Sunday, December 25, 2011

Sermon for Christmas Eve 2011: Isaiah 9:2-7, Luke 2:1-20


A Different Kind of King

In our Old Testament reading for tonight, from the book of 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 really need right now is someone with integrity who will shoulder the burden of government for us, someone who can carry our problems and find a solution. We’re tired of leaders who just aren’t up to the job. They’re faced with global terrorism, with a coming food crisis, with ongoing troubles in the global financial system, with the approaching crisis of climate change, and with so many other problems. Our leaders 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. The gap between rich and poor is getting wider. 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, in 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 verse 6 of our reading from Isaiah:
‘…and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’.

It sounds as if God himself is about to stride onto the stage of human history and take charge; surely 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 look at the whole story, we can see 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 that kings and politicians usually rule.

In our gospel reading for tonight we come face to face with two different kinds of power. In the first few verses we read about 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, this is the sort of power that you need.

In those days the Roman emperor was the most powerful ruler the world had ever known. Like many absolute rulers, he claimed some pretty amazing titles for himself. Two of those titles were ‘Saviour’ and ‘Lord’. And yet, later on in our gospel reading, 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).

This 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, and who was raised as the son of a carpenter in Galilee. He 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 by nailing him to a cross. 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 that cross they made him carry to his place of execution.

But things aren’t always as they seem. The Roman empire is long gone, but strangely enough, 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 Twitter or Facebook or anything of the kind – but in a couple of hundred years it transformed the Mediterranean world, and it’s still going strong today. At times it has been seduced by the love of power, 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 -  the one 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, but who will then let them down.  His way of establishing peace and justice on earth was totally different from the usual games about power and money. 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).

This is the slow and messy way of changing the world, because on the surface it looks weak and inefficient compared to 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 in to 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 tonight, 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 flour, or like a tiny seed being planted in the ground and gradually 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 tonight as followers of Jesus, doing those acts of love in the name of Jesus and by the power of Jesus, and let’s trust the results to him.

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