Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:1-14
Welcome to St. Paul’s on this most holy night, as we recall one of the central stories of our faith, mixed together with the stories of our own lives, and contemplate what those stories might mean for us as we approach a new year.
As I think about Christmas, stories come flooding into my soul. I remember being a child and participating in the church’s Christmas pageant: little Sammy all decked out in a bathrobe and a paper crown, a gold spray-painted cigar box in my hands. I remember later in college singing the role of one of the kings in a university production of the opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, just as excited to don the costume and assume the role of eastern visitor as I was five years old.
I remember all the traditions of a Smith family Christmas, from the food eaten on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, to the specific rules for unwrapping gifts. I remember the happy faces of family assembled around Christmas trees in the various living rooms of our lives.
I remember the year between high school and college when I lived in Copenhagen, learning new Christmas customs and feeling a little lonely in my first Christmas away from the family.
And that’s only a sampling of my Christmas stories. All of these stories travel with me now, and they rumble around my heart and head tonight as I contemplate what this sacred moment means to me. It’s about all of those memories, just as much as it is about God come to earth in the story of a baby born in a stable.
Stories define us. A key part of what makes humans unique as species is our memory, and our ability to fashion stories to hold those memories, as well as to explain our lives. Those stories, whether they recall happy moments, or terrible ones, shape us.
One commentator has said that Luke, the gospel writer whose account of the birth of Jesus is read here every year on Christmas Eve, is writing a parable to explain who this Christ was. We really don’t know the particulars of Jesus’ birth, long before our 24-hour news cycle and cameras in every hand. We depend on the gospel writers for the details, but they had much different standards for storytelling. They crafted stories to get at truth, but not necessarily facts. That’s what a parable is: a metaphorical narrative whose truth lies in its meaning. Most often we assign that term to the stories that Jesus himself tells. But it is interesting to think of the Christmas story in the same way.
What truths might we derive from this story, then? This Christmas Eve I am drawn to circumstances of this extraordinary birth and the nature of the power possessed by this king. The power of the emperor Augustus is contrasted with the “power of the child born with only a manger for a bed, behind an out-of-the-way inn in Bethlehem.”[i] The Emperor, who has ordered everyone to be counted has power over the whole world; But this babe promises to be a leader who will not have power over us but power with us. This is a King will lift up the lowly and fill the hungry with good things. He is a King for the marginalized, and therefore for all, even us.
And his power is “utterly different in kind from power in the standard oppositional, us against them sense.”[ii] Luke puts a display of this power front and center: “A poor young couple, the girl pregnant, is forced to travel. Their nation has long been occupied by a foreign power, and their hand has been forced, together with the whole population, by an emperor, Caesar Augustus, who wants to inventory his resources.”[iii]
You may recall that Augustus was famous for his Pax Romana, that 200 year-long period of peace and stability into which Jesus was born. Augustus kept that peace through force—by the force of his iron fist. It is understood that this peace was not so much about an absence of war, as it was about a moment when all opponents had been beaten down and lost the ability to resist.[iv]
But in the birth of the Messiah, the inbreaking of God into humanity, a different kind of peace is promised. As the angels sing to those simple shepherds quaking on a dark hillside, this birth ushers in peace among all who God favors. And we who know the words this Jesus will utter and inspire know that God favors everyone—no one is outside of the reach of his saving embrace. All are given the simple, and profound, gift of peace through this unlikely event 2,000 years ago.
To underscore this different kind of peace, a peace that comes not through might but through love, is signaled by the very circumstances of this king’s entry onto the scene. The angel says, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” This simply has to be a different kind of king. What might could be possessed by a helpless child lying in a feeding trough? He is marginal in almost every respect. And that marginality signals the true power he brings to earth.
And what is the nature of that power? Of that peace? Above all it is about Love. As our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry (Harry & Meghan’s Royal Wedding preacher), likes to say: “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” This God promises a world where love is the guiding force; where peace is achieved not by the sword, and not by sniping or getting the last word, but simply by love for one another.
My prayer for you this evening is that you will connect your story to this big story. That you will understand that only a God who came to earth in such humble circumstances can bring lasting peace. That in the face of those who would tell us that might and snark is the way to win, you will instead embrace love as your road to a lasting peace.
See yourself in the story; come to that lowly stable with all that you are—with all your pains and hurts and disappointments and sadness—dare to stand their and gaze upon the face of the most unlikely king of all: a babe who can do nothing but love. Give yourself to that love, make his story yours, that together we might shine with love’s pure light onto a world sorely in need of that glow. Merry Christmas, and may God’s peace-God’s love be yours, tonight and always. Amen.
[i] Ferguson, Jane Anne, Feasting on the Gospels, Luke, Volume 1, Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), p. 35.
[ii] Greenway, William. Feasting on the Gospels, Luke, Volume 1 (Ibid), p. 38.
[iv] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pax_Romana, accessed 12/24/2019.