Sermon for Tuesday, December 25, 2019 || Christmas Eve || Luke 2:1-20
One of the unique things about the Gospel according to Luke is how concerned the text is with setting, with time and place. Several times, Luke tells us when and where the events are happening. You’ve all heard an example of this tendency a million times: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”
Why do we care that this registration happening while Quirinius was governor of Syria? The ancient world did not have reliably standardized calendars, so to date an event, one reliable way was to delve into Roman records. Rome was an empire, and if there’s one thing the Roman Empire did better than oppressing nations it conquered, it was record-keeping. So Luke uses the information available to date the birth of Jesus, and so this Quirinius guy had his named immortalized in the best-selling book of all time.
Beyond the mechanics of Luke’s use of Roman records to date the Gospel, Luke’s concern for the setting plays into the larger theme of Luke’s Gospel. That theme is “God turning this upside down world rightside up again for the benefit of those who are poor and oppressed.” The setting of the Gospel, and the Nativity story in particular, is so important for this larger theme.
The story begins with a “registration” or census decreed by the Roman Emperor Augustus. The empire counted all the people under its control, citizen and non-citizen, for two basic purposes: first, so taxes could be levied more effectively; and second, so the military could be deployed in sufficient numbers to police the so-called “Peace of Rome.”
Both reasons for the registration directly impacted the oppressed societies on the outskirts of the empire, including Israel. Through Roman taxes, oppressed people like the Israelites paid for the very soldiers who occupied their lands.
So the circumstances of Jesus’ birth take place in this larger setting of oppression under the heel of the Romans. Mary and Joseph make a long trek while Mary is nine months pregnant in order to comply with the registration. When they arrive in Bethlehem, they find the city too full of Joseph’s kin. Growing desperate, Mary winds up giving birth amongst the animals, and she uses their stone trough as a bassinet for her baby. Jumping from Luke’s account to Matthew’s account, we know that right after Jesus’ birth, King Herod (a puppet of the Romans) orders all the babies in Bethlehem to be killed. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus flee this horrible slaughter and seek asylum in Egypt, where they live as refugees until it is safe to return to Israel.
Acknowledging this part of story makes us squirm, I know. We want to coo over the baby in the manger without contemplating why he was born there in the first place. We want to ignore the unjust circumstances of Jesus’ birth in favor of a Thomas Kinkade Christmas card. We want the tinsel without the terror. But we sanitize the Nativity story to our own detriment. The stories Luke and Matthew tell reveal to us what happens when the powerful feel threatened by the powerless. These stories demonstrate that God comes into Creation in a special way to become one with those who are poor and oppressed. These stories speak to the reality of our upside down world and the lengths to which God will go to turn it rightside up again.
When we honestly confront the fear, danger, and violence of the Nativity story, we begin to see how the Incarnation of God’s Word, Jesus the Christ, challenges the oppressive structures of society. The Christ was not born in a palace in Rome, surrounded by the trappings of privilege, but on the margins of the empire to desperate parents trapped by the brutality of that empire. Seeing the Nativity story in this light takes away none of its wonder or joy, but this re-visioning does challenge us to allow our joy to live side by side with our desire for justice.
When we take seriously the setting and circumstances of the Nativity story, we can use that story’s details to discover where Jesus would have us turn our attention throughout history and today. Like a Shakespeare play re-dressed for another context, we can re-dress the Nativity story. If the Nativity story were to take place in 1830s America, Jesus would have been born in a hovel at the back of a plantation to enslaved parents who might be split up and sold at a moment’s notice. Or in the same decade, perhaps Jesus would have been born along the Trail of Tears. A hundred years later, Jesus would have been born in a Polish ghetto as the Nazi restriction of Jewish rights moved inexorably to its final, horrible conclusion.
And what about today? How is the Nativity story re-dressed right now? Jesus would be born to asylum seeking parents at the southern border and placed in a detention facility. Or Jesus would be born to a homeless woman, giving birth in a parking structure in New York City. Or perhaps, Jesus would be born right where he was actually born – in Bethlehem, behind a twenty foot high concrete wall that is effectively keeping the little town’s Palestinian population quarantined.
My goal with this thought exercise is not to make you feel bad about celebrating Christmas as you always have. My goal is to help us all see the wider context of the Nativity story so that our Christmas celebration can enliven the mission God has placed on our hearts, the mission to widen the margins of society so that all find a place in its center, the mission to turn our upside down world rightside up again.
Hear again the words of the angel to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
To you is born this day in this city, and everyday in every city, the loving, liberating, and life-giving presence of Christ. Thanks be to God.