“The Illegitimate Jesus” – Sermon By Rev. Brian Combs, 12/22/21
The first Christmas Eve was not a silent night, nor calm and bright. Loaded camels snorted and saddled donkeys brayed as they passed the haggard couple already a week into the 80-mile walk from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Joseph kept checking his empty wallet, anxious about paying the Romans a tax he didn’t have. Mary kept rehearsing, under her breath, between counting contractions in the shadows, a plausible explanation of how she got pregnant at thirteen before knowing the scent of a man.
Unlike the fantasies for sale in every storefront window on Main Street- curated gifts wrapped in glossy bows under a perfectly decorated tree- Luke’s Gospel abandons every attempt to escape the human experience and instead locates right in the messy middle of it all. No exotic magi from the far East, no shining star high above, no offerings of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, no endearing livestock, no gilded crib, no Hallmark halo, and no home for the holidays.
Stripped of adornment, the story is laid bare. And yet, even without the narrative distractions, we often miss an essential detail that’s rarely, if ever, named this time of year. With curious hearts and expectant ears, let us hear the birth story of our faith anew, asking, what’s repeatedly obscured about Christmas?
Luke 2:1-7 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
That Mary and Joseph were poor, and Jesus was born homeless.
The Holy Family’s suspect reputation likely barred them from staying with relatives in Bethlehem.
Jesus was a king of unmet expectations: vulnerable instead of mighty, humble rather than proud.
Fred Craddock, the gifted preacher, ate dinner with his wife in a little restaurant in the Smokey Mountains. A strange and elderly man came over and introduced himself. “I am from around these parts,” he said. “My mother was not married, and the shame the community directed toward her was also directed toward me. Whenever I went to town with my mother, I could see people staring at us, making guesses about who my daddy was. At school, I ate lunch alone. In my early teens, I began attending a little church but always left before church was over, because I was afraid somebody would ask me what a boy like me was doing in church. One day, before I could escape, I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was the minister. He looked closely at my face. I knew that he too was trying to guess who my father was. ‘Well, boy, you are a child of. . .’ and then he paused. When he spoke again he said, ‘Boy, you are a child of God. I see a striking resemblance.’ Then [he] said, ‘Now, you go on and claim your inheritance.’ I left church that day a different person,” the now elderly man said. “In fact, that was the beginning of my life.” “What’s your name?” Fred asked. He answered, “Ben Hooper. My name is Ben Hooper.” Fred vaguely recalled from when he was a kid, his father talking about how the people of Tennessee had twice elected a fellow who had been born out of wedlock as the governor of their state.
Despite the morality-thumpers’ attempt to pronounce Joseph and Mary husband and wife before the immaculate conception and despite biblical scholars’ generous translation of the word betrothed- an agreement made well in advance of the ceremony- the holy couple staggered into Bethlehem unmarried. When they finally collapsed outback, huddled under the leaky roof of a shed surrounded by feral dogs nosing through rotting trash, Joseph agonized over parenting someone else’s child while Mary looked at her ringless finger.
Too scandalous for polite Christian company, the detail often buried about the Christmas story is Jesus’ illegitimate birth. The Savior of the world was an unplanned pregnancy for the holy mother and father, conceived and delivered before the exchange of vows, a bastard child. To the many innkeepers who made a dismissive judgment, hung the “No Vacancies” sign, and refused to rent a room to Mary and Joseph, the couple, their biography and behavior, was too offensive.
But to the outcasts of the world since, those among us who have been made to feel less than- the queer daughter who came out to her conservative parents, the brown son held suspect because of his skin color, the divorced dad who showed up alone for family picture day, the disabled brother left unpicked for varsity, the depressed co-worker who missed another day despite doubling the medication, the vilified cop who defied his superiors and refused to arrest the protester- hear the Good News, to those who high society looks down upon, God lifts up as holy. The Christmas story is your story.
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!'” (Luke 2:13-14)