Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14(15-20)
I love all the outdoor lights and decorations that people put out. I love the reindeers, and sleighs, even Charlie Brown and snowmen—the gaudier the better! My wife really got into the spirit and came home from Lowes with a five foot tall angel covered in white lights that now stands in our front yard near the street. It’s more attractive than the three campaign signs she had out. I really like the angel not only because she’s beautiful but also because there is an angel in the Christmas story. But I got to thinking there is one central character in the Christmas story whom I’ve never seen in lights: Have you ever seen Caesar Augustus in lights on somebody’s lawn?
Augustus sets the whole story in motion with his call for a census in Palestine. The Roman Empire is in the thick of the Jesus Story, from beginning to end, as we will be reminded when we run into the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate smack in the middle of the Nicene Creed. Yet we want to leave Rome out of the Christmas story.
There may be many reasons for this, but the central one, I think, is that we want to take this story out of history and turn it into a fairy tale—a fairy tale about a sweet family that generates warm memories of Christmases past. When we take it out of history we can pretend it never happened thus making it safe to handle, like taking the TNT out of a stick of dynamite. Now we can enjoy the story because it will make no claim on our lives and leave the status quo intact.
My father every Christmas would watch “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”. And his kids and grandkids would watch it with him as the Grinch tries to ruin Christmas for all the Whos in Whoville. We’d laugh at poor Max the dog trying to pull the sleigh and we’d tear up when the Whos make a circle to sing their song of celebration even though all their gifts have been stolen. It still gets to me, and teaches a lovely lesson, but it makes no claim on my life. It’s nothing that happens in the real world. I don’t have to take it seriously because it’s make-believe.
I know some people who get all worked up at those who they claim are taking “Christ out of Christmas”. I don’t worry about non-believers who wish me “Happy Holidays”. I worry about believers who want to take the real world out of the gospel, disconnecting it from time and space and the things that are destroying us, like violence, hunger, racism, and all the rest. If it’s only a fairy tale I’m free to worry only about ME and MY problerms.
Without history we can create that cartoon going around on Facebook showing the stable with a few animals but no people in it. The caption reads: “This is what Christmas looks like without Jews, Africans, Arabs, and refugees.”
Here’s the thing: when we take the story out of history, we take God out of the story, because the God who shows up as Jesus Christ lives in the real world, where real people are hurting and dying.
And of course, when we remove God from the story we also erase ourselves.
So Luke starts the story with Caesar Augustus who orders a census so he can keep track of all the Jews he has conquered. His was not the first government to oppress the Jews, nor would it be the last. The Jews remind us that the living God is King of the universe and means to bring justice and peace to the world, not just for the rich and powerful who can buy such things, but especially for the poor and outcast who can’t.
But then, after mentioning the Romans and the Jews, Luke brings in shepherds who in their day were judged to be so untrustworthy that they were not allowed to testify in court. Whether these particular shepherds on this night were thieves we don’t know, but since Jesus died among thieves it makes sense that he was born among them too. These are just the kind of people Jesus hangs with as an adult.
So Luke anchors his story in the misery and muck of history. But then he also anchors it in heaven. Remember heaven isn’t in a galaxy far, far away, but rather heaven is that part of creation that overlaps and interlocks with the cosmos, with the earth, our island home.
When the angel of the Lord addresses the shepherds, she hasn’t traveled from far away, she has merely revealed her presence to the startled men and she tells them: “Do not be afraid; for I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be for all people.”
The creator God enters creation, or as Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it, God “slips on skin”, or as John’s gospel puts it, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” God comes to us as Jesus, taking on our suffering in the depths of our brokenness.
All of us know the pain of this season—for the people we loved who are no longer, for the Christmases past that will never ever return. And we know the pain of our world: We know 5000 people drowned this year in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe and that 470,000 people have died in the civil war in Syria, many of them women and children.
This is the world God enters in Jesus, not to condemn the world but to save it, not with violence but sacrificial love. And Jesus calls all who believe to let him train us in his project of reconciliation. Where are you being called to be an ambassador of healing? Maybe it starts in our family gatherings tomorrow where we ask Jesus to show us the good side of our crazy uncle, no matter how he voted.
The angel gives the shepherds a sign: go find a child in a manger, a feeding trough, for Jesus is the Bread of heaven, and because the manger points to that stronger wood which will hold him at the end. This is Emmanuel, God with us, in history, in your life and mine, here and now. God’s salvation in Jesus, like medicine, must enter the system to be effective.
The gospel makes a claim on us because it reveals Triune God as our maker, master, and medicine. This God lying in the manger is the author of our story. We can pretend we created ourselves and that we don’t need God’s help, just as we can pretend Unicorns are better than horses because their stable never needs to be shoveled out.
Don Henley of The Eagles fame released a song in the late 80’s called “The End of the Innocence” that starts this way:
Remember when the days were long
And rolled beneath a deep blue sky
Didn’t have a care in the world
With mommy and daddy standin’ by
But “happily ever after” fails
And we’ve been poisoned by these fairy tales
I’ve never experienced a real angel, though I know people who have. When I get home tonight our front yard angel will be dark because the timer will be off.
But that’s okay because in faith I know the angels are always saying to us mortals: “I bring you good news of great joy for all the people living in Eastern Massachusetts, when Barack Obama is President and Donald Trump is president-elect: God is with you in Jesus Christ. He is Messiah, Savior, and Lord, he is your master and your guide.”
And if we hear such an announcement shattering dreams of self-sufficiency what should we do?
We should do what the shepherds did: Believe the angel and go to Jesus.