Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Sermon for Christmas Eve

Luke 2:11 December 24th 2007
Kingdoms Collide when a Child is Born.

I don’t know if any of you have ever had the experience of trying to point a dog in the right direction. It’s rather frustrating. You point with your finger and you say to the dog, ‘Go over there’. Where does the dog look? Does he look at the direction you’re pointing in? No – he looks at your finger! It gets a bit frustrating after a while; the dog is giving all his attention to a sign, rather than to what the sign is pointing toward.

I sometimes wonder if Luke, the author of our gospel reading for tonight, ever feels that sense of frustration, if and when he ever takes a peek at what we’ve done with his gospel. You see, he’s put a sign in our reading for tonight, and just to make sure that we get it, he repeats it three times. In verse 7 he says, ‘And (Mary) 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’. Then in verse 12 the angel says to the shepherds, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger”. So the shepherds go to Bethlehem to look for this sign; in verse 16 we read, ‘So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger’. Three times Luke mentions that the child Jesus was lying in a manger, an animals’ feeding trough – a rather strange place to put a newborn baby.

Legend has had a field day with that manger; like the dog looking at your finger when you try to point him in the right direction, we just don’t seem to be able to get over our fascination with the sign. St. Francis of Assisi is credited as the first person to actually bring a manger scene into a church, and since then we’ve added all sorts of other people to the cast, people Luke doesn’t mention at all. The ox and ass and camel adore Jesus in Christmas carols, but Luke and the other gospel writers never mention them, nor do they say that the shepherds brought their own animals with them, although most crib scenes have a shepherd with a lamb under his arm.

We’ve also added a stable, and a cranky innkeeper who won’t let the obviously pregnant-and-maybe-already-in-labour Mary into his inn. But in fact, the inn may be a mistranslation! Bible scholars have known this for a long time, despite the traditional translation ‘because there was no room for them in the inn’; the latest version of the New Testament, the TNIV, translates that phrase as ‘because there was no guest room available for them’. What’s the natural meaning of that phrase? Well, Joseph’s family was from Bethlehem, so it seems natural that he would plan to stay with relatives when he got there. Unfortunately, other relatives who had come to Bethlehem for the census had the same plan, and so the only room available for Mary and Joseph was the ground floor room that was normally used to bring in the animals at night – hence the presence of the feeding trough. This also explains why, according to Matthew’s gospel, when the wise men came later on, they found the holy family in a house.

So we need to set aside all the traditional details and look at what Luke actually says in his story, and when we do, the manger stands out in bold print and eighteen-point type! Why is the manger important? It’s important because it was the sign given to the shepherds to tell them which baby was the right one. Down there in Bethlehem that night there were probably a few newborn babies, but one of them was special; one of them was the Messiah, the Lord, the one God had sent to be the king who would deliver his people. The shepherds needed to know which child was the right one, and so they were told, ‘He’s the one in the feeding trough’. I actually find it quite funny to think of them, walking down the quiet streets of Bethlehem that night, knocking on doors and asking, “Excuse me – is there a new baby in this house? Er – is he lying in a manger? Yes, I know, that sounds ridiculous, but an angel told us… oh, all right, slam the door, then!”

What is a Messiah? The shepherds would know that, and so would everyone else in Bethlehem. In ancient Israel, a shepherd boy had been brought in from keeping his family’s sheep, when God called him to be a shepherd for his people Israel. His name was David, and he was the King Arthur of ancient Israel, the one the people looked back on as a man after God’s own heart, a king who loved God and loved his people. History actually records that David had human failings like the rest of us, but the people looked back on his reign as the golden age when Israel was strong and free. And they looked out on a world where they were ruled by the might of Rome, a world in which the rich and powerful exploited and oppressed the poor and vulnerable, and they prayed, “Do it again, Lord! Send us another king like David, one who will set us free!” The custom was to anoint kings with olive oil at their coronations, and so they called the King they were longing for ‘the anointed one’ – in Hebrew, ‘The Messiah’, and in Greek, ‘the Christ’.

But the world into which Jesus was born already had a king, a very powerful king, and Luke tells his story in such a way as to emphasise this fact. In verse 1 he says,
‘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.

Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar. He became the sole ruler of Rome after a bloody civil war in which he defeated all his rivals. The last one he overcame was the famous Mark Anthony, who committed suicide not long after his defeat at the battle of Actium in 31 B.C. Augustus turned the famous Roman republic into an empire, with himself as the first emperor. He claimed that he had brought peace and justice to the whole world. He claimed that his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, was divine, and that he himself was the ‘son of a god’. The Roman poets wrote songs about the new era he had brought in; people referred to Augustus as the ‘saviour’ of the world, its ‘lord’ and ‘king’. In the eastern part of his empire, people were already beginning to worship him as a god.

Luke was well aware of all this; in his day the Roman empire was still all-powerful and he knew how people were overawed by it. All Augustus needed to do was to say the word, and all over his empire millions of people had to travel back to their home towns to be counted and registered – presumably for taxation purposes. That’s power for you! And yet, Luke is telling us, what did this do? Why, it brought Mary and Joseph back from the Galilean town of Nazareth to the perfect place for the Messiah to be born – the hometown of his famous ancestor, David – just as the old prophets had foretold. Even Augustus found himself doing God’s will, without even knowing it!

Luke contrasts the two kings. Augustus lives in great wealth, but Jesus’ family is poor; later on in Luke chapter two when they come to offer the sacrifice for Mary’s purification after childbirth, they offer the cheap version designed for poor people. No doubt the birth of a Roman aristocrat would have been attended by distinguished family members and visitors, but at the birth of Jesus the visitors were shepherds, despised by most Jews as Sabbath-breakers. Augustus could compel the world to obey him by the power of his legions, but Jesus never forced anyone to obey him. His kingdom, he said much later, was ‘not of this world’ – in other words, it was not patterned after a worldly kingdom. Rich and powerful were not excluded from it, but they entered on the same terms as the poor and humble. Wealth was to be shared, not hoarded. Wrongs were to be forgiven, not avenged. Enemies were to be loved, not ‘taken out’. The king didn’t lord it over his servants; rather, he washed their feet. And when the time came for the supreme confrontation with the forces of evil, this king gave his life for his followers.

As Luke tells the story, that moment of Jesus’ death is, of course, the supreme confrontation between the two kingdoms. Jesus, the carpenter rabbi from Nazareth, hailed by his followers as the Messiah, stands before the might of imperial Rome in the person of the governor. Pontius Pilate. Any royal pretensions Jesus may have look ridiculous as he stands before the real power, the brute force that can whip a man with a whip designed to tear his back open, and then nail him to a cross designed for rebels against the empire. So Jesus dies, his kingdom supposedly defeated.

But that is not the end. Luke tells the story of Jesus’ resurrection three days later, and in the book of Acts Luke goes on to tell the story of how the message of the risen Jesus spreads throughout the Roman empire. The so-called defeat of the cross is turned into the great victory of the resurrection, and before three decades have passed, the Christian message has reached even the imperial city of Rome itself. God is gathering together a new empire, with citizens drawn from every tribe and language and nation, united in their loyalty to their king Jesus and their determination to live the life he taught them.

So at the manger in Bethlehem, two kingdoms collide – the kingdom of power and wealth symbolized by Caesar Augustus, and the kingdom of love and justice, symbolized by the baby, the descendant of David. The angel said, “To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (v.11). The good news is that this defenceless child, and not Augustus on his mighty throne, is the true ruler of the world. By his life and death and resurrection he has won the decisive battle against evil, and he now calls all people to give him their allegiance.

Tonight we celebrate his coming and his kingdom. We give thanks to God for the promise that the last word of history will not go to military tyrants or terrorist fanatics or to the faceless heads of multinational corporations, but to Jesus, the servant King. And God challenges us to decide which king we will serve; we will undoubtedly become like the king we choose. Will we serve the kingdom of Augustus, devoting ourselves to power and wealth and worldly success, or will we follow God’s anointed King, Jesus, who rules not by the love of power but by the power of love, the one who, in the words of an earlier character in Luke’s story, will “guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79)?

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