"Odd Events and Characters at Christmas"
a sermon based upon Luke 2:1-20
December 17, 2017 – The THIRD Sunday in ADVENT
When I say that there are odd events and characters at Christmas, you might think I’m referring to Jolly Old St. Nicholas and his toy-workshop elves, or the flying reindeer pulling the sleigh, led by the bright red nose of Rudolph. You might even think of a dancing snowman, with a corn-cob pipe and a button nose, and two eyes made out of coal. Yes, those would indeed be odd events and peculiar characters!
But I’m talking about the original Christmas story, the Nativity of Jesus Christ, whose feast day was set for Dec. 25.
The Christmas Story is so very familiar -- told the same way every year since we were children -- that the characters may feel like part of the family. No more odd than some uncle, who tells jokes during Christmas dinner. We may never have really met a shepherd, nor heard an angel, nor been to the Palestinian village of Bethlehem, but their stories are part of our own.
Luke’s Gospel sets the geo-political stage for the Christmas Story: (quote)"In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be enrolled [we would say "registered"]. This was the first enrollment [or "census"] and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered."
I can’t help but think back some 14- or fifteen-years ago, when a similar process went on in post-Saddam’s Iraq… … as Kurds & Sunnis & Shiites, Baghdadis & Fallujians, and all the rest of those 25 million people registered for the first time to vote on a new Iraqi government. Do you remember the purple ink on the fingers? How proud the people were to choose their new government leaders, backed by American military power! -- How quickly we forget how "moving" a moment that was in world history!
The subsequent rise of Islamic State militants combined with the Civil War in Syria burst that hopeful balloon of liberty and self-governance, and devastated entire regions through warfare, forcing several millions of people to become refugees. Dislocated families cannot be productive! Their lives are in jeopardy, living on the street, or in refugee camps... penniless.
Luke’s version of the Christmas Story went on to say: "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 lineage of David. He went to be enrolled with Mary, to whom he was engaged, and who was expecting a child." (Luke 2:1-5)
Luke lets us know in no uncertain terms who has the power and how their society is organized: namely, from the top down! At the top, the Emperor presided over "all the world". The Roman Senate had recently voted to make his predecessor, Julius Caesar, a divinity (a god), which meant that Octavius (Caesar Augustus) was himself a son of a god. So, with that sense of divine mandate, Caesar sets the terms for his under-lings. "A decree went out from Caesar Augustus..."
Below the Emperor were the Regional "governors" – in this case, Quirinius, who ruled the Roman province of Syria.
Now, this is the same Syria as we have on our Middle Eastern maps today, with its same ancient capital "Damascus." Then (as now) the province of Syria was on the front line of the Empire’s eastward expansion into Parthia & Persia -- modern-day Iraq & Iran. Roman soldiers patrolled the Levant, as peace-keepers and as occupation troops. Governor Quirinius was their commander-in-chief, like General Colin Powell and Norman Schwartzkopf were in the First Gulf War or Gen. Tommy Franks later. War was a pending threat on the horizon in Roman Syria!
If there was about to be (as many Jews believed) a violent clash between the heavenly warriors of the soon-coming Messiah (the "Lord of hosts", the army of angels!) and the Roman Legionnaires who occupied Palestine, Quirinius and his troops would be the Messiah’s ultimate adversary. (That mind-set still influences the politics of Israel & Syria today.)
From the Emperor at the top, to the Governor of the region, then on down to the rulers of the five counties that made up the state of Israel in Jesus’ day… In the North they had the Galilee & Trachonitis, in the Middle: Samaria, and to the South: Judea and Perea. Within each of those five "counties" were the "cities." Nazareth was a village in the Galilee, surrounded by farmland. Bethlehem was a village in Judea, surrounded by sheep and goats cared for by shepherds on the hillsides. Neither one was a regional capital (like Sepphoris, Tiberias, or Jerusalem).
By the time we meet Joseph -- Jesus’ father in the Gospels -- we’re pretty far down on the pecking order of political importance.
The first glimpse Luke gives us of this New Testament man named Joseph is when he hit the road... leaving his hometown in the Galilee, to be registered for the census in Judea.
It looks, at first, as if Joseph is responding to Caesar’s decree... getting himself enrolled. Except that the census was intended to show the Romans who the local people were (like a national identity registry), and to show where they lived... and, perhaps, indicate something about what they did (like a green card or a Social Security number or an IRS tax record does for us Americans). The Romans wanted to know who their subject people were, where they lived, and what they did as an occupation… so they could tax them and keep track of them.
