In telling the story of Jesus’ birth, Luke is telling a really big story, and the moral of the story is that God is coming into the world as something small. Luke’s birth story begins with the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, who has ordered that every citizen register to be taxed. The commander and chief has sent out an executive order, and all the little people have to obey. There is no online registration process. You have to go to your home town to fill out the paper work. So Mary and Joseph go, not to a big important place like Jerusalem, but to the little back water town of Bethlehem. It is roughly 100 miles from where they live in Nazareth to Joseph’s hometown. Google estimates that it is a thirty-three hour walk, maybe more like fifty hours if you are close on nine months pregnant. And Bethlehem is not a tourist destination with big hotels, the only inn in town is already full.
So Mary and Joseph end up in something like a barn, a place for sheep or cows or goats who eat from a feeding trough—which becomes the cradle for Mary’s newborn son. Tightly swaddled, Jesus is laying on the animal’s food—not a really safe place to lay. This past Thursday night, when we did the Living Nativity in the pouring rain, one of Lydia’s little goats jumped into the manger, and I was glad that there wasn’t a real baby laying in that manger as there sometimes is.
Once Jesus is born, Luke’s story gets big again. An army of angels fill the sky, wake up some shepherds with their riotous singing, and announce that a Savior has been born who will bring peace and goodness to all people on earth. And here the story gets small again. Why these insignificant guys? Why not announce the good news to some folks who have some kind of place and power, and respectability in society? Someone in the government. Maybe the Emperor’s press secretary or chief of staff. But no, the angelic outburst comes to these scruffy shepherds watching their flocks in the field by night, who in their amazement must have imagined they’d find something big going on in Bethlehem. But it turns out that the big good news is wrapped up in a baby, in a feeding trough.
Luke is telling a big story, set against the backdrop of the Roman Empire which keeps the peace by using the people’s their tax dollars to support a very large and very visible military which discourages uprisings among these people who long for real peace, and for a ruler who will seek the good of all people. And the moral of the story of Jesus’ birth is that God has come into the world as something small. As someone vulnerable. Someone weak. Someone at risk. God has come into the world as one of us. An infant with tiny fingers and toes who needs to be nursed, and have his diapers changed, and learn how to walk—standing on wobbly legs, falling down, and getting up to try again.
You don’t have to believe all the details of the story that Luke is telling. Luke is doing theology. Luke is telling us who God is. He is showing us God’s core nature as the One who is determined to be with us, to reach us in our alienation, our loneliness, our weakness, our fear, our darkness, our struggle with our own flesh, our aching, failing bodies, our broken hearts, our disordered worlds. Luke is telling the story of an infinite, cosmic love that chooses to cram itself into this wee infant body, this tiny vulnerable baby named Jesus.
That is a lot of love to wrap within the limits of one little flesh and blood human being. One small body cannot contain all this love. It wants to spread out. To grow. To touch. To heal. To embrace. To repair what is broken. To find what is lost. To weave good out of evil. To bring peace to the chaos. To be light in the darkness. And God has done just that. Through the life and Spirit of Jesus this limitless love crams itself into the limits of our flesh and blood bodies, to break through the limits. God gets small so that we can find ourselves in the big love story that God is unfolding one body at a time, until that day when every body knows that they are some body who is loved completely; until that day when every body becomes one body, living in the peace and goodness and bright beauty of God.