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The Joy of That Night -- Luke 1:1-20 (4th Sunday of Advent; Christmas Eve)

This is the day that we tell the story – the story of Christmas – the story of Jesus’s birth. It happens every year, but I still find it pretty amazing that all around the world, across Christian traditions, today and tonight – we will all be telling the same story – this one story. (1) It started early this morning on the other side of the world – (2) and here we are – (3) and it will go on into the deep dark of night, in the warm glow of candlelight. This is the day – and the night, when we tell the story – all around the world.


It’s the same story, and yet, each community will tell this beloved story in their own way – out of their own culture, their own lived experience, with their own traditions – this year with maybe one or two innovations – but not too many.  

Some of you know that on Monday mornings, I often hop on a Zoom call with other minister colleagues and friends in our Presbytery. It’s a regular opportunity – for whoever can log on – to check in – to be with colleagues – for support, and to hear a bit of what’s up in the congregations we serve and love.

·      So I happen to know, that this morning, one church in our presbytery will be celebrating a Merry Christmas by talking about “the messy in the Merry” – I love that – the messy in the Merry. 

·      Another church is doing a series of three plays to tell the story – over three Sundays. They even imagined for a while that they might try to tell a mash-up of A Christmas Carol (you know, the one with Scrooge) and the manger-scene story. But they got stumped when they tried to figure out how the Ghost of Christmas Past could show up in Bethlehem when Christmas hadn’t happened yet.  Think about it. Pretty mind-blowing, huh?

And here, in this community, we will tell the story with our traditions. Tonight at 6, the kids will share their New Christmas Star play, and then at 9, the choir will lead us in a service of Lessons & Carols and Candlelight. This morning, as we come to this last leg of our Long Journey Toward Joy – we are telling the story... looking for joy – looking with open and eager hearts for the joy of that night.[1]

As the story starts, it throws us right into the Existing Situation. The story starts not with the manger... but with Caesar. Caesar Augustus declares a census, and directs everyone across the known world – across the Roman Empire – to travel to their home town to be registered. Now, this isn’t a census merely to count heads... This is about the power of empire... and the power of taxation. The empire wants everyone to be registered so that the empire can extract every last dime out of every last person and every last bit of land so that it can do those things that empire does. As one writer says, “Rome’s long shadow falls over Jesus’s life,” right from the start.[2]

And, when Caesar says move, people move. Imagine the whole world going into motion. Mary and Joseph enter the stream of this great imperial forced movement of people. They set out – Joseph and Mary, who is great with child – they set out to travel the 90 miles to Bethlehem – maybe with the help of a donkey – but even more likely, entirely on foot.

They come to Bethlehem, and we arrive on the scene in the midst of that night, as Bethlehem sleeps. I think of the words we love to sing: “O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie; above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.” And, amid those sleeping streets, we know – that in their day – as in ours – there are those who work and watch and weep. Yes, there are workers fast asleep, exhausted from a grueling day’s work. Some have gone to bed hungry. (They pray for “our daily bread” because in their day, there are days with no bread.) Some have been begging all day, trying to survive however they can. Those folks have found shelter outside, wherever they can.

I do wonder, if Bethlehem really sleeps “a dreamless sleep.” There must be some who stir in wakefulness – putting a cool, damp cloth on the fevered brow of a sick child – or weeping quietly at the loss of one they love – or a broken heart. There must be those who lie there wide awake with worry, churning over and over in their thoughts all those “hopes and fears of all the years.” They might be praying the Psalms – those prayers they know by heart. We might pray with them: “Watch now, dear God, with those who work or watch or weep, and give your angels charge over those who sleep.”

In the midst of this sleeping town, Scripture tells us, in its spare prose, the time comes for Mary to give birth, and Mary births Jesus, she wraps him in strips of cloth, and she lays him in a manger, because there is no room for him in the inn. From those few words, we have imagined what that must have looked like.

