As most of you know, I grew up in North Platte, which is a smallish railroad town that sits on the southern edge of the Nebraska sandhills, exactly 281 miles west of this cathedral. I didn’t pay much attention to those sandhills growing up—they were just sort of there—but in my adult life, I’ve grown to love them more and more every year. I love their austere and understated beauty. I love the fact that though they are their geologically fragile and threatened, somehow they’re still there. I love how when you drive through them the sense of your own smallness against the vast backdrop of God’s creation is both comforting and terrifying in equal measure. They are known by very few people in the world, and beloved by even fewer.
About a year and a half ago, I was in Bethlehem around Easter. I had just finished eating lunch at a little restaurant on the edge of town, and I was standing outside by myself, taking in the view of the Judean hills, the same hills where the shepherds were keeping watch in tonight’s gospel. I was mesmerized by how much they look like the sand hills I came from on the other side of the world. Replace the sheep with cattle, and I might have been standing on the hill just outside my mom’s back yard. Like their Nebraska counterparts, on the first Christmas the Judean hills were largely unknown to the world, and loved only by the handful of people who called them home.
And yet, that’s where the real action happens in Luke’s Christmas story. The gospel we heard tonight is one of the most familiar stories in the Bible. I’ve read or heard it hundreds of times. But this year I was struck by the fact that the way Luke tells the actual birth of Jesus is pretty boring. A poor family is sent scurrying by an imperial decree the way poor families always are when the powerful make decrees. Labor and delivery are described in one sentence! We get no details about what would have been a scary and unimaginably difficult journey and childbirth.
But when the action shifts to the hills, things get exciting. An angel appears, shepherds shake with fear, and a big heavenly choir appears transforming those ordinary hills into a flash cathedral. Heaven and earth are joined together, and common ranch hands become the first to hear the news that the world has changed.
With the politically powerful hanging around the edges of the story, the poorest people, in the most insignificant field, become the place where the glory of God’s love shines brightest.
And that’s just the thing about Christmas: it makes the astonishing claim that the God who made all things took on our flesh and blood, moved into our neighborhood, joined us on our terms. But God wasn’t just born in some generic sense. God was born in what was basically the North Platte of the ancient Roman Empire, or the inner city, or the Appalachia, or the border town slum.
Christmas announces that God is always being born in those places and people that are most forgotten, and thrown out, and overlooked. Christmas announces that God often shows up in the cold and lonely and frightening mangers of our own hearts. Christmas promises that there is no person too far gone, no situation too broken, no place too distant for God’s love to reach and save and heal. In fact, if we follow Luke’s version, the less important and lovable the place, the more likely God is to show up there.
But if that’s true, if we really believe that, then those of us who celebrate it tonight are compelled to constantly proclaim that fact with our whole lives.
The beauty and peace and joy of this night is not an escape, it’s not a temporary reprieve from a harsh and brutal world. The beauty and peace and joy of this night are meant to shape us into people that will help God dazzle forgotten fields with the glory of love wherever we are.
To sing “o come let us adore him” is to join God in defying the powers that are working now as they did then to oppress, and ignore, and break down and exclude. To sing “o come let us adore him” is to commit ourselves to expecting God to show up in the poor, the homeless, expect God to side with the immigrant, expect God to stand alongside gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons, with religious minorities, with victims of sexual assault, with the frightened and angry foster child, to travel in the weary arms of refugees, and anyone else who has been pushed to the margins and backwaters of our world. Those are the places we will find God being born again and again and again. This night invites, it demands, that we stand in those places and look for the glory of God to come blazing out of them.
So come to the manger again tonight to worship our newborn king, but don’t expect him to stay there. Expect to hear about him from those out in the fields, expect to meet him on the forgotten and lonely hillsides of our world, in the hidden and painful parts of your own heart. And when you meet Jesus in those places, expect to quake with awe and joy at the way he dazzles the darkest places with the glory of love. Amen.