"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