Nativity 2023

Welcome to First United’s drive thru nativity! We’re so glad you came to share in the Christmas story in this unique way, and we hope this experience will bring hopeful meaning to your holiday season.

You are about to experience five scenes featuring moments from the biblical stories surrounding the birth of Jesus. Yes, you heard that right, these scenes are from the stories plural speaking of Jesus’s birth found in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke, who both draw on even older stories told generations before them. Often, we have a tendency of simply combining these stories taking a piece from Luke here and a piece from Matthew there to create one consolidated story; hence the nativity scene you are driving through today! But, these are two distinct stories told by and for early Christian communities who were seeking to speak to whom they had experienced Jesus to be during his life and ministry and to show forth the character of the divine they encountered through the words and actions of this remarkable first-century figure. It is with this understanding that we invite you to encounter these ancient stories once again in our present time and place.

We will provide a scripture reference, a brief exploration of the biblical story with a bonus offering prepared especially for the young and young at heart, and a familiar carol for each scene. We invite you to drive through as many times as you like during the season as you listen for and open yourself to the messages these stories may hold for you this year.

Merry Christmas from First United Church! 

Welcome & Introduction

by By: Rev. Jessica Petersen-Mutai

The First Noel the Angel Did Say – Old English Carol 🎵

The first Noel the angel did say Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay; In fields where they lay keeping their sheep,  On a cold winter’s night that was so deep. Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel, Born is the King of Israel.

They lookèd up and saw a star Shining in the east, beyond them far; And to the earth it gave great light, And so it continued both day and night. Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel, Born is the King of Israel.

And by the light of that same star Three Wise Men came from country far; To seek for a King was their intent, And to follow the star wherever it went. Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,Born is the King of Israel.

This star drew nigh to the northwest, Over Bethlehem it took its rest; And there it did both stop and stay, Right over the place where Jesus lay. Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel, Born is the King of Israel.

Then did they know assuredly Within that house the King did lie; One entered it them for to see, And found the Babe in poverty. Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel, Born is the King of Israel.

Then entered in those Wise Men three, Full reverently upon the knee, And offered there, in His presence, Their gold and myrrh and frankincense. Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel, Born is the King of Israel.

Between an ox stall and an ass, This Child truly there He was; For want of clothing they did Him lay All in a manger, among the hay. Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,Born is the King of Israel.

Then let us all with one accord Sing praises to our heavenly Lord; That hath made Heaven and earth of naught, And with His blood mankind hath bought. Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel, Born is the King of Israel.

If we in our time shall do well, We shall be free from death and hell; For God hath prepared for us all A resting place in general. Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel, Born is the King of Israel.

The First Noel the Angel Did Say

by Old English Carol

An Angel's Appearance to the Shepherds

by Adult Scene 1

A beloved part of the Christmas story that appears in the Gospel of Luke is the sudden arrival of a messenger of God, an angel, who announces “good news of great joy for all the people” to a group of shepherds. The angel appears first to these shepherds, who in Jesus’s time were despised, considered unclean, deceptive, and unable to get respectable work, and proclaims, “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” This announcement to these individuals invites us to imagine how it is indeed good news for all people and how it will bring all people great joy that a savior is born to these ones who were cast aside and despised within their society. 

Such an announcement urges us to ask, “To whom would this glorious birth be announced today?” To wonder “In our modern times who are the Shepherds — those cast aside and despised?” And to reflect on “what would it mean if – like in Luke – these people were the first to hear of the birth of the chosen one of God, the one we Christians call ‘Christ’?”

An Angel's Appearance to the Shepherds

by Child Scene 1

This is a special welcome for our youngest visitors.  Hello!  We’re very glad that you’re here!  How was that for a warm, welcoming greeting?  

In the time when Jesus was born there were people who would almost never be greeted kindly like that.  Some of these people worked as shepherds, which meant they had to stay outside all day and all night watching after flocks of sheep.  It didn’t matter if it was cold or raining or windy, the shepherds stayed outside making sure their sheep were safe.  

A lot of people back then thought doing this kind of work meant that shepherds weren’t as important as everyone else.  But they would be surprised to hear what Luke says happened in his story about Jesus being born. Luke, the name we give to the person who wrote the Gospel of Luke, said an angel, which is simply a word for “messenger,” came to let people know that a baby who would grow up to change the world was about to be born. And, who do you think he said that angel talked to? Rulers? Upstanding religious people? No! Luke says it was the shepherds!  The messenger brought this important message to people others thought weren’t important.  

