You are a miracle. And if you think you have a house full of relatives now, or if you wish you weren’t so alone this Christmas, I have news for you. You have more family than you think.
If some biologists and statisticians are right, then it is a miracle that you are even here on this earth because if your two parents had not bonded just when they did, possibly at that very second, possibly to the nanosecond – you wouldn’t be here. And if their parents had not done so in the same timely manner you wouldn’t be here either. Likewise this is true for their parents, and their parents before them, and so on and so on.
Bishop Andrew Doyle of the Diocese of Texas made this observation after reading a book by Bill Bryson called A Short History of Nearly Everything. It seems that, statistically speaking, these ancestral particularities really add up. Bishop Doyle writes:
Trace your lineage to the time of Abraham Lincoln and you have 250 of these unique and time sensitive parings. Go back to the time of Shakespeare and you have no less than 16,384 ancestors exchanging genetic material in a way that would eventually and miraculously result in you.Well, as Dr. McCoy might say, I’m a priest not a mathematician! The truth is that there have never, ever, been that many as people in existence on the earth as these numbers suggest. We’re talking odds here, not real numbers..and after a few generations the actual numbers and the odds begin to diverge. But this little exercise does tell us two things: what makes us “us” is dependent on some pretty precise time and place exchanges of DNA that goes back a long, long way.
At 20 generations each of you has 1 million, 48 thousand, and 576 unique parings. At 25 generations you and I have no fewer than 33 million 554 thousand 432 men and women upon whose “devoted couplings our existence depends.”
At 30 generations (remember these are moms and dads only) you are at 1 billion, 73 million, 741 thousand, and 824. At 64 generations, roughly the time of Jesus, our eventual existence depends upon no less than 10 to the 18th or 1 quintillion. If you trace this back to the time of King David you can more than double the number of unique, timely, miraculous couplings that have taken place to make you and I – quite particularly – us.
At the same time, this little mental exercise reminds us that we are all, quite literally, family. And so it is as family that we gather tonight to celebrate an even more unique birth, the birth of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, to Mary and Joseph.
Remembering that we are connected and that God loves and reaches out to all of us tonight is very important. The world was a hard, terrifying place two millennia ago when Jesus was born. It still is. Tonight, I am beginning to hear news stories of terror attacks on Christian churches and communities in both Nigeria and the Philippines, places where the tension between Muslims and Christians are reaching the boiling point.
In this country, Christianity faces a different kind of hostility: the kind that comes with benign neglect, scoffing and kind of self-destructiveness among us believers where we both berate and belittle fellow Christians and do things which make us look petty, rigid and mean.
People who peddle in evil and stoke fear--in and out of the the Church--want us to forget that we all family. They want us to forget that we are connected. They want us to focus on how we are different so that they make the people they hate and fear less than human. They want us to ignore what God is doing in the Incarnation.
Good people, when confronted with evil, always have a choice: they can meet force with force, evil for evil in a vain attempt to deter their opponent. That never works and only makes matters worse. They can give in to fear and hunker down and hide. This only gives evil people room to wreak havoc. Or they can confront evil with the very things that evil hates. It is that last choice that God undertakes when Christ is born.
Both Luke and Matthew’s Gospel provide details of Jesus’ birth but they are very different in their take on the birth of Jesus. The Gospel of Luke, the one we hear tonight, is perhaps the more familiar of the two. In it, Luke is eager to provide details of that unique and particular birth. He gives the names, the dates, and the places of our Savior’s birth. Luke tells us that Jesus, our Messiah and Savior, is born into an impoverished family with royal roots extending into the House of David. While many paintings and crèches, like our own in this church, show him being born in a stable, some traditions—such as the icon in our Chapel—show him being born in a cave. Mary and Joseph come to Bethlehem homeless and with no place to stay. Mary gives birth to Jesus in the middle of an outdoor or open air place where
Both Matthew and Luke go to great pains to connect Jesus’ birth with his death. They tell us that Jesus is not just an accident of DNA but sent by God for a specific purpose. If you read the end of Luke’s Gospel, the part about his death and resurrection and pair it up with Luke’s story of his birth, you will find that Jesus’ birth points to the cross. At the end of his life, Jesus’ body will be wrapped in linen, tonight he is swaddled in bands of cloth. After he dies, He will have no place of own in which to be laid to rest; tonight there is no room in the inn. He will be laid to rest in a tomb in a cave; tonight he sleeps in a manger, perhaps in a cave, where animals feed. The first ones to hear God’s Good news about Jesus’ birth are shepherds; the people who first find Jesus’ empty tomb are women. The shepherds encounter a heavenly chorus; at the empty tomb, the women encounter an angel. In both instances, those to whom no good news is ever given receive the very first tidings of God’s great work of redemption. The shepherds hear an angelic chorus singing Glory to God;” the women come to their friends saying “He is risen!”
We, you and I, are like the shepherds in this story; not because we tend sheep, but because we are hopeful members of Christ’s family. Uniquely us and particularly us, we are given the opportunity to make a worshipful response to Christ’s birth tonight.
Once again for the first time, we are given the opportunity to leave this place glorifying and praising God. We are given the opportunity to place the words of salvation on our lips for others to hear. We are given the opportunity to feel in our hearts the love of Jesus Christ that welcomes all people. We are given the opportunity to share Christ’s love to the people who are lonely, sick, outcast or despondent. We are given the chance to feed the hungry, care for the poor and bring dignity and hope to people for whom these have been taken away. We are given the opportunity to embrace a light that enlightens our souls with faith and hope – which darkness may not overcome.
The ways that we fend off evil is to do the things that evil hates. Like the man I spoke with this week who is sitting at the bedside of a dying, unconscious man—not family in the normal sense of the word, but now a loved one—because he has no family to speak of and he doesn’t want his friend to be alone on Christmas. Like the dozen or so people from all over the community who came to cut lettuce and set up tables and will be cooking turkeys in our new kitchen so that the homeless, the poor and the lonely can have Christmas dinner together.
Daring to bring compassion, daring to forgive, daring to love is a choice that brings the songs of angels to people who never hear good news. The baby whose birth we celebrate tonight is also the Risen Christ. Through the cross and resurrection, the one whose birth we celebrate heals the breach between humanity and God.
Tonight, God confronts evil head on—as a baby. Because God chooses to confront evil with love, we are able to wish one another Merry Christmas tonight out of a firm hope, tangible love, and a resilient faith. Tonight no one is a stranger, all are brother, sister, mother, and father. This baby, this messiah, this Christ, is God with us, healing and restoring the truth that we are all in fact God’s people, God’s family, and in him, we have become the shepherds of hope.
See also: 1st Sunday after Christmas and 2nd Sunday after Christmas.