But let’s look carefully at the few words that are there.  The Greek word that’s translated there as “inn” – it’s not actually the word for a public inn, where wandering travelers find lodging. The word here – is the word for guest quarters in a family dwelling.[3] I learned this week that it’s the same word that’s used in two of the Gospels for the upper room where Jesus hosts the last supper. There was no room for them in the upper guest room.

If you can picture it, a family in the Ancient Near East would likely have lived in a structure that accommodated both the family and their animals.[4]  The family would live on one end of this structure – and the other end would be separated off into stalls for the animals – and in between, there’d be a living area, a gathering area for the family – and above that, if the family could afford it, there might be an upper room for guests.

We picture an inn – and have imagined into the story a surly innkeeper who turns them away. But Bethlehem was a small town – I read one historian who says maybe as small as 100 people. And it was Joseph’s family town. So it’s unlikely that Joseph knew no one.

So imagine this: The “inn” where Mary and Joseph arrive is the home of a distant cousin. The “innkeeper” who greets them is the woman of the house. It is census time – and the house is indeed full. The guest room – the upper room has been taken – and they must be someone who outranks Joseph: The needs of this young woman about to give birth do not override the priority of hierarchy. Maybe the innkeeper wants to turn them away. She just wants some sleep. I bet she’s exhausted from all this hospitality, and here are two more mouths to feed, soon to be three; two more folks who need shelter, one about to give birth.

But this innkeeper, standing in the threshold of her home, looks at Mary – who has just walked 90 miles in her ninth month – and she looks at Mary, and compassion washes over her. She can feel in her body what this moment must be like for this girl, and so she says, quietly, so as not to wake those sleeping: “There is no room in the upper room, but come in, and we’ll set you up here in the midst of things. I’ll stoke the fire back up, and you’ll have to put up the sounds and smells of the animals nearby, and I’ll start cooking in just a few hours. There’s no room in the upper room, but we can make some room for you here.”

She helps Mary and Joseph settle in – and at some point in the night, Mary goes into labor.  This woman and the other women of the house do what women in their day did. They surround Mary with what she needs – out of the little they have. One holds her hand – they talk her through what comes next – they midwife Mary, and together, they bring this child into the world. And this woman – the innkeeper – she hollers out to Joseph, who they have relegated to sleep in the stall with the donkey and sheep while all this happens – she tells him to come and hold their son.

Let’s consider for a moment the joy of this woman who midwifed Mary. She started her day with way too much to do – and far too many people to feed and host – in a world where no one has much. She has stretched what they have as far as it can go, pretty much as she does every day. And just as the day winds down in her weary world – more kinfolk arrive on the doorstep – and she can’t turn them away. What unfolds, though, what she experiences through the night in the midst of all that is this: She gets to help bring a child into the world. In the company of her daughters and mother and sisters, she gets to gets to help a distant relative birth a new life.  And in this world of scarcity, for a moment... just a moment... there is enough. Let’s consider for a moment, her joy.


Now, not far off, there are shepherds watching their flocks by night. In the trees – as Sira told us last week – owls watch too. Now, you’ve probably heard about shepherds. Our shepherds tonight will be precious... I promise... the angels, too. But in their day, Mary and Joseph’s day – shepherds are among the poor and the outcast of their world. Shepherds live their life in the fields, away from respectable society. They are dirty – the religious authorities would have called them “unclean” – and that, too, would have cut them off from the embrace of community. In just about every possible way, they are as far away from the halls of power as one can imagine. This story begins with Caesar – and his census – but the Great Good News doesn’t come to him – to those who wield power-over. It comes to these shepherds. It comes to the lowly.

And angels bring the news. Now, there’s nothing precious about these angels either. In Scripture, angels are fiery messengers from the heavens – sent with word from the Divine to a trembling humanity. Why do angels start every conversation with “Be not afraid?”  It’s because angels are terrifying – and people are actually afraid.

