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.
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
I would like to speak to you tonight about courage.
From the moment we take our first breath until we breathe our last, we need courage: the capacity to keep going in the face of fear or danger, to get back up when we fall or fail, to keep our eyes firmly fixed on the light shining in darkness.
“It takes courage,” writes the poet e.e. cummings, “to grow up and become who you really are.”
“Without courage,” said Maya Angelou, “we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We cannot be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.”
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts,” Winston Churchill said.
Consider this: every person in the Christmas story was compelled to take a dangerous journey, and Mary and Joseph more than one. Each one carried on, with courage.
Mary is young, perhaps as young as 14, when she is summoned by an angel to the task of bringing God’s child into the world. The angel tells her not to be afraid of this frightening request. Seriously? Still, she says yes. At 14. What courage.
Joseph, her betrothed, presumably devastated by the news that Mary is pregnant with a child that is not his, plans to break off their engagement quietly. But then an angel appears to him in a dream, telling him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. For the child to be born will be of God, the angel tells him, and you are to raise this child as you own. You, Joseph, in the words of W.H. Auden, “are to do what is difficult as if it were easy.” Was he afraid? Yet he did as the angel said. Courage.
Just as Mary was about to give birth, Caesar Augustus declared that all men under the authority of the Roman occupation must return to the villages of their birth to be registered. There was one overriding purpose of such a registration: to instill fear in the entire populace. Joseph was from Bethlehem, a long way from where they were living in Nazareth, Mary’s home town. But he had no choice but to go. Curiously, he decides to take his pregnant wife with him rather than leave her with her family–perhaps fearing for her life? Or did she insist on going with him? We don’t know, but imagine traveling nearly 100 miles on foot, or maybe a donkey, at the end of a pregnancy. What kind of courage does such a trail of tears require?
When they arrive in Bethlehem, there is no spare guest room for them among Joseph’s family, no place inside when Mary’s labor begins. She labors outside, probably in the cave where domesticated animals spend the night. Picture this young girl, far from her family, with only her husband and perhaps a stranger to help her through labor and delivery.
The shepherds in the field were met by angels that night, who terrified them with news of the child’s birth. When the angels depart as dramatically as they appeared, the shepherds resolve to go and see for themselves what they had been told. Courage led them on.
Much later– perhaps as long as a year–magi, members of the priestly class of another land and faith, arrive in Jerusalem asking for the child born King of the Jews. They had seen his star rising in the East and had come to pay him homage. They are immediately summoned before Herod, the proxy king, a ruthless and power-obsessed ruler, who knew nothing of this child. You may remember he instructed the magi that when they find the child they should return and tell him, which they did not do.
After Herod realizes the magi had not complied with his command, he sends his soldiers to harm the child. Joseph, warned in a dream, packs up his young family and journeys yet again, fleeing to Egypt, where they live as refugees until Herod dies and it’s safe to go home.
What a cast of characters.
If the story of Jesus birth tells us anything at all, surely it us that God is willing–eager, in fact–to take up residence in the complex, messy imperfection of human existence, yours and mine, and ours together. Sometimes God invites us to embark on extraordinary journey with divine purpose on rather short notice. On that journey, God draws upon the gifts and contributions of the whole motley crew of us to fulfill purposes far beyond our understanding.
There is no doubt that what God does in Jesus is, in fact, the great miracle of this night. But right behind that great miracle is another one: the courageous response from those caught up in the audacious hope of it all; those who said yes, and carried on with perseverance and grit.
So take courage from this, courage to live your lives fully, wholeheartedly, on whatever journey you are on. Dare to believe that God is right there with you. And remember “It’s not the critic who counts,” as Theodore Roosevelt famously said over 100 years ago. No, life belongs to those in the arena, on the journey, who strive valiantly; “who come short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming.” “Better to fail at the things that matter,” Marian Wright Edelman exhorts us all, as she works tirelessly to defend the most vulnerable children of our land, “Better to fail at the things that matter than to succeed at mediocrity.” Better to fail, Brené Brown would would tell us if she were here, daring greatly.
I don’t know the nature of your journey, the challenges of your life, the place where you may be stumbling now, or where your heart is breaking as you watch a loved stumble or suffer. But God knows. God knows and is with you in that very place. That space inside, where you hold all you would give anything not to have be true, is your manger, where Jesus is pleased to dwell. He knows better than anyone how much it costs you to have courage in that place.
Revealing something of her own struggle, the science fiction writer Veronica Roth gives voice to many: “Sometimes bravery is nothing more than gritting your teeth through pain and the work of every day, the slow walk toward a better life.”
If that is your journey, hear this: Jesus’ birth into your world and mine brings light to that particular, specific darkness, and it is a light that the darkness cannot overcome. The light may seem dim now, for any and all of us, but Jesus is here with us and for us. We can believe in him when all else fails, when we fail and those we counted on fail. I invite you to take a conscious step toward him and his light tonight. Take a deep breath, and ask him for what you need to keep going.
There’s one more thing I’d like to say, that many in this Cathedral and beyond know far better than I: to receive Jesus is also to be summoned by him, in ways large and small, to serve God’s purposes for good in this world. The summons almost always takes the form of a journey, as it did for those present at Jesus’ birth. The journey often takes us where we’d rather not go, to places where there is chaos, confusion, injustice; where there is need of warmth, compassion, and forgiveness, both in human society and the human heart. It can be a thrilling journey; it can be terrifying. It can be the fulfillment of your heart’s desire; it may also be the realization of your deepest fear. But the summons is real. Those who receive him are asked to follow him.
You know who you are. You alone know the cost of living so that some of the goodness and love God longs to manifest in this world is lived out through you.
I pray that tonight affords you a bit of rest, that you feel God’s gratitude for for all you are and offer. And that, even in the hardest times, you can trust in the goodness of this life, this path of following him. Once you’ve said yes to him, you know there is not other path you’d rather walk.
We need not be perfect to say yes. We will never feel ready, any more than those present at the birth of Jesus felt ready. We will never fully understand the mystery at the heart of our existence. All we need to remember tonight is that God is with us, Jesus is for us; that you and I have been given one miraculous life, one opportunity to live fully, wholeheartedly in this world.
It takes courage to become who you really are. Courage to receive him. Courage to follow where he leads. Travel well, my friends. Carry on. Trust that the light will shine in the darkness and be there to illumine your path.