Sermon on Pirates in the Nativity and How God Incarnates the Impossible Among the Unlikely

And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her. In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country. (Luke 1)

One of the parishes my husband Matthew served always had a living nativity one day a year during Advent … it was a little manger scene in their parking lot you could drive by that was filled with straw and live animals and people dressed as Mary and Joseph and the other typical nativity characters.  It was usually pretty cold so the shifts only lasted 20 minutes before new folks would step in.  One year I was helping the different folks get dressed when a 7 year old boy came in from his shift and I asked him how he had liked being a shepherd in the nativity scene? “It was ok” he answered “but I think next year I think I wanna to be a pirate”.  You know…the pirate that was at the birth of our lord.

Which of course is absurd…but let’s be honest, a pirate was just about as likely as a Drummer boy.  Anyone who knows me well can tell you how much I hate that Christmas song the Little Drummer Boy.  It’s like, the perfect example of weird things creeping into Nativity scenes.  Like when along with the sheep and goats you occasionally see a pig in a crèche scene as though there were swine at the birth of our Jewish Lord.   or the worst…those insuffereable Nativities that include a pius little santa claus  kneeling at the manger.

Placing drummers and pigs and pirates and Santas in nativity scenes is obviously inappropriate if not just Biblically illiterate, but this week in one of my countless attempts to just get over myself, I had to admit that a drummer is not any less weird than a magi – those pagan Tarot card reading gypsie dudes from St. Matthew’s Gospel.  All that is to say, I wonder if our over-familiarity with the Christmas story gets in the way of us understanding how weird it really was… I mean, if it involves pregnancies by virgins and old ladies from the hill country and soothsaying magi and rank shepherds and fearsome angels and God being born as a refugee in straw and mud then who’s to say a pirate or a drummer is so weird?

In a way, the story of Jesus’ birth is about God redeeming the whole world through making the impossible happen to the unlikely.  Which is important to remember since within the first few hundred years, Christianity had lost it’s original dinginess, it’s origins of marginalized people and out-of-wedlock pregnancies and beloved prostitutes and dinner parties with all the wrong people and loving the enemy which all quickly gave way to respectability and fancy robes and emperors and pageantry.

But if you really look at the story of God coming to us in Jesus, how it involved such people of low-estate and scandalous circumstances it starts to not make a whole lot of sense that today being part of church so often means checking at the door any part of you that may have perfectly fit in at the weird birth of our lord.  The parts of you that smell like they live outside or the parts of your story that seem scandalous like Mary’s pregnancy or kind of disturbing like Elizabeth’s pregnancy. It’s weird how much we’ve sanitized this Christianity thing Because anyone who thinks that respectability and status and being nice is what the Gospel is about never really listened closely to the original cast recording.  Which includes songs sung by pregnant teenagers and pagan magicians and pregnant old women. Songs of pulling tyrants down from their thrones.

See, I think that if we were deciding the respectable and church-y way for God to come among us it would have been for God to appear already powerful as a grown human in raiment and glory in some place really impressive, like Rome.  Or, like, at the White House prayer breakfast.  And at our version of God’s great appearance on earth would be all the important people with titles like emperor and king and Chief Executive Officer and they would dress really fancy with those amazing sash things. And if we were choosing who should to bear the message about God’s coming it wouldn’t be John the Baptist, it would be like, Ted Koppel.  Or someone with a low authoritative voice, a strong jaw, and a neck-tie.  And then God would come to dwell with us surrounded with all the people worthy to be a part of such an impressive event.

But that’s not what we get in the story of Jesus.  Because if God just acted in ways we thought made sense or that were respectable and predictable to us we could all just be our own Gods.  Maybe even take 20 minute shifts at it out in the cold, wishing we could be a pirate instead..

But here’s the thing: God didn’t come to us telling our story.  God came to us telling God’s story and God has always chosen the weirdest and most subversive ways of doing that.

I mention all of this because right about now that sounds like good news, beccause I am tired of our story.  I’m tired of rationality and political posturing and over consumption and a world in which the tyrants seem to still be on those thrones. I’m tired of my own self-righteous notion that I am not one of those same tyrants. I’m tired of shootings and culture wars and genetically modified food.  I’m ready for God to show up with God’s impossible story.  I’m ready for some magic.  To be enchanted again.

But this week I started to wonder if I miss noticing God’s reality of the impossible and the unlikely because instead I’m focusing on the important.

Because I think we often miss that God is incarnating the impossible among the unlikely because we are busy with whatever seems important to us instead.  And I wonder if this is the same way people missed it in first century Palestine.  Perhaps they were so busy at their prayers, that no one noticed God walking among them because God was inside the womb of an insignificant peasant girl rushing to the hills to visit her kinswoman and that’s not the kind of thing you pay attention to when you have important things to do.

But this is how God moves through the world – like how Mary is making haste.  She is quickly walking by us still.  Hastily passing us disguised as our children asking us to play and in the street worn man on the corner whose eyes I am trying to avoid and in the woman who just made my coffee and Mary is walking briskly carrying the Christ within her in more impossible and unlikely ways than we can possibly take in.  This is God’s story. And it is all around us. And the impossibility of it all is exactly what continues to enchant this world of ours in things we think are just ordinary.

