We can join our voices to calls for peace because we know that only peace will provide safety and security for all.
God is doing a new thing. And God doesn’t do this life-saving work alone. I’m thinking of people I know, people like me and you. God is working creatively with us in all circumstances. God joins us in making a way out of no way as we struggle with addictions and painful divorces, as we await the outcomes of medical tests, as we grieve a first, or fiftieth, Christmas after the loss of a loved one, as we witness the confusion and chaos of a changing climate. Friends, we are God’s partners, God’s collaborators. This night, and always, God is born into our flesh. Amen.