This Sunday many of us will find ourselves among congregations humming with excitement, singing boldly, lighting candles and listening to the good news of a great joy. Some will have the story down, word for joyful word. For others the story may have flattened over the years, the expectation in it dulled with repetition, the hope of it drained by difficult circumstances. Still others may be unaware that this story is out to change them and find themselves longing for a deeper way to live their one, wild and precious life. As you prepare to encounter this famous message this weekend here is a cast of characters. May God bless our hearing of God’s word.

Prophets – truth tellers of our best longings. They ask us: Do our desires come from a longing for wholeness or from a sense of inadequacy? Do they come from within us or from what others say we should be? Will the things we long for bring healing to others as well as ourselves? Do our longings, hopes, dreams, and desires make our hearts beat more and more like God’s heart?

Elizabeth – Mary’s kinswoman who conceives in her old age against the odds subverting our fear that it is too late to hope or that we missed our chance.

Zechariah – Elizabeth’s husband and temple priest. He does not speak for the nine months of her pregnancy. He is perhaps a mythical figure—a pastor/priest who doesn’t talk? Really?

Joseph – world’s greatest improviser. Joseph decides to say “yes and” – letting go of the life he thought he was going to have in order to live the one that has come to him instead. He says, “Yes” to Mary. “And” he will adopt the baby and give the little guy his name.

Mary – conceives against the odds at young age subverting our fear that it’s too soon to hope or that it is unrealistic to hope for something this good.

Angels – winged messengers who in scripture appear like humans but can have up to six wings. “If you are wondering whether the six-winged angel flies faster than the other varieties, the answer is no—two wings are used for flying, two cover the eyes and two cover the feet. (Isaiah 6:2) (Now, whether a laden or un-laden angel makes better time remains a separate matter)” from Crazy Talk: A Not-So-Stuffy Dictionary of Theological Terms, Rolf Jacobson editor.

Herod – even in the story of good news of a great joy for all people a bad dude like Herod is present to remind us of those who weep because of corruption. Wonderful and terrible things exist side by side in our world.

Shepherds – tough, rough and tumble types, more comfortable out in the woods than in town. After the initial shock of the angel’s invitation to go to Bethlehem to see God in a diaper wears off the head shepherd gets up, tells the angel to “hold my beer” and leads the other shepherds down to town to see this baby God in a feed trough.

Manger – a fancy name for a feed trough. Today in pageants and Nativity scenes everybody notices Mary, Joseph, the Angels, or even the Star. Truth is—what we all get to be is the manger, holding up Christ for others to see.

Jesus – our best hopes, dreams, desires embodied. Jesus is God-With-Us—not the God-Up-there somewhere who answers our prayers by lifting us out of our lives, but the God who comes to us in the midst of them. Love’s pure light. His presence brings life, love and aliveness – to a world that is dying from lack of the same.

See you in church!

The Rev. Mike Woods is lead pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in La Crescent.