St Michael’s 24th December 2016
Readings – Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 2:1-15
I want you to imagine the following scenario. A strong, unified party sweeps to power in the next election. It has one clear policy in its manifesto – to sort out the issue of immigration once and for all, and make sure no-one is here illegally. So at the first cabinet meeting of the new government, backed by overwhelming popular support, the prime minister makes a dramatic decision. Everyone is to return to the place of their birth, whether in this country or overseas. No exceptions, no conditions. From now on there will be no doubt who should be living where, and anyone who defies the order will be fined or thrown in prison.
There would have be some period of time before the order could take effect, of course. You can just picture the chaos on the roads, on the railways and at the airports. Even if you could get to your intended destination, your journey would still be slowed down by an army of people hired to check your identity, make sure you were in the right place, and indeed tell you exactly where you needed to register.
There would also have to be extra policemen on the streets, as well. All those homes and businesses lying empty would be bound to attract attention. Insurance companies would probably be overwhelmed by claims from people who had been burgled or had their property vandalised. And the effect on the economy would be pretty staggering, as well. Just think how many days’ work would be lost, and how many jobs put on the line.
Fortunately such a scenario is pretty unlikely, I think, although after the extraordinary events of the past year it seems hard to rule anything out. But if I’ve read our Christmas reading rightly, something like this happened exactly two thousand years ago:
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.
After all, it wasn’t as if the ordinary folk of Judea had a lot of choice. Now in the popular imagination we often have this picture of Joseph and Mary plodding along on their own with a donkey. The reality was, there were many people like them who could trace their ancestry back to Bethlehem, the town of David. It would have been essential for Joseph and Mary to find safety in numbers. As a young couple, with Mary pregnant, they were particularly vulnerable, and they would almost certainly have not travelled alone.
And with all these extra people milling around, life must also have gotten quite difficult for the shepherds out on the hillside. Again we often have these romantic ideas of the shepherds playing on their pipes and gently tending little lambs. In reality, they were more like security guards, defending their flocks from wild animals and thieves. The fact thousands of people had just poured into the nearest centre of population must have given them quite a headache, and only an extraordinary event could have caused them to leave their flocks behind.
But none of this bothered Caesar Augustus. He ordered the census quite simply because he could. He wanted to show the people of Judea who was in charge, even if their lives were turned upside down. It didn’t matter to him one little bit. So really the census was a classic case of the big guy pushing the little guy around just to show who was in control.
Of course we might want to argue that actually it was the Lord who was in control of those events way back when, and if we’ve read chapter 1 of Luke’s gospel we will know all about His mission to save the world. But if you look really closely at the first eight verses of our reading, you will see there is actually no mention of God at all. And for a moment it almost looks as if God’s plans and purposes are about to be being knocked off course by the Roman emperor, who seems to interrupt the whole rhythm and flow of the story.
Now I believe that the way Luke writes the Christmas story is quite deliberate. He wants to show us a world which is many ways like ours, where those in power want to remind us who’s in charge, and where so often the ordinary, the poor and the vulnerable suffer as a result. Because sadly for all that society may have progressed over the past two thousand years, human nature remains the same. And as in Roman times the big guy pushes the little guy around just because he can.
Yet Luke also wants to show us that no matter how the political situation may seem to us, the Lord is nonetheless in charge. So, yes, Caesar Augustus does briefly interrupt the story, but his is only a momentary interruption, and what is so remarkable is that for all his power and influence he is never mentioned again anywhere else in the Bible. So at the end of a year where we have had so many unexpected election results and where we may wonder about who exactly is in charge, it seems to me that the point Luke is making is more relevant than ever. There is one Lord, one who presides over all, and He is God Himself.
So let’s look more closely at how He reappears in the story in verse 9: An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. Now we often skate over the terror and fear of the shepherds, but it is a really important detail. You see, before angels deliver their message, it is important that the shepherds also understand exactly who the Lord is. He is not a weak god who can make little difference, someone who actually impotent in face of the all the terrible events going on around us. He is the one with the real power and authority and might. And I suggest that if we are to truly make sense of the Christmas story we need to make sure we also start by realising just who is the God who chooses to break into our human history. Because if we just focus on the weakness and vulnerability of Jesus, we may have a tale that warms our hearts, but won’t really make a difference to our lives.
