Luke 2:1-20Christmas Pageant

I am starting with some congregational participation this morning! Could I ask – if you have ever been in a Christmas pageant or play – can you stand up? (This probably includes everyone who was at church two weeks ago!)

Ok! You can sit down if – if any Christmas play you have been in – you were the narrator!

Now sit down if you were a wise man (or a wise woman!) or if you were a shepherd.

Now sit down if you were Joseph – or Mary.

Now if you were one of the angels.

OK. Who do we have left…? I am particularly interested to know if we have any oxen.

On a QI Christmas special the other night (did anyone else see this?) they mentioned a 2019 UK study that found that the roles British children had played in their school nativities might play a part in their future career and earnings.

The study surveyed 2,000 British adults, and the most surprising result was that those who were now on the highest salaries had played, not one of the main parts, but had been the ox! They also found those who played oxen were most likely to go into advertising!

The next highest paid were people who had been the Angel Gabriel. They tended – perhaps unsurprisingly – to go into marketing and communications.

Then it was people who had played Mary Closely followed by people who had played Joseph. These went into retail or finance and banking, respectively. Marys also had the most friends on social media!

Those on lower salaries had been shepherds, followed by kings, and the lowest earners of all were those with the biggest speaking part – the narrators.

I don’t know why they conducted this study. Probably just for a bit of fun at Christmas time, but it highlighted for me two aspects of the birth of Jesus, as told by the writer of Luke.

Firstly, this is a story of a great role reversal. Not the kind of role reversal where former oxen are now the highest paid, but the ‘reversal of all things’ when the Lord of all creation is born a helpless human child, when the Lord of all is born among the poor.

Mary gave birth, we’re told, “to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger.” There is no mention here of a stable and the word we translate ‘inn’ may simply mean an extra room for guests. What we have is a description of birth in a simple peasant home – in a one room dwelling where animals are also housed and fed.

“This will be a sign for you,” the angel repeats, “you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

Why is Jesus being born among the poor a sign for us? It is a sign that God values human life differently to how we do with our studies of careers and earning potential. It is a sign that God is devaluing those who makes decrees that all the world should be registered, who maintain power through taxation, military might and oppression.

German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote, “…God, the Lord and Creator of all things, [comes]…among us as a helpless, defenceless child…to show us where and who God really is, and from this standpoint to judge all human desire for greatness, to devalue it and pull it down from its throne. The throne of God in the world is set not on the thrones of humankind but in humanity’s deepest abyss, in the manger.”

Commentator Bill Loader writes, “This scene at the beginning does what the cross will do at the end: a crown of thorns will mock the arrogance of the rulers, a life poured out will hang in contrast to those who suck [the life] out…of the people.”

God is reversing all things because all human life is valued by God. As the angel says to the shepherds, “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

And in the light of this great role reversal, we are invited to take on new roles as well. I am not thinking of how those who were angels go into communications or Marys do retail or Josephs become accountants, though being part of God’s great reversal will inevitably impact the work we do – and the way we do our work. 

I am thinking instead of the roles we play at playing in our Christmas pageants.

What are angels? Literally angel means ‘messenger’, but angels are also evidence that there is contact, and there is congress, between heaven and earth. By declaring peace on earth, angels declare an end to the estrangement between God and human beings.

Do you know an angel? Do you know someone who in their response to human meanness, their love for the unlovable, their capacity for forgiveness reveals to you the nature of God, the presence of God, here on earth? Do you want to be an angel this Christmas?

Do you know a Mary? Someone who, despite being very ordinary, when faced with the difficult or heart-breaking or seemingly impossible task for God, simply says ‘Yes.’ ‘Yes’, to walking the road that will bring shame and pain. ‘Yes’, to walking alongside others who must take this road. ‘Yes’, to bringing to birth in new ways the understanding that God loves and values all people. Do you want to be Mary this Christmas?

Do you know a Joseph? Someone who seeks to live quietly, who sits in the background. And yet who has the courage, when a group of people or society expect or demand one response to make another – to say ‘No.’ ‘No’, to doing what will bring reward rather than what is right. ‘No’ to taking the easier way – rather than the way of obedience. Do you want to be Joseph?

Or do you know a shepherd? No one thinks very highly of shepherds. In the first century they were poor and illiterate and thought to be dishonorable because they were not home at night to protect their women. And yet our role-reversing God chooses, as 1 Corinthians 1 says, what is foolish in the world to shame the wise… what is weak in the world to shame the strong…what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are….” It is the shepherds who first see the Saviour, who first announce the Messiah, whose lives are the first to be transformed by the Lord.

How are they transformed? They go from being terrified (verse 9), to being prepared to go and see (verse 15), to sharing what they know with others (verse 17) and finally to glorifying and praising God (verse 20) – the first earthly congregation of Christmas worshippers! Do you want to join them? Do you want to be a shepherd this Christmas?

God invites us to continue these roles. To continue being angels, surprising earth with heaven, to continue being Mary, saying ‘Yes’ to God, to continue being Joseph, saying ‘No’ to what is not right, to continue being the shepherds overcoming our fears, to share the good news – the good news that God’s great reversal that began in the manger and finished on the cross is a sign for us that the Lord of all creation has chosen to be one of us – to love each one of us – “that to us is born this day a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord!”

Prayers of Intercession

I came across this prayer ‘A Manger Scene’ by Carol Penner and – apologies to Carol – but I have rewritten it for us this morning. Can I invite you to take a moment before I begin to think about who God is inviting you to be – angel, Mary, Jospeh, or shepherd – and to pray the lines that are in bold for that character…

A manger scene, a nativity play,
we see them everywhere, we know them well.
Mary kneeling, Joseph standing
angels singing, shepherds with their sheep adoring.
God made flesh, dwelling among us,
a baby, a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.

You came to dwell among us, God, on that long ago Christmas day,
but this year we come to dwell with you.
We want to find ourselves in the manger scene,
wrapped up in the story, and the story wrapped up in our lives.
And so, God of heaven and earth, hear our prayer.

We pray that you will help us be like the angels;

speaking your good news to our world,

revealing your joy even in pain,

offering your peace, your reconciliation to others.

We pray that you will help us be like Mary;

receptive to your love growing inside us,
nurturing that love,
pondering – again and again – this love for all people.

We pray that you will help us be like Joseph;

listening for your voice – not the voices of others,

doing what is right despite the cost,

standing with those who need our help.

We pray that you will help us be like the shepherds;
overcoming our fears to seek you,

overcoming our fears to tell others,

praising and glorifying you for what you have done for us.

God of manger and cross, unwrap your story in our lives as well;

help us care for creation,

help us bring peace where people are still oppressed and the hungry are still hungry,

make us compassionate to all affected by disasters,

and strengthen us to comfort and support those who are sick and their families

those separated from their families,

or those who are marking the first Christmas without someone they loved.

God of angels and ordinary human beings, we praise and glorify your son Jesus,

who was born in a manger, who died on a cross,

and who rose again as Christ the Lord.

He is our good news and our great joy.

It is all right here –
in the manger scene, in the nativity play, in the gospel story and in our lives today –

everywhere we go, we see it. Amen.