Sermon on Luke 2: 1–20 for Christmas Day, 2016
Luke 2: 1–20
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. 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 family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
The Christmas story begins with Joseph and Mary on the move. They have been dislocated from home because, as Luke tells the story, Rome has ordered them to go register in their native towns. The empire is once again doing what empires do: pushing around the little people without regard for their welfare. Pushing them around so that they can be fleeced even further to finance the marble palaces, the lavish banquets and silk robes of the aristocracy, and of course pay for the army. Empires always need armies, and armies don’t come cheaply.
We have been watching the TV series called “The Crown”. In the last episode, during a time of post-war rationing, Britain’s royal family is eating a lavish dinner. One of them comments that their opulence and extravagance actually provides income for local vendors and therefore helps the economy, so it is the right way to live during a time of scarcity. The callous disregard for the hardship all around them is disgusting. But it is not surprising.
Mary and Joseph are poor people. Joseph was a carpenter. Carpenters, they tell us, were what we would call day-laborers. They were most likely landless peasants. Luke tells us that when they went to the temple to sacrifice after Jesus’ birth, they brought a pair of doves, not a lamb; the offering of the poor.
So Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem, the famous ancestral town of the ancient king David. They look for lodging but there is none available. They end up sheltering in a place that includes animals – Luke is quite minimalist with his description. But he specifies the baby’s first bed: a manger. This manger bed is going to be important in the story.
Without telling us anything more about the birth – was it a long and difficult delivery, being her first child? Did they have any help from anyone? – Luke changes the scene to nearby shepherds.
I have lived in Eastern Europe where there are still shepherds who spend all day long with the sheep. They are at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. They have no education. They have no marketable skills. So they are even worse off than Joseph and Mary. And these shepherds have it worst: they are the night shift.
In this church we often notice, as we read the bible, God’s special concern for the poor. For Luke, to tell the story of Jesus, you have to start with a setting of poverty and the politics of exploitation. Whatever God is going to do in and through Jesus, it begins among the poor.
So what happens that night? An angel appears in the sky, terrifying the shepherds. I learned this story back when we were still using the King James version which says, “and they were sore afraid.” Angels are always pictured in the stories as beings of bright light. They are God’s messengers. Part of the message is simply the glorious light itself: this is a God-thing so of course a bright shining being is part of the cast of characters.
The angel announces:
“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Now, I know we are used to these titles for Jesus, but because we are not living back in the those days, in the Roman empire, we miss their explosive significance. Caesar was called the savior of the world. He had ended the long civil war and debilitating civil unrest of the past two decades and brought peace to the Rome. Caesar, so they said, was descended from the God of light, Apollo by a miraculous birth, and was unquestionably the ruler, the Lord.
So this angel is on treasonous ground, saying that Jesus should wear Caesar’s titles. It seems to imply direct competition for his crown. And to add more fuel to the fire of political provocation, Jesus is also going to wear the title of Messiah – the anointed one. Anointing is what they did to make you a king in Israel.
And to put an exclamation on it, Jesus is born, the angel points out, in the city of David. King David, that is. Not only does Jesus get Caesar’s titles, he is perfectly placed to inherit Israel’s throne.
To make sure that the shepherds get it, that what is happening with Jesus is a God-thing, the single angel is then joined by a multitude of heavenly hosts who sing,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
These marginal people, these shepherds, are going to receive the honor of being the first to witness what God is doing; they are going to see the baby. When they do, they will see a sign. The sign is that the baby is lying in a manger.
The Manger as a Sign
Mangers are feeding troughs. It is where the animals go, hungry, and leave satisfied. It is their source of food and hence, their source of life.
So the baby is not lying in a nice soft bed with his mother beside him – she has no bed. She is poor and she has been uprooted by empirical decree. But in that condition and in that location, God is at work in a new way. From this setting of poverty and oppression will come, not only a new king, proclaiming a new kingdom, but also a new source of life, living bread.
By this story, Luke is setting the stage to expect that Jesus is a sign that God is at work. God has come to people who have plenty of reasons to feel as though they have been abandoned by God. There is an alternative kingdom to Caesar’s. There is an alternative to the politics of callous disregard. It is called the kingdom of God, which is what Jesus proclaimed.
The Alternative Kingdom
That alternative kingdom is present already, Jesus tells us, for those who have eyes to see, ears to hear, and open hearts. God comes to suffering people, and meets them, out in the dark sheep pastures, down in the rough mangers, and offers a new kind of food.
It is no wonder, as Luke will tell us in his second volume, the book of Acts, that the first organized action of the early Christian church was a bread ministry to poor widows. The baby in the manger becomes food for the world, as the Christ spirit is born in his followers.
We live in far different times, but if we have eyes, ears and hearts open, we can see there is still poverty nearby. There is still hunger. There are still people who suffer deprivation all around us. The Christmas message is that God cares about them, just as God cares for us.
The Christmas calling is that those of us who eat the bread of the Lord’s Supper, who partake of the life of the living Christ, the food that comes from the manger, see ourselves as agents of God’s kingdom, on behalf of those who suffer.
The Christmas question is how can the Christ be born in me so that I become part of God’s kingdom, where God’s will is done on earth, as it is in heaven? How can I celebrate the birth of Jesus by living in the kingdom of God, answering to a higher authority than any earthly power, and aligning myself, as God does, on behalf of the marginalized?
The answer to those questions will truly be Joy to the World; a true sign that the Lord is come. “Let every heart, prepare him room.”