This story seems to teach us that God thinks everyone is important, even and maybe especially those we think and treat like they don’t matter.  Who are the most important people to you?

📖  Luke 2:8-20 (Inclusive Version)

There were shepherds in the area living in the fields and keeping night watch by turns over their flock. The angel of God appeared to them, and the glory of God shone around them; they were very much afraid.

The angel said to them, “You have nothing to fear! I come to proclaim good news to you—news of great joy to be shared by the whole people. Today in David’s city, a savior—the Messiah—has been born to you. Let this be a sign to you: you’ll find an infant wrapped in a simple cloth, lying in a manger.”

Suddenly, there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in high heaven! And on earth, peace to those on whom God’s favor rests.”

When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go straight to Bethlehem and see this event that God has made known to us.” They hurried and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger.

📖  Luke 2:8-20 (Kids’ version of scripture)

It was a quiet, star filled night. Shepherds watched their lambs and sheep sleeping in the fields. Suddenly an angel appeared. The shepherds were startled! (Have you ever been startled?)

The angel said to them: “Fear not! I bring good news! Baby Jesus has been born in Bethlehem. You will find him sleeping in a manger.”

More angels appeared saying: “Glory to God in the highest!”     

The shepherds, full of joy – and probably a little nervousness – hurried down to Bethlehem to find the baby and to tell others the news. 

We Three Kings of Orient Are – John H. Hopkin 🎵

We three kings of Orient are; Bearing gifts we traverse afar, Field and fountain, moor and mountain,Following yonder star. O star of wonder, star of light, Star with royal beauty bright, Westward leading, still proceeding, Guide us to thy perfect light.

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain Gold I bring to crown Him again, King forever, ceasing never, Over us all to reign.

O star of wonder, star of light, Star with royal beauty bright, Westward leading, still proceeding, Guide us to thy perfect light. Frankincense to offer have I; Incense owns a Deity nigh; Prayer and praising, voices raising,Worshipping God on high.

O star of wonder, star of light, Star with royal beauty bright, Westward leading, still proceeding, Guide us to thy perfect light.

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume Breathes a life of gathering gloom; Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, Sealed in the stone cold tomb.

O star of wonder, star of light, Star with royal beauty bright, Westward leading, still proceeding, Guide us to thy perfect light.

Glorious now behold Him arise; King and God and sacrifice; Alleluia, Alleluia, Sounds through the earth and skies.

O star of wonder, star of light, Star with royal beauty bright, Westward leading, still proceeding, Guide us to thy perfect light.

No local shepherds appear in Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus. Matthew writes of “wise ones from the east,” also known as magi or astrologers, as the first to visit this holy one of God. Beckoned and guided by a light that announces the birth of a new ruler, they make the long and perilous journey to pay him homage. These foreign visitors offer the newborn gold—a gift fit for a royal ruler; frankincense—an offering made to a deity; and myrrh—a gift that foreshadows Jesus’s death even within a story about his life just beginning.

What might it mean to say that these foreign ones were among the first to behold the child who would come to be called “Emmanuel,” “God-with-us”? How might we be inspired by their bravery to venture out on an unknown journey and to protect ones who are vulnerable from those who would do them harm? How might we be challenged by their generosity shared with this humble family, living in a temporary shelter?

In another story about Jesus’s earliest years, the writer of the Gospel of Matthew introduces us to another group of people who came to see Jesus when he was a baby. These people were known as “the magi.”  Magi were wise people who knew a lot about a lot of different things, including how to find their way to far-away places by looking at the stars in the night sky.  According to our story, when they found out that Jesus was about to be born, they brought very expensive gifts made of gold and things that smelled really good to give to Jesus and his family. These may seem like weird things to give a baby. What is a baby going to do with gold and incense? Well, you might think the gold could be used to buy lots of diapers and the incense could help with the smell that often comes with what fills up those diapers. But, actually, these gifts were symbols: they said something about who people experienced Jesus to be. Gold for a royal ruler, frankincense (one of the good smelling things) for his connection to God, and myrrh (the other good smelling thing) for his death.

Do you like giving gifts to other people? How do you decide what to give them? What do the gifts you choose to give someone say about who that person is to you?

📖 Matthew 2:1-12 (Inclusive Version)

After Jesus’s birth—which happened in Bethlehem of Judea, during the reign of Herod—astrologers from the East arrived in Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the newborn ruler of the Jews? We observed his star at its rising and have come to pay homage.” At this news Herod became greatly disturbed, as did all of Jerusalem. Summoning all the chief priests and religious scholars of the people, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.

