Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20
So if strangers could (and can still!) expect to receive such gracious hospitality, of course the same would be true for family. Although we have this mythology built up around Mary and Joseph sleeping in the barn because there was no room for them at the inn, this isn’t quite what Luke says. He tells us that they had traveled from Nazareth to Joseph’s ancestral home of Bethlehem and that there was no room in the “inn;” but that isn’t quite the right word. The word actually means a guest room, such as many houses would have had.
Whether he had grown up there or only had loose familial bonds with the place, Joseph wouldn’t have gone to stay at an inn—a place reserved only for merchants passing through on business—he would have stayed with relatives. If he hadn’t, he would have insulted them. In fact, he could likely have found a room with anyone in Bethlehem by simply knocking on a door saying, “I am Joseph, son of Heli, son of Matthat, Son of Levi,” and the occupants would probably have responded, “Levi was my grandfather’s uncle, please come in!” or “Heli was my cousin’s barber’s butcher’s son; you must stay with us!”
Most houses were built around a single room in which the family stayed, with a guest room tacked on to the side or on the roof. The guest room offered to the young couple was already full with other guests—also probably family—but there was no chance that his hosts would have said, “Sorry, we’re already full up. You’ll have to find somewhere else,” because that’s not how you treat family. Leaving family to fend for themselves was not only shameful, it was dangerous. What if something happened to them? While it was far from ideal, any relatives of Joseph’s—whether close or distant—would have been more than happy to provide whatever accommodations they could, because that’s just what you do for family.
Nevertheless, with the guest room already packed to the gills, there was no room to deliver the baby, so when Mary went into labor, she had to do so in the main room, where the owners of the house lived—the main room adjacent to the stables, with mangers dug into the floor to feed the animals.
This is a small but important detail to this story. You see, the way we tell it, Jesus was born in the middle of a strange town in a barn devoid of anyone else except animals. In reality, it is far more likely that he was born into a cramped house surrounded by chaos and noise—but most importantly, by family. The son of a peasant craftsman and his young bride, Jesus came into this world with next to nothing—not even in his own house; but what he did have was family.
One of the most incredible things about the Incarnation to which we seldom pay any attention is that, as a human, Jesus had ancestors and relatives. Both Luke and Matthew include a lineage in their gospel stories so that their readers will know who Joseph is, and therefore who this baby being born is. In Matthew’s gospel, the lineage goes all the way back to Abraham with whom God made the covenant. It’s Matthew’s way of reminding his Jewish audience that Jesus is one of them. He’s their family, their kin. Luke takes things even further by extending his genealogy all the way back to “Adam, the son of God;” a reminder that not only Jews, but also Gentiles are included in Jesus’ family because we all come from one ancestor, and we all have God as our ultimate progenitor.
So family plays a central role in this story of Jesus’ birth. His parents were taken in by family in the hometown of his father, and he came into the world surrounded by animals, yes, but also by relatives who cared enough about his father and about him to make whatever room they could in an already full house—even if he did have to sleep in a food trough. But what is really interesting about Luke’s story is that it doesn’t stop there; more people showed up. It wasn’t the family we might expect—cousins, aunts, uncles, great-uncles’ cousins’ aunts six times removed… The news was not spread among kin, but among shepherds, out watching their flocks by night.
Shepherds had a reputation for being not only smelly and unsophisticated, but also unscrupulous and violent. When Luke says they were watching their flocks, he means they were protecting them from other shepherds who might try to steal them. These men may be even been armed. But when they burst into the house and share the news the angels told them, a miracle happens. Instead of being thrown out, instead of everyone running out the back, everyone is amazed. For a little while, this crazy collection of people—a young, bedraggled Nazorean couple, a family of kindly but completely callow Bethlehemites, and a bunch of gruff and bewildered shepherds—become family; a family all brought together by this extraordinary baby lying in a manger.
So often we reduce the life of Jesus to what happened at the end of it, and we forget that Jesus didn’t come to die, he came to live—and to live among us. The miracle of the Incarnation is that the Creator of the Universe entered into human flesh and blood. Jesus was born into a family, and his birth created a new family; one brought together by God through open doors and heavenly messengers and even Caesar Augustus himself, though unwittingly, and that census of his.
Family is central to how many of us celebrate this holiday, but even in the midst of our family preparations and traditions, through the miracle of the Incarnation God seeks to blow our definition of family wide open; Christmas is part of God’s promise to free family to be what it should be; not the place where we escape from the injustice of the world, but the place where that injustice is healed.
For if in the Incarnation Jesus becomes family to each of us, then it also makes us family to one another. All of us—shepherds and magi, kings and peasants, Democrats and Republicans—we are one family in Christ. We all trace our lineage back to the same family tree that has God as both its root and its crown. In Christ we are all connected by the blood given for us at this table and the water in which we have been washed.
This is not just a hollow sentiment about the general interconnectedness of humanity. Instead, it is God’s way of saving the world from itself; of helping us to realize that we all have the same responsibility to one another that Joseph’s family had to him in Bethlehem. At Christmas, God in the face of the baby Jesus invites us to look across the room, across the border, across the aisle, and to see that the people standing over there are just as much our family as the baby lying in the manger because the spare room is plumb full up. Yes, it’s an inconvenience; yes, it costs us money or comfort or safety; but can we really leave family out there to fend for themselves? What if something were to happen to them?
In God’s family, when one of us is sick, we take care of them. When one of us is persecuted, we stand up to protect them. When one of us is hungry, we feed them. When one of us is oppressed, we stand alongside them. When it comes to family, we don’t do this out of a sense of obligation or to escape punishment—at least, not ultimately. We take care of one another because we love one another, because we are bound to one another in a way we can’t really understand or articulate. That love is what slipped into our skin on Christmas night—and what we worship here tonight.
Imagine a world where we treat everyone—from immigrants to shepherds to strange men sliding on their backsides through the snow—as though they were family. That is the world we see coming to birth at Christmas: a world in which we can look into the face of another—whether friend or stranger or enemy—and see a cousin, a sibling. A Christmas celebration that runs away from or ignores the problems of the world to focus only in our families is an anemic, malnourished holiday. But when Christmas can expand our definition of family and teach us to look outward, to begin to see the people around us—even weary, pregnant travelers and shepherds—as kin, then we become co-creators of the kingdom of God, celebrating the hope of God’s promise of ultimate salvation at Christmas. When we can look at one another with the eyes of Jesus, to see and love one another as he does, then something new is born.