But when you think about the fact that Joseph leaves Nazareth in Galilee (& his carpentry trade) to be counted as a Judean instead, in a shepherd village… the census will not accurately reflect who he is, what he does, nor where he lives! In fact, the whole census will be way off if many others do the same displacement as Joseph is doing -- they’ll show up in the count as undocumented, unemployed, giving a false address. If Joseph tried something like that in our country, it’s likely that immigration & customs enforcement officers would detain him.
To make matters worse, Joseph brings Mary along (and she’s pregnant!) which means that her baby will be born in Bethlehem. Jesus will be a Bethlehem "anchor baby," securing the family’s status as Judean, descended from King David. I’ve heard some folks complain that too many pregnant women fly in from China, Korea, & Japan -- or come up from Mexico and Central & South America to have their babies in Texas or California, thus gaining U. S. citizenship for the child. (I wonder what they think about the Virgin Mary doing that very same thing for Jesus?! Giving him a Jewish pedigree at birth…)
The significance of Joseph’s low status in the pecking order of society, and Jesus’ humble birth -- born in a barn, you know (which is a precursor to Jesus’ whole life spent without a home address, always near the poverty level) -- stands in stark contrast to the images people like to hold of "divinity". You know what I mean: God as royalty (the "king of kings"); God Almighty, All-powerful (the "lord of lords"); God the Patriarch, God the Omnipotent. Those kinds of words that people like to use for God actually relate better to Caesar & the Senate -- and to Governor Quirinius & his military -- than they do to Jesus Christ as we know him in the Gospels!
If there is one thing we can try to do in the coming New Year, it may be to correct the toxic theology that equates divinity to power -- whether in messianic imagination or in military terms; whether it’s hierarchical power, patriarchal power, political, or economic -- the Gospel Jesus rejects it all!
If a new day is coming (which is what the word "Advent" means) -- a new social order, a New Creation in the making -- it is only through the persuasion of love (says the Christian Gospel), not through force of arms, not divine decrees… not systematic organization & regulation of society, not census-taking, nor tightened citizenship criteria -- that God makes that fresh approach, that new way in the wilderness. It is through the persuasive experience of being loved that the light finally dawns. ("Dance in the dawn…" our choir sang this morning.)
I appreciate what the Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 2:
"Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, he did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped; instead, he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness. And then, when found in human form, he humbled
himself even more..." (Philippians 2: 5-8)
I think that we should take this occasion of Advent to ask ourselves: Does my image of God’s deliverer (the Messiah) look more like someone within Caesar’s system of political power, economic oligarchy, police powers, military threat, and government coercion? or like the Jesus we first meet in the Christmas story – poor, vulnerable, somewhat foreign, almost like a refugee…
I am concerned that so much of American civic religion is hierarchical, patriarchal, politically partisan, somewhat militant & certainly market-oriented. The fact that the Christmas story itself (at its Gospel core) rejects all that does not seem to make a dent in the consumerism of the Christmas season!
The four weeks of Advent preceding Christmas is intended to "Prepare the Way" for the Coming Christ. Most of us do it with a frenzy of Christmas shopping, writing greeting cards & personalized emails, going to Holiday Concerts (like today’s Besser Male Chorus at 1, or to the High School’s "Nutcracker" at 2, or to "A Charlie Brown Christmas" at the Alpena Civic Theater) and by hosting Christmas parties. That’s all well and good for the fun of it, but I’m not sure how that gets us prepared for a new encounter with Jesus -- the Living Christ/the Savior/the Deliverer -- or kindles a renewed commitment to live his "Way"
Let me remind you of the "wise-men" -- Magi from the East (those odd characters, whom we spoke about last Sunday) -- who were busily making their way to Judea, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh… They were not sure where the child was to be born, but they followed the best lights they had. Their trek from a foreign land to pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews was certainly an odd and unexpected event! It’s almost as if the locals were not paying attention to the signs.
When I speak of odd events, I think also of the shepherds on Judean hillsides. Not the peaceful pastoral Christmas card scene, lit by the stars and listening to angel voices, but the working through the nightshift shepherds, listening for wild animals, keeping an eye on a sick lamb or birthing ewe, staying awake to catch signs of trouble that one cannot see coming in the dark. The shepherds in Luke’s Gospel are hard working women and men, keeping watch over their flocks all through the night… 24-hours on the job… very low on the social scale.