“In Bethlehem of Judea,” they informed him. “Here is what the prophet has written: And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah since from you will come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

Herod called the astrologers aside and found out from them the exact time of the star’s appearance. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, after having instructed them, “Go and get detailed information about the child. When you have found him, report back to me—so that I may go and offer homage, too.”

After their audience with the ruler, they set out. The star which they had observed at its rising went ahead of them until it came to a standstill over the place where the child lay. They were overjoyed at seeing the star and, upon entering the house, found the child with Mary, his mother. They prostrated themselves and paid homage. Then they opened their coffers and presented the child with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

They were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they went back to their own country by another route.

📖 Matthew 2:1-12 (Kids’ version of scripture)

When Baby Jesus was born, a bright new star appeared in the sky. Wise people who studied lots of subjects – including the night sky – saw the star from their home country far away. The wise ones knew this must be an important sign, so they loaded their camels and followed the star. 

Along the way they met a king – King Herod – who told them to continue to Bethlehem, find the child, and send directions so that he could also visit the baby. (But King Herod was not happy that the baby had been born. King Herod wanted to keep the baby from becoming a king like him.)  

The wise people found Mary, Joseph, and Jesus and left gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. That night, the wise ones were warned in a dream that King Herod was trying to trick them. They decided not to send directions to King Herod, and instead returned home using a different road.

O little town of Bethlehem – Phillips Brooks 🎵

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light; The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above, While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love. O morning stars together, proclaim the holy birth, And praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth!

How silently, how silently, the wondrous Gift is giv’n; So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His Heav’n. No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin, Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.

Where children pure and happy pray to the blessèd Child, Where misery cries out to Thee, Son of the mother mild; Where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door,The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!

Hear again these words from the prophet Isaiah, “The people walking in darkness are seeing a brilliant light—upon those who dwell in a land of deep shadows, light is shining!” This light reaches to the far ends of the earth; the star is so bright that its light can be seen by all the world. It shines justice where exploitation/injustice/oppression/self-interest seem the only way; it shines peace/well-being/shalom where death and suffering seem inevitable. In the light of God, those who are poor are treated with fairness, and those who are downtrodden are strengthened and their rights upheld. In the glow of this light, deception withers away and tyranny is put to an end.

As we behold the brilliant light of God’s guiding star, perhaps we are invited to ponder: How are we reflecting this light in our daily lives? How are we shining God’s light of truth, compassion, and justice so that all might follow in the way that leads to peace and well-being for all?

So, how did those magi know where to go to meet Jesus?  Well, Matthew’s story talks about a bright star that led them to the right place. Our story says this star was so bright that no matter how dark the night was, these travelers could see it and know it was leading them in the right direction.

While Matthew could have gotten the idea for this guiding star just by looking up at the sky, lots of people who have studied the Bible are pretty sure he looked at the stories that were passed down to him by his ancestors. He wanted to connect Jesus’s life to these stories, because he felt the same sort of hope through Jesus as he did through the ancient prophets, who tried to help people live out of God’s love.

There are many ways God helps us to find our way in life. Sometimes when we’re scared or unsure of what to do, it can really help to have something or someone to help us know the best way to go. What helps you to find your way and make tough decisions? Are there people in your life you can talk to when you need that kind of direction?  

📖 Isaiah 9:2 (Inclusive Version)

The people walking in darkness are seeing a brilliant light—upon those who dwell in a land of deep shadows light is shining!

📖 Isaiah 9:6-7 (Inclusive Version)

For a child is born to us, an heir is given us, upon whose shoulders dominion will rest. This One shall be called Wonderful Counselor, the Strength of God, Eternal Protector, Champion of Peace. This dominion and this peace will grow without end, with David’s throne and realm sustained with justice and fairness, now and forever. The zeal of God, the Almighty, will accomplish it.

📖 Isaiah 11:1-5 (Inclusive Version)

Then a shoot will sprout from the stump of Jesse; from Jesse’s roots, a branch will blossom. The Spirit of God will rest on you, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and strength, a spirit of knowledge and reverence for God. You will delight in obeying God, and you won’t judge by appearances or make decisions by hearsay. You will treat poor people with fairness and will uphold the rights of the land’s downtrodden. With a single word you will strike down tyrants; with your decrees you will execute evil people.

