Gather round, friends. I want to tell you the story of a very special night, a long time ago, in a land far, far away.
It all started as I was sweeping the floors late at night after everyone had gone to bed. The dust of a hundred different travellers from a thousand different towns carpeted the floor like a dark stain. I remember it seemed like it was mocking me. Every time the broom passed over it a cloud would billow up and then just as quickly it would settle back down in the exact same spot. It was as if I’d never even been there, like I didn’t even exist. It was always like that, day in and day out. Sometimes I liked to pretend that if I swept hard enough I might find, deep below, a precious rug, long forgotten, buried beneath the dust of a thousand different travellers, from a million different towns. But of course it was all a dream. The more I swept the dirtier it got.
All the rooms were full that night; we were booked solid. The whole world was on the move after all. There was an energy in the air, but, there was a tension too. You could feel it, heavy like a cloak. People had eaten their fill in silence that night and then drifted off to bed in silence that night. There was no bawdy laughter filling the hall, just silence: heavy, eerie, total silence.
I was distracted, thinking about the patterns on the great precious rug beneath my feet, when a loud, frantic banging cracked through the night. I made my way cautiously over to the door and unlatched it and the instant I did it flew open and this wide-eyed, wild, hulk of a man burst across the threshold. His face was a mask of panic and all he could do was gesture behind him. Trying to get a glimpse around his imposing frame I stood there craning my neck into the outer darkness and I caught a glimpse of a woman wailing and gnashing her teeth, clutching at her very pregnant belly.
It was clear she’d gone into labour so I ran and got my wife who was busy washing the linens, and quickly we led the young couple around back to the stables; it was the only place that made sense. On a night like this there were no beds left in all of Bethlehem, and there was certainly no room in the inn. The stable though, had everything we needed for when the ewes were birthing and so that’s where we went.
We stayed there with them all night. Some of the patrons from inside who had been woken up by the banging and the screaming came and went, bringing fresh cloths and offering consoling words of encouragement, or advice, or in some cases just plain curiosity.
At long last, in the wee hours when the morning star was at its brightest, it was done. Mother Mary rested, leaning against the donkey’s pen, gazing down in pure, bewildered rapture, one arm around the manger where her little baby lay, wrapped and swaddled, her hand gently resting on his arm as if she would never let go. The others had gone back to bed and the nighttime silence had just settled back over the town when a whole gang of teenagers came running and slipping down the street. You could tell that they were trying to keep their excitement in check; they thought they were being quiet in that raucous, loud-as-a-landslide sort of way that only teenage boys can muster when they think that they’re being quiet. Shepherds…
They crowded into the stables and they gazed at the baby for a bit, one of them muttering something about an angel. I didn’t ask. It was kind of sweet to see those tough young men so spellbound by a yawning infant. But just as quickly as they’d arrived they were gone again, on to their next adventure, no doubt, back to check on the sheep if they knew what was good for them.
As they ran away back up to the hills, kicking up a great big plume of dust behind them, my mind started drifting back to earlier in the night before all of this had started, to the sweeping. And you know, it was interesting. Something had changed. Looking down at that precious child, that miracle baby, lying in a feeding trough, in my stable, I knew, in my bones, that this world would never be the same again. It was as if God himself had come down to earth and every child born from that point onwards would become a living icon of God made flesh. The wood of the manger, the same wood that the Romans used for their crosses, would become the wood of the throne of kingdom of God. The dust under our very feet was woven with the mystery of heaven and from that day forward whenever I found myself sweeping the floors of the inn, I wasn’t trying to get rid of the dust to find the treasure beneath, I saw myself standing in the middle of the treasures of heaven itself. From the moment I saw that child, lying in the manger, I understood that all life is sacred. God had made his home among us, and life, all life, was changed forevermore.
As Joseph sat huddled at the foot of the manger, eyes on the lookout for anything that might pose a danger to his precious, newborn child, my wife and Mary, newfound friends, huddled together. She was speaking to Mary in a low voice and Mary, still gazing at her child, was soaking it all in, treasuring the words and wrapping them up tightly in her heart. She would need them, later on.
At one point I heard my wife, the voice of aged wisdom, telling her about the struggles that she would face—that people wouldn’t believe her story about the angel of the Lord who had announced a virgin birth, that people would want her to be something impossible: strong, yet demure; wise, but innocent; to go through the worst suffering imaginable, but to be as pure as the driven snow. She told her that she’d seen it all before, throughout her long life, she’d been through it all before, and at that Mary’s gazed lifted and for the briefest moment their eyes met. “Me too” is all she said. And then the moment was over and she looked back down at her child, the one who could change that for all the world, the one who would one day be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. One day…
And now, two thousand years later, here we sit, on a cold winter’s night, watching, waiting for the coming of the Lord. God came among us, God made his home among us once upon a time, but we’re still waiting for the fullness of his kingdom, for the day when people aren’t equal just on paper but in practice, when we can all gather around a table and break bread together with no divisions between us: distinct but not divided. The kingdom of God sometimes feels like a dream that we reach for but can never quite grasp.
But what if the message of the incarnation isn’t just a fairytale story from a long time ago in a land far, far away? What if the incarnation is the most real story that’s ever been told, and what if it’s not over yet? What if this is our story that someone started telling a long time ago and we’re simply characters in the newest chapter?
If we’re willing to entertain those thoughts for just a moment we might realize that the story of the incarnation, of God becoming human is the story of all of creation becoming sacred, holy, redeemed. It means that we don’t need to create the kingdom of God, and we don’t need to wait for the kingdom of God; it means that life is about opening our eyes and seeing the kingdom of God.
It means that all those things that we do, trying to prepare us for the kingdom of heaven, are already a part of it. Whenever we meet together, whether it’s in a Sunday liturgy, or a Bible Study, or a Prayer Group, or a Prayer Shawl group, or for community dinners, those are the moments when heaven shines brightest in our world. Those are the chances we’ve been given to look around, left and right and to see the beauty of a world infused with the Spirit of God, to see angels and saints among us.
That’s when we know, that no matter what comes at us, be it flood, or famine, or fire, or war, even if the sky itself were to crumble around us, heaven is here on earth, come to us in the form of a baby, born in a stable, sanctifying the very dust beneath our feet. Amen.