Friday, December 25, 2009

Sermon for Christmas Day: Isaiah 9:2-7, Luke 2:1-20

A Different Kind of King

In this morning’s Old Testament reading, from Isaiah, we heard these words:

‘For a child has been born for us,

a son given to us;

authority rests upon his shoulders’ (Isaiah 9:6).

Or, in the more familiar language of the King James Version,

‘and the government shall be upon his shoulders’.

When we hear these words, we ought to breathe a sigh of relief. Because what we need right now, perhaps more than at any other time in recent memory, is someone to shoulder the burden of government, someone who can carry our problems and find a solution for us.

I have nothing but sympathy for the brilliant but fallible human beings who we have elected to high office, but it becomes more and more obvious as the years go by that they just don’t have the answers. They’re faced with a resurgence of terrorism around the world, with a burgeoning food crisis, with the near collapse of the global financial system, and with the approaching crisis of climate change. They do the best they can, but in the long run, not much seems to change. The world is just as violent now as it was when I was born, despite all the brilliant minds that have tried to find peaceful solutions to our disputes. The gap between rich and poor is getting greater, not less. Emissions are going up, not down. And of course, everyone loves to blame the politicians for it, when the truth is that we’re all implicated, one way or another. The burden is too much for these people to bear. Quite frankly, they’re not up to the task. No one is.

And so it comes as a great relief for us to know that God has a plan. God has sent us a leader who will be up to the task. After all, look at the names given to him in this passage from Isaiah:

‘…and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’ (v.6).

It sounds as if God himself is about to stride onto the stage of human history and take charge. He should be up to the task! And what will be the result of his rule? Look a little further on:

‘His authority shall grow continually,

and there shall be endless peace

for the throne of David and his kingdom.

He will establish and uphold it

with justice and righteousness

from this time forward and for evermore’ (v.7).

It sounds like God is finally going to sort things out!

But when we turn to the gospels we get a surprise. It’s a surprise that had been hinted at in some of the Old Testament prophets, but it’s fair to say that most people hadn’t noticed it there. It looks very much like a change of plan on God’s part, although when we see the whole story, we can discern that it’s very much in line with God’s original purposes. And the surprise is this: God sends a king, but the king refuses to rule – at least, in the way kings had ruled throughout history up until that point, and continue to rule even today, even though we mostly elect them now rather than trusting to heredity to do the trick!

In our gospel reading for today we come face to face with two different kinds of power. In the first few verses we come face to face with the power of big government:

In those days a decree went out from Caesar 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 (Luke 2:1-4).

This is power! The divine Augustus sits on his throne in Rome, gives an order, and the whole empire starts to move. People’s lives are impacted, trade is disrupted, while all over the world officials start to register people – all so that Rome can be more efficient in the collection of taxes, of course! But just imagine the power that can cause this to happen! If you want to make an impact on the world, that’s the sort of power that you need.

The Roman emperor was the most powerful ruler the world had ever known in those days, although of course there have been many since then who have even more power. Like many absolute rulers, he claimed some pretty amazing titles for himself. Two of them were the Greek words soter and kyrios, which we translate into English as ‘saviour’ and ‘lord’. And yet, later on in our gospel for this morning, these same titles are taken by an angel and applied to the adopted son of a Galilean carpenter – one who had been caught up in Augustus’ registration and forced to take a journey far from home at the worst possible time in his wife’s pregnancy:

‘To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord’ (v.11).

It must have seemed a very strange thing to the early Christian converts who first heard Luke’s story of Christmas – that the angel would take the titles of great Caesar and apply them to this powerless and defenceless man from Galilee. Evidently God’s idea of power is very different from ours.

So on the one hand we have the enormous power of Rome – and of governments since then, whether totalitarian or democratic. On the other hand, we have a child who was born far from home, who very quickly had to flee from his own country as a refugee from Herod’s death squads, who was raised as the son of an artisan in Galilee, and who spent most of his life in obscurity before striding onto the stage for a brief three years of teaching and healing and exorcising, before Rome decided it was time to put him in his place, with nails. Isaiah may have said that ‘authority rests upon his shoulders’, but the only sort of authority that ever rested on Jesus’ shoulders was the authority of Rome, symbolized by the wooden cross they made him carry to his place of execution.

But things aren’t always as they seem. The New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce used to say that the Roman emperor Nero may have executed the apostle Paul, but ‘the day would come when men would name their dogs ‘Nero’ and their sons ‘Paul’! The Roman empire is long gone, but the movement Jesus started is still here. In the earliest days it had no power to compel people to follow it; it had no budget, no strategic plan, no access to mass media and so on – but in a couple of hundred years it transformed the Mediterranean world, and is still going strong today. At times it has been seduced by Caesar and has used the coercive power of the State to do its work, but those times have always been looked back on as failures. The times when the Jesus movement has been most effective in transforming the world have been the times when it has looked most like its Master – the one who worked by the power of love, not the love of power, and who allowed himself to be crucified rather than destroying his enemies and imposing his will on others.

So Luke’s story introduces us to a different empire, a different emperor, a different kind of emperor. Jesus isn’t simply another politician on whom everyone can pin their hopes and who will then let them down. His way of establishing peace and justice on earth was totally different to the usual power games and money games. Today we’re hungry for just that difference, and Christmas is a good time to think about it.

How do you change the world? Not from the top down, says Luke – not by seizing control of the government and imposing your will on others. Even when that’s done with the best of motives, in the end it just seems to leave a bad taste in people’s mouths, and the results are usually disappointing.

No, you change the world from the bottom up – by transforming people’s lives, by giving them a vision of life as God intended it, and by giving them the power to live that life. You change the world through the lives of ordinary people like the shepherds of Bethlehem, and like the family of a Galilean construction worker, who meet God and are forever changed by the meeting. You don’t change the world by having the sort of authority that makes people bow before you and serve you as slaves – washing your feet when you come in from walking on the dirty roads. No, you change the world by being the one who does the footwashing, the one who serves other people in love. As you know, in the mind of Jesus there’s no contradiction between absolute authority and humble service: ‘So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you’ (John 13:14-15).

I’ve sometimes called this the ‘slow and messy way’ of changing the world, because on the surface it looks far more weak and inefficient than the usual power-grab. But centuries of experience should have taught us by now that the usual power grab may look effective, but it’s really not. As one of my Bible teachers used to say, ‘a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still’. Forcing people to do something when their hearts and lives are not really changed will not accomplish much in the long run. It may succeed in restraining evil for a while, but it can’t establish goodness. For that, you need inner transformation.

And so God doesn’t force himself on people – he simply knocks, and waits for them to respond. As the well-known verse from Revelation has it, ‘Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come into you and eat with you, and you with me’ (3:20). There’s a risk in operating this way, of course – the risk that there will be ‘no room at the inn’ – that we will refuse to find room in our lives for God and for God’s way of transforming the world. Apparently God thinks the risk is worth taking.

So this morning, as we remember the birth of our King, let’s embrace his way of being king, his way of changing the world – the way of seemingly small actions in the lives of ordinary people, acting, as Jesus said, like yeast gradually working its way through the whole lump of flower, or like a tiny seed being planted in the ground and eventually growing into the largest of plants. Our acts of love, in obedience to Jesus, are the most potent force to change the world. So let’s leave this place today and go and do them, in his name and in his power, and trust the results to him.

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