📖 Isaiah 9:2, 9:6-7, 11:1-5 (Kids’ version of scripture)

People walking in darkness have seen a bright light. People living in darkness have a light shining on them. For a child will be born and sent to live on Earth. This one will be responsible for governing the people and will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Parent, Champion of Peace. 

The leadership and the peace created will not end. This child will grow to reign on David’s throne and over this realm forever, upholding it with justice and righteousness. 

This new leader will have the spirit of wisdom and understanding, spirit of counsel and might, and spirit of knowledge and respect for God.  This leader will not judge with just what their eyes see and ears hear but with extra goodness and respect toward the poor and needy. 

The great energy and love of God will make this happen.

Away in a manger – John T. McFarland 🎵

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, The little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head. The stars in the sky looked down where He lay, The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.

The cattle are lowing, the Baby awakes, But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes; I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.

 Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay Close by me forever, and love me, I pray; Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care, And fit us for Heaven to live with Thee there.

It may seem odd to proclaim that the God who led the Hebrew people out of Egypt; who sustained them under the oppression of the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Persians; would be revealed to us and our ancestors in the Christian faith in the frail/vulnerable form of an infant. Yet these are the stories that have been passed on from generation to generation. And so, we ask, “who do we experience God to be as we behold the Christ child?” and “how then are we to live?”

As we encounter the divine in a baby lying in a manger, are we inspired to offer our unconditional love, caring even when we are tired or irritated or in pain? Are we called to dedicate to this one our entire lives that a long-held dream might come to fruition—the dream of a world where peace, joy, and love abound? Are we challenged to receive the unbounded, unconditional love of God, who loves us no matter how much money we make, whether or not we are employed, or if or where we went to school; no matter what language we speak, what our immigration status is, or what nation we are from; no matter what faith we hold, what color of skin we have, or whom we love? What does it say about God when we say we see the image of the divine in the face of an infant? What kind of God is revealed to you as you meet the Christ child?

Now, let’s jump back over to Luke’s story. It’s kind of cool that we get two stories about Jesus’s birthday, but it can also be confusing. And, sometimes we might even be tempted to mash them both together into one (kind of like the nativity scene that you’re driving through does). But, both of our writers are trying to do their best not to tell us “what really happened” when Jesus was born but to help explain who Jesus was to them and how they got to know God better because they met Jesus. And, I for one, think that’s pretty cool.

So back to Luke’s story, according to him, when Jesus was born, his family couldn’t find any house to stay in, and so they stayed in someone’s barn.  And, as you might have guessed, there wasn’t a bed in that barn for the baby Jesus to sleep in, so he had to lay in a manger. This is not like a crib or a bassinet that you may have slept in when you were a baby. A manger is a raised box where farm animals can eat their feed; it’s a feeding trough. 

What a surprising story Luke is telling here! We might think that God could have chosen anyone to show the rest of us how to live a good life; like some great leader, or someone famous, or someone everyone listened to. But according to Luke’s story, God’s love is shown most clearly through a little baby lying in an animal feeding trough. God’s love often shows up in ways we don’t expect, and even the youngest people can know and show God’s love!

📖 Luke 2:1-7 (Inclusive Version)

In those days, Caesar Augustus published a decree ordering a census of the whole Roman world. This first census took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All the people were instructed to go back to the towns of their birth to register. And so, Joseph went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to “the city of David”—Bethlehem in Judea, because Joseph was of the house and lineage of David; he went to register with Mary, his espoused wife, who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for her delivery. She gave birth to her firstborn, a son; she put him in a simple cloth wrapped like a receiving blanket, and laid him in a feeding trough for cattle, because there was no room for them in the inn.

📖 Luke 2:1-7 (Kids’ version of scripture)

When it was time for Mary’s baby to be born, it was also time for Mary and Joseph to make a trip to Bethlehem – their hometown. They packed their things and started down the road. 

When they arrived at Bethlehem the city was full of people, and Mary and Joseph struggled to find a hotel room to sleep in. An innkeeper suggested they could use the stable, but that would mean sleeping with farm animals. 

That night, surrounded by sleeping animals, the baby was born. Mary named him Jesus, wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in the manger.

Silent Night, Holy Night – Josef Mohr 🎵

Silent night, holy night, All is calm, all is bright Round yon virgin mother and Child.

Holy Infant, so tender and mild, Sleep in heavenly peace, Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night, holy night, Shepherds quake at the sight; Glories stream from heaven afar, Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!

