St Michael’s 24th December 2012
Reading – Luke 2:1-7
There is always something special about coming together on Christmas Eve as we wait for the time when Christmas Day arrives and we can joyfully celebrate the birth of our Saviour. Yes, it’s a story that we have heard many times. Yes, we may know all the old carols off by heart. But very few of us can fail to be moved by the lovely details Luke records of those events in Bethlehem. Joseph and his future wife Mary arriving to be counted, finding doors shut in their faces (after all, who wants to be associated with a scandal?) and finally taking refuge in a cave where Jesus is born and placed in a feeding trough, because there is no room in the inn.
It is a beautiful tale. It may even be true. But the question we need ask ourselves tonight is how the events of that time relate to the world today. Yes, it’s lovely to be reminded of the first Christmas at the darkest and coldest time of the year. But does the story of Christmas simply provide an escape from the harsh realities around us or does it still speak in some way to a confused and broken world?
Maybe one way to answer that is to think about the historical characters who overshadow Joseph and Mary as they travel the ninety-two miles or so from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
First of all, and most obviously there is Caesar Augustus. Unless you are a classical scholar you probably have never really studied him, but he was the greatest ruler on earth at the time and the first Roman to be called emperor. In his long and illustrious reign he extended the Roman Empire into Africa, Spain and Germany. His power and authority could not be challenged.
And here he is ordering a census. Why? Quite simply, to show that he can, to remind people throughout his conquered territories who ruled over them, and to order their unquestioning obedience. He would have found it laughable that a peasant family from one of the remoter corners of his empire would produce someone who would eclipse his fame and reputation. As far as he was concerned, Joseph and Mary were just another couple of numbers in his statistics.
There are still rulers like Caesar Augustus in many parts of the world today, and the fact God chose to side with Joseph and Mary is I believe supremely important. It shows that God in some deep way is on the side of the refugee, the exploited, the powerless. While the displaced and the destitute may simply be regarded as numbers by those in authority, God sees them as people whom He loves and cares for deeply. That’s why Jesus comes as Emmanuel – God with us – to show that He identifies with ordinary people who from a human point of view may have so little.
Then waiting in the wings is King Herod. King Herod had been installed as king of Palestine with the help of the Romans and his was a long and bloody rule. Although known as Herod the Great and although he rebuilt the temple, his life was marked by violence and political infighting. The massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem fits in perfectly well with what else we know of his character – after all, he had already murdered several members of his own family.
And although we don’t tend to dwell on the massacre of the innocents too much at Christmas, I think it is perhaps appropriate this year to remember this aspect of the story. Because it tells us that God also stands on the side of those who weep for their children, who have seen their little ones taken away by wanton and unprecedented violence. I’m not going to pretend I can give an answer to what happened in Newtown, Connecticut or what happens daily in various parts of the world today. But the Christmas story does at least cover the pain and horror we all feel at the senseless destruction of young lives. It’s not God’s fault we airbrush out some of the details of what happened all those years ago.
Christmas is all about Jesus taking on real, human flesh. He did not come to the clean, peaceful, sanitised world of the Christmas card and school nativity play. He came to a place where the powerful prospered and the weak suffered, where violence spoilt the lives of many, just as it spoils so many lives in the Middle-East today. And the fact God chose such a setting for Jesus’ birth is hugely significant. If we want to escape from the realities of daily life, the Christmas story does not provide that escape.
And yet there must be more to the Christmas story than God entering the world in weakness and humility. Because if the Christmas story is only about Jesus’ weakness and humility, yes, we may have some comfort from knowing that in a deep and mysterious way He understands our human condition. But a Jesus who does not offer change, who does not offer the possibility of change, cannot actually help us much with our search for hope and meaning.
So how exactly does the Christmas story offer us hope?
Let’s look at one small detail from our reading tonight: So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. Now to our modern ears this simply sounds like a minor historical detail or a little bit of local colour. The equivalent would be someone going up to Windsor because they happened to descended from the royal court. And if you think about it, Joseph would have been only one of perhaps several hundred people who could claim some kind of royal lineage, just as I imagine there must be not a few people who could over the centuries prove a royal heritage.
But there is more to the verse than first appears. If we have already read the opening chapter of Luke’s gospel then we begin to see just how important is this detail. When the angel appeared to Mary, he said of the child she was going to bear: “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; his kingdom will never end.” (Luke 1:32-33)Or again, when Zechariah rejoices over the birth of his son who would be known as John the Baptist he declares: Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David. (Luke 1:68-69).