We see the impossible all the time, you know,  we just think that if we can come up with a suitable and rational explanation: scientifically, psychologically or sociologically then it’s not really something God is doing.  But that is just the hubris of a modern age.

So I dare to say this as this is the only Christmas sermon I get to preach this year:  you brothers and sisters, you are an unlikely people of the impossible.  We see the impossible work of God all around us.

For starters, take the fact that I, of all people, am a Lutheran pastor

And that having no religious background Kate Cash is part of a church and has now become our parish yoga teacher.

And that Quin born 1# 6oz just celebrated his 3rd birthday

And that another church would open their building and their hearts to us in the way St Thomas has

And, not to put too fine a point on it, but that a black man is the president of the united states.

And that Asher is a student at Luther Seminary

And that Rick has been sober for over a year

And that in this day and age despite every reason not to that people still gather and greet each other in the name of Jesus and pray and sing our hearts to God.

We are so surrounded by miracles from God that we name them as ordinary, ordinary and not worth noticing…kind of like an unwed teenage mother.

If we think this miraculous and unlikely thing of Christ being born into the world simply cannot happen again then think again.  It happens all the time.



The Slaughter of the Innocents of Sandy Hook
“So, are you ready for Christmas?”
Pregnant old ladies and other signs that God’s story is better than the one we tell ourselves
Creating Memories in an Advent Waiting Room
About Nadia Bolz Weber

I am the founding Pastor at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. We are an urban liturgical community with a progressive yet deeply rooted theological imagination. Learn more at

  • Gene Blishen

    Thank you for this message. Do we ever remember what we need to? We just seem to lapse into being pirates. And then there is Christ amongst us and we remember once again.

  • Chris

    Thanks Nadia, your sermons ate works of art.

  • Chris

    Woops “are”. Damn you spiel cheek!

  • Dani

    Thanks for a bright word on a cold, dreary day. Am keeping my eye out for the impossible…

  • Darlene

    Thank you! This was the sermon that fed my soul this season. And since I was a bartender in Greenwich Village when I started seminary (I’m now a pastor in the UMC)…well, I guess I can sure relate to God’s choice of the unlikely! Amen!

  • Jennifer

    I needed to be reminded of this today.
    God’s work is that my mother is finally getting the psychiatric care she has needed for most of my life.
    Thank you.

  • Ken Slater

    Thanks, Nadia. I need to work on seeing the miracles that are in the ordinary things around me. I appreciate the reminder. God bless you.

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  • Matt

    I just wanted to take a minute to address this part of your sermon:

    ” I had to admit that a drummer is not any less weird than a magi – those pagan Tarot card reading gypsie dudes from St. Matthew’s Gospel. ”

    A lot of people don’t know this but gypsy is often used as an epithet for people who are Roma. Also, to associate the magi as “tarot card reading gypsies” reinforces a stereotype that Roma are some sort of exotic, fortune telling people. I know that your intention was not to offend anyone, but I just wanted you to know that it’s especially dangerous to mischaracterize Romani people because they are arguably the most discriminated against group in Europe. I’m writing this because I hear first hand the stereotypes people ascribe to Roma everyday here in Hungary. It breaks my heart. And I think we must be intentional about creating discourses of liberation because like too many struggles for liberation around the world, the Romani liberation movement falls on deaf ears because of the disconnect between our american romanticized view of foreign, in this case, romani culture and the diverse reality of a culture and it’s (and really all of our) collective struggle against racism.

    Other than that I really loved your sermon. But I just wanted to educate and hopefully I didn’t come off as too stand-offish.

  • Angela

    Thank you for once again reminding me I am a forgetful person and need to renew my vision. God is good.

  • Wisdomchaser

    At least we don’t live in Catalon (Spain). There they hide a caganer behind the nativity scene. A caganer is a squatting peasant who is defacating. I have heard two stories as to why they added these to the nativity scenes. The official reason is that manure is useful for soil fertility. The other is that somebody there was having a disagreement with the Catholic Church over the issue of whether Jesus was only divine or whether he was also fully human. If Jesus was not a human but only God he wouldn’t have done what all babies do. To make their point they hid this figurine in the town’s life size nativity scene. Now every year the children make a game of looking for the caganer and caganer making is a huge money maker.

    I am so glad for the incarnation of God and for all that he did for us. But I have to admit that when some get particularly religous I think about hiding a caganer in the nativity scene.

  • Aine

    Considering that Saint Nicholas is said to have run into a burning church to rescue the baby Jesus from its Nativity, I always rather liked the “Santa praying at the manger” figures. I haven’t seen one that implies he was there back in Bethlehem, though!

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  • Bill

    This is wonderful. Thanks for giving it to us.
    And btw I saw Frosty the Snowman in a nativity scene once.

  • Nicholas

    Pastor Bolz-Weber,
    I do not attend church, however I was raised in an ELCA parish. I have been disallusioned with organized religion for quite some time. For some reason, the Creator I am sure led me your House for Saints and Sinners website. I began to read your sermons and the words you write speak to me. I still do not trust orgainized religion. I cannot buy into the virgin birth and the myth around the birth of Jesus. but I do find comfort in the words you write and I do feel the Creator in my life.
    Thank you.

  • Gunfighter