How curious that on this magical night the stories that get told are ones filled with terror. There were many reasons to despair in Judah when Micah wrote. Everything was going against God’s people. They were under siege by a larger nation. The weak government was falling apart. The army was in disarray. The last place people would have looked for salvation was in some puny town in the hill country like Bethlehem. In fact they had pretty much given up looking for salvation at all.
Into that mindset, the prophet Micah saw through the smoke of the destroyed city a young girl walking through the rubble carrying a small child. He could see a secure future for the nation beyond siege ramps, beyond a weak government pretending to be strong, beyond a disheartened people to a nation living in peace.
Centuries later, an otherwise insignificant young woman named Mary from a disparaged town called Nazareth heard an invitation that sounded like a command to allow her very body to be used to carry God’s anointed one in her womb. Early Christians, trying to make sense of that story, found help in Micah’s image of the birth of a future king in the tiny town of Bethlehem. They saw that Micah had ears to hear and eyes to see what others didn’t.
Luke’s version of the Christmas story begins with a decree that all the world should be registered in a census. Most of us have heard that story almost every year of our lives. It sounds innocent enough to those of us who are citizens of the United States. It raises little or no anxiety in those who have never lived under an oppressive government.
For Jews in the Roman Empire, however, the census was being instituted by oppressive foreign overlords. It would have raised a thousand questions. What will happen to me when I get to the place where I have to register? Is it a trap? Why do they want this information about us? What are they going to do with it? What about me might they consider subversive and use to detain me?
- Those same questions would have terrorized Jews who had to register in Germany under the Nazi’s.
- Young people – including some in this church - who signed up for President Obama’s DACA program, face the terror that their information is in government files, such that they could be easily deported in a Trump administration.
- Muslim Americans who attend a mosque live in fear as they await a Trump presidency. They know firsthand the racial profiling that makes them suspected terrorists before they even open their mouths.
- Syrian refugees from Aleppo and other places seek room in the inn to a degree that goes way beyond what Mary and Joseph faced.
- Political refugees around the world have fled terrifying governments in their own countries only to be treated as potential terrorists in their new country.
Anyone who has ever met a shepherd would understand the terror the shepherds in the story would have felt at the sight of the angel surrounded by God’s glory. The few shepherds I’ve met, mostly in Latin America, have been very shy and quiet. Whether or not they started out that way, they have grown accustomed to being left alone with their small group of companions. What an intrusion the angelic host was into their quiet lives. It was night time and they were completely exposed to the elements. There was no place to hide. Maybe that’s exactly why they were chosen to receive the message. Anyone who had a place to hide would have hidden. In a sense they were lucky – theirs was a “blessed disturbance.” Most of us are terrified by the unknown. If we can protect ourselves from out-of-the-ordinary experiences we will. But it turns out that we miss some really good things that way. Good news often looks terrifying at first.
So this familiar Christmas story is terrifying if we get beyond its familiarity. If we were to connect our own fears to the terror of that holy night we might ask how we would have fared as Jews being registered in the Roman Empire, or as an unwed couple becoming parents in a society that called that sin, or as shepherds awakened from sleep by a heavenly host. Most of us figure out ways to protect ourselves from things we fear. We all have hiding places that protect us both from genuine terror and from blessed disturbance.
Where will God find people to lead us; people who are willing to come out of their hiding places, and who have eyes to see and ears to hear? Isn’t God always looking for a Micah or a Mary who will abandon despair and anything that dehumanizes another person and give over their bodies, their time, their resources, their blood, sweat, and tears to resist every force that dehumanizes by evoking despair, so that humanness can be born and grow in the here and now? From you, O little one, shall come forth one who shall feed the flock so the people shall live secure and in peace.
Some of us may be called to do precisely that in the coming years. Earlier this month the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles voted to become a Sanctuary Diocese, a place of Sacred Resistance. We took that step knowing the potential cost, and in full view of the savior who is the greatest model of one who resists every force that dehumanizes.
The good news of Christmas is that even in our hiding places God finds us and says, “Don’t be afraid; look – I’m bringing you good news.” Isn’t God saying to every heart in this room tonight, “Listen, watch; don’t be afraid. Every time you choose fear it becomes more difficult for you to know that I want you to be a Micah or a Mary or a Jesus. Each time you become afraid you have more difficulty hearing me, you have more difficulty saying yes to me.” Let’s make sure we hear the voice of God speaking to us this night, not just to the people in the Christmas story. Because it really is true that “every day now Jesus is born.”