Joseph and Mary’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem turns out to be a royal birth in a royal town. Yes, they may be invisible to the rulers of the land. Yes, they may be shunned by the inhabitants of the town. But in God’s eyes something extremely significant was happening, which had been planned for generations. God was going to use this child to set up a kingdom. But what kind of kingdom and how is it relevant to us today?
Let’s go back to the story of the original King David. King David was a historical character who lived around 1000BC. He was the one who first secured rest and peace for Israel from her enemies, and his greatest concern was to provide a permanent location for worship in the nation. But the Lord told him he wasn’t going to be the one to build the temple. Instead this is what He promised: When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. (2 Sam 7:12-13).
Now at first glance it seemed these words applied to David’s son, Solomon. Under his rule the temple was built and the kingdom enjoyed even greater prosperity. But of course in the end Solomon died. The kingdom continued for several hundred more years, but in the end the last king was carried off into exile in Babylon, and the temple destroyed.
So for the past six centuries the Jewish people had been living with this problem. If God was God, His word could not be broken. Yet He had promised a son whose kingdom would last forever. So what happened to the word God had originally given? It’s fascinating as you go through the pages of the Old Testament how the expectation builds of a Messiah, a Son of David whom God would send to restore the fortunes of His people. Yes, they might now in the grip of foreign powers. Yes, they might seem weak and defeated. But when Messiah came, once again they would be great and the whole earth would see that the Lord was the one true God.
And so when Luke mentions that Joseph went up to the town of David he is making the astonishing claim that this baby was the promised Messiah, the promised Son of David. Now to many people of his time the idea a Messiah could be born in a manger was absurd. A Messiah would be someone who appeared in power and strength and authority, whose glory would be clear for all to see. Wasn’t that what had been promised to them? Wasn’t this what God had been planning for them all long?
But just imagine for a moment what would have happened if Jesus had come to set up a physical kingdom. There would be a territory with borders that would need defending. Those living in that territory would presumably be more privileged than those outside. The power of that kingdom would be expressed in purely temporal terms. Indeed you only have to look at the witness of history to see how disastrous has been every attempt to set up any form of Christendom. Look at the Crusades, for example, or the history of the Holy Roman Empire – basic historical mistakes which stem from a failure to understand what Jesus was born to do.
No, the Christmas story tells us that Jesus came to set up a kingdom which is not of this world, maybe sometimes not even visible to the naked eye, but one which is nonetheless real. It is not a kingdom based on a particular place. In contrast to many other religions we do not need to make a pilgrimage to find the founder of our faith. Because the story of Christmas is that Jesus comes to us where we are, and accepts us just as we are. Yes, we do not see a visible Messiah, but He nonetheless meets all who believe and trust in Him through the presence of His Holy Spirit. And so His kingdom grows not through conquest or political domination but through each new believer putting their faith in Him.
So how does this kind of Messiah make a difference in today’s world? Well, the testimony of millions of believers around the world is that when they meet Jesus, they find a hope and a peace and new beginning. They can testify to the truth of Zechariah’s words that through Jesus, the Son of David, God has come and has redeemed his people. And this change can often have direct, practical consequences. I can point to people who have been released from addiction, others who have experienced physical healing, others whose relationships have been mended and restored. When you accept Jesus as king over your life, you find that He has all the power to change you for good, and whether in ways dramatic or small, you become a new creation, a son or daughter of the living God.
And God’s kingdom does not only affect individuals. Again, if you look at the witness of history, you will see that where followers of Jesus get together, good things tend to happen. They were the people who set up schools, and hospitals, and led campaigns such as the one to abolish slavery. It has been so fashionable recently to knock the contribution the church has made to society, but without people who knew Jesus as their Messiah the world would be an immeasurably poorer place.
So let’s go back to that manger in Bethlehem. Are we simply remembering a nice story that happened many, many years ago? I hope you can see by now that the answer to that question is a clear “No”. We are celebrating an event which has a direct effect even today. Because Jesus born to a displaced couple, born under the shadow of jealousy and hatred, is the long awaited Messiah, the eagerly anticipated Son of David and king. And the fact He is born in that place in those circumstances tells us that His kingdom is not of this earth, but it is a kingdom that is open to all, to the humblest and the least, that it is open to you.
How then will you respond to this story? Don’t let this be another Christmas when you let it pass you by. This royal birth shows that God is on your side. He has come and redeemed His people. And His greatest desire is that tonight you are counted among their number, as you come before Him in faith and trust, as you worship Him as king over your life.