Christ the Savior is born, Christ the Savior is born! Silent night, holy night, Son of God, love’s pure light; Radiant beams from Thy holy face With the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth, Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.

Silent night, holy night Wondrous star, lend thy light; With the angels let us sing, Alleluia to our King; Christ the Savior is born, Christ the Savior is born!

God Protects the Refugee Christ Child

by Adult Scene 5

According to Matthew’s story, having been visited by the magi, those wise ones who traveled from afar, Mary, Joseph, and their young son Jesus quickly leave on a journey of their own. However, this journey is not one fueled by the hope and promise of a glorious encounter at its end. Rather, the family flees to a foreign land simply for their survival. They are forced to leave the only home they have ever known because a power-hungry and paranoid tyrant, who wields both military and economic might, feels threatened by the birth of this baby. And so, Jesus and his parents became refugees. 

While this occurrence may sound familiar to us given the current state of our world and the overwhelming number of people who have been forced to flee their homelands; in Matthew’s time and place, it harkens back to an earlier story of another wicked ruler trying to stamp out God’s promised deliverer, a story with which the writer of the Gospel of Matthew would have surely been familiar. Recall Pharaoh and how he demanded all Hebrew baby boys be drowned? Remember Moses and how as a baby he narrowly escaped such a fate?

And, so Matthew forces this little family to Egypt as they flee a different, but all too similar wicked ruler. In so doing, he also sets Jesus and his family up to emerge from Egypt when the threat is no longer present as a sort of second Exodus, quite intentionally calling to mind this formative event of their Jewish predecessors that showed forth clearly and distinctly God’s liberative nature.

This birth too, Matthew seems to be proclaiming, is a birth that promises liberation and justice for the poor and oppressed. Indeed, the same God we experienced working with and through our ancestors as they were freed from the tyranny and exploitation of Pharaoh is the same God who was at work with and through Jesus to bring freedom and deliverance to us yet again.

Where do you witness the liberative nature of God in action? How are you being invited, inspired, and empowered to follow in the way of Moses and Jesus and so many others who have gone before us to join in that liberating, life-affirming work?

God Protects the Refugee Christ Child

by Child Scene 5

And, now we are back to Matthew’s story. As his story continues, he writes that when Jesus was still a baby, his family found out that the person who ruled over their area had heard that a special baby had been born, and the ruler, named Herod, wanted to hurt their family.  Now you may be wondering, “Why would this ruler want to hurt them?” It’s because he was worried that the baby would grow up to change things and that he would lose his power.  So, Mary, Joseph, and little Jesus had to leave their home and go to a completely new country. They left behind everything they knew and owned to flee (that means run quickly).

Did you know there are people in our world today that have to leave their homes to find a new safe place to live? Did you know there are people who are not able to go to their homes or to see their families because it would not be safe? And, did you know that there are lots of people here in Bloomington who are working together to welcome people who had to leave their homes because it wasn’t safe and helping them to build their lives here? First United is a part of this welcoming effort.

So, while this part of Matthew’s story is a little scary, it also shows how God is with us even when life is hard. And, I think it also encourages us to work together to make our world a place where everyone can live in safety and experience peace.

📖 Matthew 2:13-15 (Inclusive Version)

After the astrologers had left, the angel of God suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph with the command, “Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you otherwise. Herod is searching for the child to destroy him.” Joseph got up, awakened Jesus and Mary, and they left that night for Egypt. They stayed there until the death of Herod, to fulfill what God had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I have called my Own.”

📖 John 3:16 (Inclusive Version)

Yes, God so loved the world as to give an Only Begotten One, that whoever believes may not die, but have eternal life.

📖 Matthew 2:13-15 (Kids’ version of scripture)

After the magi left, Joseph was warned by an angel in a dream that King Herod was angry about the new baby and had plans to hurt him. The angel told Joseph to get up and take the child and his mother, Mary, to Egypt until it was safe.

Joseph got up and took them to Egypt. They stayed in Egypt until King Herod died, and it was safe for them to return.

📖 John 3:16 (Kids’ version of scripture)

For God so loved the world that God gave a one and only child, that whoever trusts in that child shall not die but have eternal life.

We, your friends and neighbors of First United Church, hope you found meaning in this drive-thru nativity!

We invite you to join us for our hybrid Christmas Eve Service at 6:30pm on December 24 and for a Cozy Christmas service on December 25 at 10:30am. Details to access the service online are available at

Best wishes to you and yours for a safe and Merry Christmas!

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