I think a lot of us have, for various reasons. Some still receive that message today because of some physical or social characteristic like their race, gender, or sexual orientation. For many of you here at North Church, you’ve been made to feel unheard, unloved, unwanted, and unimportant because of your disability status or mental health diagnosis.
It seems like there is no quicker or more efficient way to dismiss a person’s voice in the public forum than to identify them as mentally ill. A lot of the time, when others find out that you’re a person who lives with mental illness, they very quickly seem to stop the “person” part of that sentence and just focus instead on the “mental illness” part. They don’t think of you as, “a person living with schizophrenia/depression/bipolar disorder.” No, they say, “You are schizophrenic/depressed/bipolar.”
It’s a subtle-but-vicious way of shutting down another person’s humanity and ensuring that their voice doesn’t count… as if a diagnosis of mental illness were some kind of statement about a person’s intelligence or abilities. Defacing the image of God in you is what it is.
Well, if that’s you, if you’re here tonight and you’ve been made to feel unloved, unwanted, unheard, or unimportant because of your mental illness, disability, race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other reason, I have good news for you: you’re in good company.
First of all, look at these people around you tonight: many of them have felt that way too, maybe even for the same reasons as you. Also, let’s look at the gospel reading tonight. We’re in good company with the people we read about in this Christmas story.
“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.”
This story begins with Caesar Augustus, the most powerful man in the world (at the time). He was the leader of the Roman Empire, having taken that position by murdering his predecessor, Julius Caesar. And Emperor Augustus, like a great chess master, wants to know how many pawns he has left on the board. He’s also a bit like Ebenezer Scrooge, counting his money. To Caesar, the people whose lives he controls are little more than pennies in his bank account: they’re not worth much; they’re liable to get lost in the cushions of the sofa. In short, they don’t matter; they’re not all that important.
And then the camera of our story zooms in on just a couple of those insignificant pennies:
“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.”
And things weren’t looking too good for them:
“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.”
Did you hear that? “There was no place for them.” Even those other pennies, lost in the couch cushions, were unwilling to move over and make room for these most insignificant people. They were treated like human garbage. As a result, Mary was forced to give birth like an animal in a barn.
Nearby, in the next cushion over on the same couch, we come across a few more pennies that have long been forgotten:
“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.”
This is where we get to the shepherds: dirty, homeless people who wandered about looking for work, scamming the townsfolk, and up to goodness-knows-what in those dark, isolated fields at night. Nobody liked or trusted shepherds. In fact, a shepherd’s testimony was inadmissible in a court of law at that time. That’s how despised they were. Nobody cares what a shepherd says.
But then what happened?
“Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Of all people, God decides to send the angels to shepherds, the ones whose voice would count least in the eyes of the world. And what does the angel say? “To you is born this day.” Get that? To you. Not to Caesar, not to Rome, not even to the people of Israel, but to you shepherds: the least, the last, and the lost. And then, just to underline and emphasize what they have just said, the angels break out into song-and-dance like this was a Broadway musical:
“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!””
Hear it again: “Peace among those whom he favors!” And who has God favored in this instance? The shepherds more than all the rest of Israel and the world. The ones who don’t matter. This song is for them.
And the task the angels give these low-down, no-good shepherds is to go find these other insignificant people who are just as bad-off, miserable, and forgotten as they are. The angels are collecting those lost pennies together in the couch cushions, because, as Jesus would later say, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
And when the shepherds went and found what they were looking for, they told their story: “they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.”
They didn’t show up with any prior knowledge or proper credentials. All they knew was to tell the story of their own personal experience: “to make known… what they had heard and seen.”
And “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
Just as Mary and the baby were meant to be a sign for the shepherds, so also the shepherds were meant to be a sign for Joseph and Mary. God hand-picked them and brought them together to be signs to each other: signs that something significant was happening and they were meant to be part of it; signs that, even though the world would not hear their voices, God heard and they are not alone.
And so, here we are tonight on this Christmas Eve. If you’ve come here tonight feeling unheard, unwanted, unloved, and unimportant, then I want you to know that you’re in good company. It means that you’ve come with Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem and are sitting with them in the straw of the stable. It means that you are walking in the fields with the shepherds, and the angels’ song is for you.
“To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
And though you may feel alone tonight, you are never alone. Though you may feel unwanted, you are loved beyond your wildest imagination. Though you may be homeless and “there is no place for you” in the inns of this world, Jesus says to you tonight:
“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”
You may feel unimportant, but Jesus says, “Blimey! That’s amazing! In almost 14 billion years of cosmic history, 10 thousand years of human civilization, and 2 thousand years of Christendom, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important before!”
This is the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news that turns the world upside down.
The truth of the gospel is that there are no insignificant people, which is why, when the kingdom of God comes in its fullness “on earth as it is in heaven,” and “the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ,” we are promised that “the last will be first and the first shall be last.”
And this seemingly insignificant little peasant baby, born in squalor to an unwed teenage mother, is the beginning of that Great Reversal.
You may be told by the powers-that-be in this world that your voice doesn’t count, but the angels are calling you to speak up tonight. Like the shepherds, you are to “make known… all that you have heard and seen”: Build one another up with your stories of faith, signs of hope, and acts of love.
And like Mary, “treasure all these words and ponder them in your heart” so that we all might be brought together, reminded that there are no unimportant people in the eyes of God, and strengthened for the task of bringing heaven down to earth in Jesus’ name.