Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 2019. Audio will be available here for several weeks.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 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. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 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.
2:8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 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: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
Does God even care about what is going on in the world? You watch the news, and that seems like a fair question. A person could give a glib pious answer: “Of course God cares.” But a thoughtful person might want to ask how you could tell? Everyone here could instantly come up with a list of horrors going on right now if they wanted to.
What would it look like if God showed up? Who would God care about? How would God deal with this world and its people? The way the gospels tell the story of Jesus, they are telling a story of God showing up in the world. So, let us look at Luke’s version of the Christmas story that way: as a story of how God would show up in the world. Then we will return to our original question.
Luke begins with a story of forced dislocation. Mary and Joseph are uprooted from their home in Nazareth, at the order of a foreign power that dominates their nation and their lives. They are dislocated for the sole purpose of paying a tax. The tax will not fund roads, schools, or health care systems. It will instead pay for palaces, banquets, swords, and shields. So this is a story of an oppressed people at the mercy of an Empire. The main characters are powerless peasants.
The main characters, Joseph and Mary are betrothed. The families have agreed, the contract is binding, they will soon be married. Mary is pregnant. Far from home, they seek shelter, but find nothing but a stable. They are literally homeless people at this moment.
In the Roman Empire, they announced the birth of an heir to the throne with publicity and fanfare. They had a special word for such announcements: they called it “good news.” That is the same word that gets translated “gospel” in older English. The baby born to Mary gets a birth announcement too, which is also called “good news.” But the announcement is not made from the palace and it is not announced to the governing elite. The announcement is made to shepherds, the lowest rung on the employment ladder.
Nevertheless, the announcement is made by a divine messenger, an angel; a gloriously shining creature, a bright light in a dark sky. That message outshines the gospel announcement of an heir to the Roman throne. He says,
“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.”
Early Christians loved the stories of Jesus. Before they wrote them down, the handed on, by word of mouth, the stories of how he lived with great compassion for the poor people he spent his short adult life within Galilee.
They remembered him having dinners that were open to all of them without any judgment. They recounted stories of him welcoming into his company everyone he encountered, without prejudice or discrimination.
They told stories of when Jesus taught them about turning the other cheek and going the second mile for each other. They remembered how Jesus taught them about how God was too. That if they got off track, God would seek them out like a shepherd looks for lost sheep. They felt the presence of God so strongly in Jesus, they were drawn to him. They found his presence healing to them.
So, if God was at work powerfully in Jesus, then that meant that God was concerned about them; little people, poor people, peasant people. So when they told the stories of Jesus’ birth, of course, the cast of characters had to be poor peasants.
But the story also had to have angels — lots of them in Luke’s version — to make sure that the story was a God story. If God ever showed up, the kind of God Jesus loved, prayed to, and taught about, would show up among peasants in a stable. His first community would be common shepherds. But make no mistake about it, he was going to grow up to be someone they were happy to call Messiah, Savior, even Lord.
It is odd to say those things about Jesus; a man who lived such a short life, never had any power, never wrote anything, never became famous outside his small region, and whom the Romans ingloriously executed. But that is because execution was not the end for Jesus. His community continued to keep his memory alive by telling his story. “Remember” they would tell each other, “never forget.” They had been transformed by his message of forgiveness. They had been healed by the way he taught them to be set free from the tyranny of their own ego demands.
They formed inclusive communities of sharing across all kinds of barriers that used to seem so important. They had been saved from a small life of self-concern for a large life of compassion for the world. That was good news indeed, and the grounds for peace on earth.
But look around at the world; is that a true story? Is it believable? For me, it is profoundly believable. The way God shows up in the world, is not with coercive force, stamping out evil, giving the villains their due. Rather God shows up in people who, in spite of the way of the world, respond to the lure to goodness. God shows up in people who live compassionately on behalf of others. God shows up among the poor, the dislocated immigrants, and the homeless, as opportunities for showing love and seeking justice.
God showed up in Jesus. Now, let it be, that God shows up in me and in you, and in all of us. If God does, maybe someday there will be peace on earth, and goodwill among us all.