The first terrifying angel appears to the shepherds in the night watches – the most perilous time of night – and says, “Be not afraid! I bring you Good News of great joy for all people.”  This is not a message to Caesar or for Caesar – it’s not Good News only for the powerful – or only for the rich – it is Good News for all people. “It must be for all people, Shepherds, because I’m bringing it to you first.” Unto you is born a child – and he is the Messiah – the Christ – the Lord. This child, lying in a manger, is the one who will save you from everything that does you harm – Even. From Caesar.

And then, a host – an army of fiery angels appears, singing a Gloria – Glory to God in the highest heavens – and on earth, peace – and on earth, peace!!! And just as soon as they appeared, the angels are gone. The shepherds rush toward the city of David – somehow find their way to Mary and this child in a manger. And the shepherds tell the story – the first ones to tell this story.

And the shepherds – rejoice. They are overflowing with... joy... joy notwithstanding their lowly place in the order of things... notwithstanding the daily indignities... notwithstanding the imperial power swirling around in the world. They are overflowing with Good News for all people. For Earth... peace. You can almost hear Mary singing, “God is lifting up the lowly. God is filling the hungry with good things.”

Let’s consider for a moment the joy of the shepherds.



And then there is Mary. In a sentence filled with quiet power, Scripture says this: “But Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” In this story that we love to tell, Mary is the one who grasps it all. Mary is the one who knows. Mary is the one to whom the angel came: “Don’t be afraid Mary; you have found favor with God. You will bear a child who will be Son of the Most High and who reign forever.” Mary is the one who has carried Jesus in her body these 9 months... the very first to bear Christ. Mary is the one to whom Elizabeth said, “Blessed are you, mother of my Lord.”   Mary is the one who has walked 90 miles, given birth to a baby in what is essentially a barn, and who now receives shepherds not-so-fresh from the fields – spilling over with wild stories of terrifying angels – of Good News so great that it will topple every power that does us harm, and lift up those who have been held low for so very long.


The world has just turned. And Mary is the one who has seen and heard it all. Mary is the one who holds the baby Jesus in her arms – and rests her head on his chest – and listens – through the din of the world – for the very heartbeat of God.


Let’s consider... for a moment... the joy of Mary.




We have said that joy is the fresh presence of God rising up out of the saving action of God across all time – from the beginning on out into forever.  We know that tonight even as we tell this story – all around the world people will work and watch and weep. We know that tonight the people of Bethlehem will sleep a restless sleep – we know that not far off in Gaza, families weep from the utter destruction of their lives and their world –mourning for so many – far, far too many killed and driven from their homes – even as Israeli families watch for the return of loved ones held hostage and mourn their own dead. We know that in Ukraine families stagger two years mired in war. We know the violence that haunts our own streets – the division and discord – the injustice of systemic oppression that persists down through the generations. We know the ache of our own lives.


When we tell this story, in our world, in our day – we tell the Great Good news of God’s steadfast love and God’s forever longing for human flourishing. We speak of God’s power of love and justice and peace – stronger than every power that does us harm – stronger than every harm that we do. When we tell this story, we speak and sing of

·      joy because of all the goodness we encounter in the world – fresh as the morning, sure as the sunrise –

·      joy notwithstanding all the troubles that persist –

·      and joy against – joy that compels us to stand against everything that works in opposition to human flourishing.

We speak and sing joy because God has come to us in Jesus Christ – joy because God is present with us now – because God is always on the way.


Today as we tell this story – with everyone who has told it before – with everyone around the world who is telling it again – we find our way to joy – the fresh presence of God rising up... in the midst of us.

© 2023 Scott Clark


[1] This telling of the story is built on the sparse account in scripture and background and insights gleaned from the following: Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992);  Eric Barreto, Commentary in Connections, Year B, vol. 1 (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2020); R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. ix (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995); Sharon Ringe, Luke (Louisville, KY:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1995); Timothy L. Adkins-Jones, Commentary on Working Preacher at ;  Amanda Brobst-Renaud, Commentary on Working Preacher at

[2] Barreto, p.79.

[3] Ringe, pp.41-43

[4] Malina/Rohrbaugh, pp.296-97.

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