What a strange season Christmas is. We begin to prepare for it weeks and months in advance, as if it were a tidal wave we knew was coming and would wash over us ready or not. More than a billion Christians will commemorate the birth of their Lord around the globe this year, and many more will turn up just to enjoy the candlelight and Christmas carols.

People who haven’t darkened the door of a church for a year will enter into the mysterious beauty of a Christmas service. Sometimes the minister will use this as an occasion for a little scolding: Where have you been for the last 52 Sundays when you didn’t have to get a pass to be here? Let me be clear I would never say such a thing! Author and rabbi Harold Kushner tells of a friend who spoke in his sermon about the inconsistency of people who come to synagogue only on special occasions and High Holy Days, but don’t come to weekly Sabbath services. His friend said it was one of his most effective sermons. People listened to what he said and quit coming on special occasions as well.

I’m glad you’re here, all of you, whether you are a believer or an unbeliever or a skeptic, whether you came out of curiosity, or cultural tradition, or were dragged here by family members, or whether you’re like many of us who couldn’t be kept away for anything. There’s nothing in the world quite like this night of being here together, hearing the old story of a child born in a manger, and singing those great carols.

Tonight I want to begin, not with Mary and Joseph and the Child, but with an eighteenth-century rabbinic tale of a worshiper, Ben Ezra, who on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, prayed long and ardently in the synagogue. Meanwhile the impatient rabbi wondered what was keeping Ben Ezra there so long, and so finally he asked. “I will tell you what I have been saying,” Ben Ezra said. “To the Master of the Universe I say, ‘These are my sins and I confess them:

I argue with my wife. But you know my wife.
I lost patience with my children. But what parent doesn’t?
I cheated a little in the shop. But just a little. Among friends.
How small my sins are, Master of the Universe!
Now consider your sins.
You dry up the sky, and our crops wither.
You let the rains come before the poor man has the roof repaired.
You do not stop war, and young men die.
The marriage bed is empty; there is no child in the womb.
You take away the light from the eyes of a child, and he is blind.
You take away loved ones, and we are left alone until we die.
These are your sins, Master of the Universe, and they are very great.
But I will make you a proposition:
You forgive me my little sins, and I will forgive you your great ones!’

That was my proposal, Rabbi, and I ask you, was that so wrong?”

The Rabbi did not answer for a long time. “No, Ben Ezra,” he said at last, “it was not wrong, it was not wrong. But why did you drive so small a bargain? For sins like these you could have asked him to send the Messiah. You could have asked him to redeem the world.”

The story of Christmas begins with the sort of world we live in—a world where our lives are marred by struggle and pain, and this year, in particular, by an economic recession that is damaging countless lives across our country and the world. Our huddling here on Christmas Eve, at the time of the winter solstice when the days are at their darkest, is our acknowledgement of our need for hope and joy in lives that often are not easy.

Christmas is God’s answer to the darkness we face. “For sins like these,” the old rabbi says, “we could have asked for a Messiah.” All the carols and beauty of the night are a response to our conviction that the Messiah has come, and comes again and again.

And the heavenly message is always the same: “Fear not.” Those are the angel Gabriel’s first words to Mary. They are the angels’ words to shepherds. The arrival of the Messiah is the revealing of the deepest truth we know, that the God of the universe is not a remote deity, but has taken on flesh as one of us, to share our lives, to show the world a love that overcomes fear.

In fact, Christmas didn’t really begin with wise men, shepherds, and angels. It began with a life of immense freedom and love. It began with a young man walking through the hills and valleys of Palestine, teaching about a kingdom of peace and joy right here at hand, and calling people to live in it. It began with people being given back their sight, their dignity, and hope, by his healing words and touch. And it began with his gathering around him the losers and outcasts of his society and treating them as royalty.

Strangely enough, an instrument of torture, a cross, was part of the beginning of Christmas, because that perfect love was willing to be mocked and put to death. And ultimately Christmas began with an empty tomb, and the conviction that he was alive, and that death and darkness had been conquered for good.

Through all that, people began to believe that the Messiah had come. That the mind at the core of the space and time loved them and had come to live with them to draw them into lives of hope and peace.

All the rest—the angels, the manager, and the shepherds—came later as people realized they had met and known a person who had set them free, and as they began to look back to tell the story of what his beginning must have been like.

It must have been hard, just the way Luke’s gospel describes it in our lesson this evening. The child’s parents seem like insignificant pawns as Caesar Augustus and the Governor Quirinius go about their business of keeping control of the empire with a census.

But Luke’s story is saying that the secret of the universe won’t be found in Rome, or in the American White House for that matter, or in the laboratories of NIH, or along the canyons of Wall Street, or among the scholars of Cambridge. No, the mystery of the Incarnation is revealed in the most unexpected of places—in a squalling child born to a young mother and her faithful but troubled husband as they are bandied about by the forces of empire.

And who are the first to receive the news of the Messiah? Not the cultured and educated, so distracted with their important agendas, but the poorest of the poor, the ignorant and troublesome shepherds. It comes to those who are willing to listen to unexpected voices that seem like angelic messengers, and to follow their unexpected lead.

It is a strange, even stunning thing, isn’t it — for God to take the risk of coming to us in this tiny child in a lost corner of the Roman Empire? Could it be the Master of the Universe rules this Universe only with the power of love — a love that refuses to coerce or control, but gives the universe and us freedom to grow and to become? Could it be that to serve this Master is to give ourselves to lives of compassion and generosity, and that the deepest call we have is to find our way to care for the hungry, the broken, and the lost.

As our world faces recession, we need this vision. Let me read you a few lines from a letter a priest friend of mine received some years ago:

The most meaningful Christmas I remember in my family was the Christmas when all we had to give was love. It doesn’t pay the bills. It won’t pay the rent. But sometimes love is all you have to hang onto. Like the Babe in the manger. All he had was the love of two people. Without that he had nothing.

That is what the birth of that child is about. It is about a God who in the end has only love to give. That is why the world can be so hard. But that is why we are never alone. It is a love so deep that God chose to become vulnerable as a newborn child, to lie in a manger, entirely dependent on two fragile human beings to love him in return.

A memorable moment occurred at a Christmas Eve Pageant at Riverside Church in New York a few years ago. The pageant had come to the defining moment when the innkeeper tells Mary and Joseph, “There’s no room in the inn.”

You imagine then how it must have felt to Mary and Joseph as they turned away. The innkeeper role has only this one line, and it seemed perfect for Tim, a young member of the congregation who had Downs Syndrome. Young Tim had practiced his line over and over with his parents and director until he knew it.

The moment arrived. And there he was, standing in the front of the church as Mary and Joseph made their way down the center aisle. They approached, knocked on the door, and said their lines. Then Tim’s parents and the whole congregation leaned forward to hear what Tim would say.

“There’s no room in the inn,” Tim boomed out.

But then, as Mary and Joseph turned to go, Tim suddenly yelled, “Wait!” They stopped and turned, startled and confused.

“You can stay at my house,” he called.

That’s what this season is about. The Messiah has come. God has taken on flesh in Jesus, and in you and me. And the question is, will we invite this Christ Child into our home, into our lives?

The words we sang a few moments ago say it best:

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us we pray.
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born in us today.