© 2021 Evan D. Garner
How many of your packages didn’t arrive in time? In our house, we “watched” one present go from Texas to Missouri to Iowa to Tennessee before finally getting the notification that it wasn’t going to make it before Christmas. We got our hopes up when it left the facility just a few hours away from us but then were confused and ultimately disappointed as it inexplicably moved farther and farther away. You can get a degree in supply-chain management, but that wouldn’t help you get your presents on time.
For reasons other than presents, I have been looking forward to this Christmas for twenty-one months. Last year, we couldn’t gather together inside. The best we could do was encourage folks to watch the service on the livestream and then drive down to the church, line up on East Avenue, and come into this sacred space one household at a time to receive Communion before getting in their cars to go back home. It was a wonderful night, and I was so thankful to see people I hadn’t seen in months, but it wasn’t the same. So much was missing. As I drove home after the midnight mass, I just knew that this year’s celebration would be different.
Thankfully, it is. We are here together. We are singing together. We are celebrating together. But not all of us. The timing of the Omicron variant could not have been worse. Its arrival has forced some of us to stay home, stay away from church, even stay away from family and friends. Some of my colleagues in hard-hit communities have had to cancel in-person worship. We can’t help but wonder whether that will be the case for us before too long. Many of you have cancelled Christmas dinners and trips to see loved ones. A year ago, I imagined something different for us. This Christmas was supposed to be better, and it is, but it still isn’t perfect.
In those days, Luke tells us, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. The emperor could do that whenever he wanted—could order people all over the world from one place to another in order to be counted—and there wasn’t anything Mary and Joseph could do about it. It didn’t matter that she was nine months pregnant. It didn’t matter that they would have to travel for days down seventy miles of dangerous roads to get back to Joseph’s ancestral village. It didn’t matter whether anyone living there would have room for the young, expectant couple when they arrived. Imagine what the holy couple felt when they learned of the decree and counted the weeks, knowing how far they would be from home about the time she was likely to give birth. Nine months pregnant is a terrible time for a woman to be travelling. In many ways, it was a terrible time for the Son of God to be born.
And so it was, Luke tells us, that, while they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. Literally, “the days were fulfilled.” They “were accomplished.” What a statement about timing! Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and swaddled him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger—a feeding trough—because there was no room for them in the inn. Hardly any preparations could be made. Mary and Joseph didn’t even have a room for themselves. Likely bedding down with some distant relatives, there were no usual guest accommodations for them—a concept translated for us somewhat carelessly as “room in the inn”—so they slept on the floor, down with the chickens, goats, and sheep, while the family they hardly knew slept up in a loft.
What an inadequate way to welcome the birth of a savior—not in the palace or in the temple, not even back home where loved ones might gather to celebrate and help out, but in a one-horse town, barely a speck on the map, where hardly anyone even noticed. It wasn’t supposed to be like that. It was supposed to be different. It was supposed to be better. What kind of divine cosmic timing is that?
But God’s sense of timing has the power to disrupt our lives in wonderful ways that surprise us when we need it most. Because of the intrusion of the emperor’s decree, Mary’s child was born not in Nazareth, but in the city of David. And yet, usually when we hear about “the city of David,” we think not of Bethlehem, where the shepherd boy grew up, but of Jerusalem, where the king’s palace was located. Yet God interrupted human affairs in a way that made sure that the world received its King of Kings who is as much a faithful shepherd as a mighty ruler.
Think also about the ones to whom the good news of this birth was first shared. Instead of announcing the savior’s arrival to close family and friends, for whom this would be a wonderful local affair, God made sure that the first to hear of it were some anonymous shepherds, strangers in the fields, whose adoration of the Christ child was as rustic and uncouth as their lifestyle. God knew this good news needed more than a small-town celebration, yet, instead of ushering in this messianic age by declaring Jesus’ birth to powers and principalities, God shared this glorious moment with the lowly and meek, who become the first to carry the message of the angels to others. Knowing what we now know about Jesus, the friend of sinners and outcasts, could the good news of Christmas have been shared in any other way?
In many ways, that first Christmas could not have come at a worse moment. It came at a time when earthly powers seemed to be in control of how history unfolded and when that control seemed to run counter to God’s perfect plans. Yet we now recognize the ways in which God made sure that the birth of Jesus could not have been more perfectly timed. This year, our Christmas celebrations have been overshadowed by the terrible timing of supply chain issues and the new Omicron variant. Just when we most needed to hug our family and friends and travel to places where life feels normal again, something largely out of our control has gotten in the way. But isn’t that exactly what the miracle of Christmas means for us? Isn’t that why the birth of our savior came about in the first place?
Christmas comes not when the world is prepared to receive it but when the world needs it most. Jesus is born not when it fits into our plans but when God knows that our sense of timing needs disrupting. And doesn’t our sense of timing need disrupting now? We need God to come and take the messiness and imperfections of our world and redeem them, and that’s exactly what happens at Christmas. In Jesus, God comes and saves those whose lives aren’t perfect, whose plans are falling apart, whose need for love and connection are most profound. In other words, at Christmas, God comes to save each one of us.
On this night, we celebrate a God who refuses to let anything stand in the way of God’s love coming to the earth. Because of Jesus, there is nothing that can prevent salvation coming into your life. No matter how messy things have gotten, no matter how delayed your hopes and dreams may feel, at Christmas God comes to you. And that’s why this Christmas is exactly what we need most.