A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 2:1-20
Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            When I think back to that day – that day that made me think everything was changing – and when I really try to remember how I was feeling as it all began, one word comes to me:  tired.  In fact, I had been tired for several days – all because of how crazy that week had been.

You hear about Bethlehem in the scriptures, so I suppose it’s famous, but it’s really not much of a town.  Back then, there were maybe 300 to 1,000 people living there.[1]  I guess Caesar wanted a more accurate number, because he ordered a census be taken.  But for some reason, instead of just counting us where we lived, the order came down that we all had to return to our ancestral homes.  Maybe it had something to do with Jewish inheritance laws or our clan identifications?  You know that we Jews descended from the 12 sons of Jacob, and according to the Torah, each tribe, each group of descendants from each of those twelve sons is assigned an area, a territory.

My family is part of the tribe of Judah; I’m part of the clan of Ephrathah, so when we were told we all had to go back to our ancestral homes, I didn’t have to go anywhere.  I was fine right were I was.  In fact, I live in my great-great-grandfather’s home.  He passed it down to his eldest son, who passed it to his eldest son, who passed it to his eldest son (my father), who passed it on to me.  Over the generations, my family has added to the house and now it’s actually pretty big – bigger than I needed for my family back then.

I decided that, since it was bigger than my family needed after my father died, we could make a little extra money by opening my home as an Inn – not that there was much call for an Inn in Bethlehem.  We would get the occasional traveler who stopped for the night on their way to somewhere else, but Bethlehem wasn’t exactly a destination city.

In addition to using the house as an Inn, we made a living off of our small farm outside the town and I had a pretty sizable flock of sheep whose wool made me some money – enough that I could hire shepherds to look after them.  These shepherds – hirelings, really, and quite a smelly lot – lived with the sheep in the fields, venturing into town from time to time for provisions.  Through some of the year, I had them pastured up in the fields on the hillside around Bethlehem. That’s where they were that night when …

So I had a flock of sheep, my small farm, and my house as ventures to make a living, and we were doing quite well – when we weren’t taxed too much by the Roman occupiers.  Then Caesar announced this census – which I was convinced was really another method of raising taxes to pay for the so-called “privilege” of having Roman soldiers around to oppress us.  At first, I thought, “There goes this year’s profits,” but then came this decree that we had to go to our ancestral homes to be counted.  This meant that I might actually make some money from the Inn.  And sure enough, people came to Bethlehem because they were of the tribe of Judah and somehow related to King David.  Since they didn’t have any family here anymore, lots of us with bigger homes opened them to the travelers.

The night before everything changed, a family came, knocking on the door.  Everything else was full, they said.  Wasn’t there some way I could accommodate them?  I’m not quite sure how we did it, but we managed to squeeze in a few more people, but that was it.  There was no way I was going to be able to accept any more guests.  From before sun up to well after sun down, all we did was care for our guests.  My wife and daughters spent all day making food and cleaning.  My sons were busy looking after the extra animals that were now stabled in a cave out behind the house – the common practice.  The cave was pretty crowded, too.  I tried to keep on top of everything.

Then, at twilight, another couple showed up, knocking at the door.  They were looking for lodging and there simply wasn’t any, anywhere in town.  The woman, poor thing, was pregnant out to here, looking like she was going to pop at any moment.

What was I to do?  There really wasn’t any room left in my Inn, but I couldn’t turn these poor wretches out to fend for themselves on the streets.  So I told them they could stay with the animals.  We would make a nest for them in the straw.  At least they would be off the streets and warm for the night … and, with any luck, they’d get a little sleep.  I guess sleep was not on God’s agenda – not for them, not for my wife, not for me, and not for my guests.

I told you this girl was ready to pop?  Well, she did.  Because they were out back in the cave we used as a stable, we didn’t even find out it was time until the baby was born.  I don’t know why Joseph (that’s the father’s name) didn’t come get us when the labor began.  It must have been intense and fast, and once the baby was there, he came back to the house to get me and my wife.  There was no point in getting the midwife, so we went back to the cave.

Sure enough, Mary (that’s the girl’s name) had given birth to a baby boy.  By the time we got to the cave, the boy had be swaddled and – I thought this was resourceful – she’d put him to bed in the manger.  Mary was amazing, just amazing.  Joseph looked like he was going to burst with pride and fall over from exhaustion at the same time.  I don’t know why he was tired; Mary did all the work.

And then there were the animals.  I usually think it’s ridiculous when people claim that animals are thinking something or feeling something.  But I swear, that night, these first witnesses to the birth of this baby boy were aware of something.  It was as if they knew that something particularly special was going on.  And it seemed that their awareness rubbed off on me.

I believe that every birth is a beautiful miracle of God’s grace, and I was overjoyed at the birth of each of my children, but this was different.  This was sacred in a deeper way.  God was doing something, and the donkeys and horses and our milk cow and her calf knew it before any of the rest of us.

And then the shepherds – of all people, shepherds – confirmed this.  In the middle of the night, when shepherds are supposed to be keeping watch over the flocks, protecting them from predators, they showed up at our door.  They insisted that angels had told them (told them, can you believe it?) that the savior of Israel had been born and they had come to see him.  More noise; more commotion; less sleep.  In they tromped to look at the baby.

These shepherds – I mean who knows what goes on in the head of shepherds.  Like the rest, of us they were hoping the Messiah would come, so maybe they imagined the whole angel thing.  But then, I think of the witness of the animals.  They didn’t have any political agenda.  They simply knew some divine sacrament was taking place.  Could it be that the savior was born at my house?

That was 20 years ago, and I remember it as if it was yesterday.  And I remain convinced God was up to something.  But it was 20 years ago.  And I keep wondering what was God up to and when are we going to see the results of it?

My children are grown now.  The house is filled with grandchildren.  No longer any room to make it an inn.  With each birth, I wonder if God might be up to something.  And I remember that baby boy in the manger.  And I wait.  And I wonder.  In so many ways, it’s all a great mystery to me.


“O Magnum Mysterium” is very old Latin text, dating to at least the 16th century when it was used as a responsorial chant for Matins on Christmas.  Its translation is:
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear Christ the Lord.
The inspiration for this sermon is a contemporary setting of this text by Morten Lauridsen.  You can hear it here:

[1] No one knows for sure what the population of Bethlehem was when Jesus was born.  This estimate comes from http://www.bobmay.info/dec142001past.htm (posted 14 December 2001; accessed 23 December 2012).