You know what I mean. We all have our jobs, and our families, and our possessions to watch over and to care for. Like the shepherds in the story, we, too, live among God’s on-going wonders and hear tell of new things in the making, but we don’t always respond to them. We don’t "jump to", do we? After all, we feel like we’re working the night shift as it is. We’ve got things on our agenda. Our plate is already full.
We celebrate the shepherds who left the hills of Beit Sahour and went into Bethlehem in search of the child in a manger. But I suspect there were plenty of other shepherds, who stayed with their flocks. It was their job, after all, and they were busy doing it. Those animals were their responsibility. I mean, who has time to go follow some angelic vision when there’s work to do?
"Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o’er the plain… Come to Bethlehem and see, him whose birth the angels sing…" Angels always signal an odd event, and an unbelievable message from God. Talk about odd characters! The heavenly host appear as expected, but they’re not warriors; they’re a choir!
It strikes me that, even in Bethlehem, there were people who were indifferent to the Good News... inattentive to the wonders of that first Christmas night.
Which brings us back to the crowded streets outside Bethlehem’s bustling Holiday Inn Express… where (Luke tells us) there was no place prepared to receive the Holy Family. Apparently, everyone was doing what Joseph was doing… settling in Bethlehem long enough to get themselves registered in the Roman census. The streets were crowded; housing was in short supply.
So, I think of another odd character: the innkeeper -- the busy, prosperous innkeeper, who provided no room for Mary & Joseph and their baby about to be born. (Now, I’m not sure that Mary & Joseph could have afforded a room that night, but at least the innkeeper could have offered!)
The innkeeper was apparently unprepared for the fact that Bethlehem would be the birthplace of the Messiah, indifferent to Mary’s pregnancy, now in its last day before her water broke; and unaware of the glory which was coming to his little town. Imagine the claim to fame he could have had! His bed & breakfast Inn (not just some old manger square in Bethlehem) would be a tourist destination forever, if only he’d made room for them!
But he didn’t. There was no room. Like the shepherds keeping night watch over their flocks, he was busy. A crowded inn meant a lot of work to do. But it also meant unusual profits for the innkeeper. "Piling it high... saving up for a rainy day."
I imagine his cash bags were full that night, but his soul may have been empty... indifferent, unaware.
To live a "rich" life is not measured by one’s income, check-book balance, stock portfolio, or credit rating. The really wealthy (I believe) are those who "lay their treasure up where the hands of time cannot decay." People who fill their minds with truth & their souls with goodness; people who are attentive to beauty.
The richest people on earth that first Christmas night were not the prosperous innkeeper, who was busy in the inn, nor the census takers, nor the guests. Nor the shepherds, diligently doing their nightwatch jobs out on the hills of Judea. No...
The richest people were those who heard the angels & responded; who saw the star & followed. The richest people would include the poor carpenter Joseph, and his peasant spouse Mary, who welcomed the Christ child into the world, even though they had no place to rest their head... and he was born in a barn. That’s the way Luke tells the Christmas story.
So, it seems to me that the question each of us should be asking is not about what gifts we’ll be giving (or getting) at Christmas, so much as: "What changes should I be making in my life so that the Jesus of the Gospel (not just the baby in the manger) will find a place prepared?" We don’t want to be as unaware, indifferent, and unprepared as the people were in Jesus’ day!
So, ask yourself, as you make your New Year’s resolutions: What changes should we pursue so that the move-ment Jesus founded 2,000 years ago in God’s name will actually touch the hearts and minds of people around us for the good of society? Because that’s why Jesus came!
In a world in which power still seems to collect at the top, funneling down through a whole hierarchy of insider henchmen and special interest groups, until it trickles down to the lowly commoner at the bottom of the hierarchy... where can we look for deliverance?
I think it’s to be found hidden among the odd events of the Jesus Gospel. 10
In the middle of all those odd characters in the Christmas Story – refugee Joseph, pregnant Mary, wise travelers from the East, night-watch shepherds, and a host of heavenly messengers "dancing in the dawn" of a brand-new day – the coming of Christ/Messiah would be the most amazing one yet!
Yes, we know what’s coming next week, the 4th Sunday of Advent: Jesus arrives! We will tell that story and sing that Good News again on Christmas Eve, surrounded by candlelight and poinsettias – but, frankly, it’s not enough to only "think back" to that birth in Bethlehem. We need to claim its promise in our own lives! We still need that fresh approach by God (cutting a way though our wilderness, preparing a highway of "unfolding possibilities" right here in Alpena) lest "Caesar’s Empire" wins in the end.
Let there be Peace on earth, and let it begin here! Amen