Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Blessed Christmas to All - Christmas Eve 2010 - Luke 2:1-3

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 towns to be registered.  (Lk. 2:1-3)
In a particular time, at a particular place, under the rule of a particular monarch, the following event took place: a census, a registration.  It was decreed, says Luke, and, in one very curt and short sentence we are told that all went to their towns to be registered.  All went, all did what they were told to do, no questions asked.  The dictator speaks and the people respond.  They had better, for things sometimes go badly for those who don’t follow orders.  It seems to me that we 21st century Christians too often tend to read these opening verses as a kind of introduction to the “real” story that comes later – the part about the shepherds and the angels and Mary and Joseph.  But this evening I would like to focus on these first three verses because I think they are key to our understanding the story of Christmas.  These 3 verses not only set the Christmas story in a very specific historical time, but they also set the context.  And that context is darkness – deep darkness, to use the phrase from Isaiah – that context is oppression, domination and violence; that context is Pax Romana, the peace of Rome which is achieved and enforced with brutal efficiency.
Octavian Caesar Augustus – Emperor of the mighty Roman empire, oppressor of Israel – voted by the Roman Senate to divine status – so he was considered son of god, the lord, the king of kings, lord of lords and prince of peace; this lord had ordered a census because he wanted to know how many people are in his realm, who they are, where they live, how much do they earn, how much tax can they pay, what do they do and who among them might be conscripted to serve in the Roman army.
Contrary to the popular notion, this was no quiet, gentle night in Bethlehem.  This was a harsh night – a village bursting with unhappy people who had been forced to submit to the Roman census against their wills; a people who desperately hated the Romans and wanted them out of Palastine once and for all; and people who had become accustomed to official violence as an administrative technique.  Into this environment arrive a young man and his even younger very pregnant wife who too had been forced to travel against their wills to a village far from their own homes.  As we approach the manger on this Christmas night we are invited to open our eyes and ears and hearts so that we can hear a story that is ultimately not about shepherds or angels or animals or mangers – but is rather a story about darkness; a story about human sinfulness, human self-centeredness and a story about a God who loves us so much that rather than see us destroy ourselves this God chooses to intervene.  But not with thunder and lightning, or with power and might – but our God chooses to intervene by being born as a human child to a poor teenage mother who is in a strange and hostile place after having traveled by donkey several days to get there, even though she was 8 to 9 months pregnant, all because the oppressor wants to find out about her husband Joseph and allows no exceptions.  
Arriving finally in crowded and unhappy Bethlehem, Mary had probably already started having labor pains and so she and Joseph searched fruitlessly for a place for her to give birth and a place for them to rest.  Finally they settle into a cave located in the foothills that surround Bethlehem.  The local farmers and shepherds used these caves as a place to shelter their animals.  It is there that Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, attended by Joseph and a few animals.  All of these events, Luke tells us, take place under the thumb of the divine Caesar, known as the August One – the great lord of lords, king of kings, prince of peace, the savior, god incarnate – or so he was proclaimed; this ruler who possessed all power and might and strength.
Isn’t it curious then that the next thing that happens in this amazing story is that God’s messengers appear to a group of outcasts, society's losers, the despised shepherds and tell them that if they really want to see God incarnate, if they really want to catch a glimpse of God’s glory, if they really want to see God, then they should go, look for and find a particular, dirty, smelly cave and look inside it for a small, weak, helpless infant laying in a feed troth.  There in that manger they will find the true Savior, the Messiah – the true Lord of Lords, King of Kings and Prince of Peace – there in that infant is God incarnate.  In the midst of the squalor, surrounded by the weak and powerless, surrounded by the suffering and the lonely, the hungry and abused, surrounded by ordinary sinful human beings – there is God incarnate – there is God’s Son.  What a contrast – Caesar and Jesus.  It is not an accident that Luke has set up this contrast between the temporal powers of Caesar who brings peace and security through violence; and who brings oppression in the name of justice – with God, incarnate in Jesus who brings true peace, shalom, well-being through weakness and openness and love and grace.  As he narrates this story Luke is looking all of us in the eye asking us a simple question – where do you stand this night?  Do you stand at the altar of Caesar or beside the manger of Jesus?  Where is your ultimate trust placed – in the power and glory of Caesar or in the weakness and love of Jesus? 
The hopes and fears of all the years are met and addressed and absorbed – not by Caesar, not even by the angels – but inside that cave in the silence and the darkness by the infant Jesus.  Our Christmas hope is not in jingle bells or holly or mistletoe or Santa – our Christmas hope is in a God who loves us so much that he enters our world in order to enter into the experience of being human; a God who enters into suffering and joy, pain and misery; a God who is born into a world of darkness and oppression and violence; a God who alone brings peace and wholeness and freedom and grace and love – to all.
Many years ago Professor Lynn Harold Hough was riding on a train reading Greek tragedies and as he read he came across the story of a god who fell in love with a maiden and came to earth to visit her.  But the god found that she had been in an accident and was lying besides the road in a pool of blood.  The god was repulsed at the sight of blood and immediately winged his way back to Mt. Olympus where he could contemplate the human condition at a safe distance.  Here was a god who was afraid of human suffering.  Professor Hough, writing about this many years later, said that as he looked out of the train window watching the telephone poles pass he couldn't help but  notice that they were in the form of crosses and he was struck by the contrast: between tthe contrast he story of the god who is afraid of the human experience and all that it entails including suffering and death, and the story of our God who enters into the depth of the human experience which includes suffering and death. 
The 2nd verse of one of my favorite Christmas Carols goes like this: Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, the cross be borne for me, for you; hail, hail the Word made flesh, the babe, the son of Mary.  Our God is not afraid of human suffering, he’s been there; our God is not afraid of blood, he’s shed some himself – for us.
This is what the Christmas story is about – God comes to us, is born into our world and will die on a cross for us so that he might defeat these powers of death and darkness through his rising again on Easter.  The proclamation of Christmas – For unto you is born this day… a Savior who is Christ the Lord – and the Word is made flesh and dwells among us!  - This proclamation reaches its climax and completion on the cross of Good Friday and in the empty tomb of Easter.  I hope and pray that in the midst of all of the hustle and bustle of Christmas tonight and tomorrow each of you will take a moment to pause besides your crèche and look at the baby Jesus laying in the manger and remember it is for you that Christ is come, for whom he dies and for whom he is raised.
This is the Jesus from my crèche – notice something – it is shaped like a cross.  This is the gift of Christmas!  Have a blessed Christmas!

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