No, here is God, the maker of heaven and earth, the one who is Lord and judge over all, turning up to change the course of human history once and for all. That, in a nutshell, is what Christmas all about. So who exactly is the Christmas story aimed for? Well, let’s read on to verse 10: But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. In other words, here is God’s version of democracy. He doesn’t send His Son to save a special interest group, to show favour to those who have all the power and the authority. He sends His son to bring good news of great joy that is all for the people. And that includes you and you and you and me. So whether you are a top politician or a humble shepherd, a top theologian or a plain-spoken ordinary believer, there is one message for all which really does mean everyone, no matter who you are or where you come from.
But here’s the real shock of the Christmas story: Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger”. You see, God’s plan of salvation is a total reversal of the way the world works. Right from the earliest age we are taught that the way to get on in life is to make it big, to rise above your circumstances and make a name for yourselves. Indeed we applaud those who have what we sometimes call a “rags to riches” story. But God’s plan of salvation is quite literally a “riches to rags” story. It is not about the little guy ending up as the big guy, but the big guy becoming the little guy. So Jesus exchanges the riches of heaven for the rags of a manger. He lays aside His power and His authority and becomes a helpless baby, with a simple peasant girl as His mother.
And whether tonight you are familiar with the Christmas story or not, I hope you can see just how remarkable and unexpected is Jesus’ appearance into the world. Right from the beginning He is what we would now call an internally displaced person, his parents victims of that Roman census we talked about just now. Soon He will be a refugee, as Joseph and Mary flee for their lives down to Egypt. And even when He does make it home, He will grow up in an obscure part of Galilee, in a place that so far hasn’t even been mentioned in the Bible.
So if this who Jesus is, how then is He able to change the course of human history? Well, there’s a detail in the angel’s message we haven’t considered yet. For this baby born in a manger is also Christ the Lord. That word Christ or Messiah means someone filled with the power of God. But Jesus doesn’t use His power and authority in the way that those in charge tend to use their power and authority. Right from the very beginning of His life He chooses to use all His energy and might to serve others. So even though fully God, He chooses to be born in a manger. Even though fully God, He chooses to put the needs of others first. And even though fully God, He chooses to give up His life for you and for me on the cross. The way Jesus shows He is the Son of God is not by forcing people to recognising His might and majesty, but by taking on His shoulders all the wrongdoing and evil of the world.
Yet, lest we believe that such selfless service is in any way a sign of weakness, the angel also wants to remind us that right from the beginning this Jesus is Lord. Now we don’t tend to use the word Lord very much nowadays. It’s a term left over from times when the most powerful people in the land tended to be the ones who lived in big country houses. Perhaps a more modern equivalent would be say that Jesus is the Boss or the President. But of course Jesus’ power is far greater than anything, say, our prime minister or the president of the United States might wield. His power is not seen in policy announcements or grand gestures. It is seen is the simple fact of the empty tomb. Because Jesus’ whole mission in coming to this earth was to solve the greatest threat any of us ever faces, namely death itself. He came to be born as one of us to die the death we deserved so that through Him we could receive the life we ourselves could never earn.
That is the message Luke wants to give us in the Christmas story. And it is, I believe, a message that we need to particular remember at the end of a difficult year where the future seems so uncertain and none of us knows what will happen next. Where will we put our trust when those in power seem to overlook or ignore the needs of ordinary folk, when our leaders seem unable or unwilling to deal with the issues that concern us most?
My vote at least goes to the one who at the start of His public ministry stood up in a synagogue in a place called Capernaum and said:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
So back to those shepherds out on the hills above Bethlehem. Despite all their concerns about security, when they heard the good news about Jesus, they ran into town, through all those crowds, and they found their way to the manger to wonder and to worship. You see, they recognised that Jesus was the good news they had been looking for, someone who could offer hope in an uncertain world, and peace in troubled times.
What then about you? Tonight take the time to wonder at the way the Lord has broken into our world, and give thanks for the hope and the peace Jesus offers you, whoever you might be. For here is good news that really is for all the people, even for you and for me. Let’s make sure, then, we welcome into our hearts and welcome His authority over our lives, not just for now, but for all that lies ahead. For His name’s sake. Amen.