Sermon Christmas Eve 2018
It’s Christmas Eve ….. so let’s talk politics! Emperor Augustus, Governor Quirinius, conducting a census, and collecting taxes, all matters of governing. That’s how Luke’s Christmas story begins after all, with politics. Many biblical commentators think that Luke included these details in order to place the birth of Jesus in a particular historical time slot. Some commentators add that these details also justify Joseph and Mary travelling from Nazareth in the north to Bethlehem in the south, an event most eight-month pregnant women would want to avoid. But I wonder if there is more to it than that. I wonder if Luke had something else in mind when he included these political details in his narrative, because everything with which this story begins would have left a bitter taste in the mouth of every first century Jew. Luke begins his Christmas story by making his listeners drink bile. Here’s what happened.
The Jewish governor of Syria, Herod Archelaus, (one of the Herod boys) was an extremely poor administrator and made a mess of things. So the Emperor exiled him to France and installed one of his most trusted and capable generals, Publicus Sulpicius Quirinius. To re-establish order, one of the first things he did was to conduct a census. He wanted to know who he was ruling. Once that was completed he instituted a new way of paying taxes. Up to this point most people paid their taxes in kind, and being mostly farmers or herders, that meant in grain or livestock. Quirinius ordered all taxes to be paid in money – coins -which presented the local Jewish population with two challenges. First of all, Roman coins typically bore the image of either a god, goddess, or emperor, and usually included an inscription declaring the emperor to be divine. Even touching such a coin violated parts of the Ten Commandments such as “…having no others gods but me”….and “…no graven images.” Secondly, most farmers lived by the barter system, which meant that they would need to borrow money to pay their taxes. Then if their crops failed, which happened regularly, they would fall into debt. Luke begins his Christmas story by reminding his listeners of Rome’s power, Rome’s brutality, and Rome’s disregard for the Jewish faith.
But then Luke switches gears and introduces a young couple, engaged but not yet married, Mary and Joseph, who must follow the decree and travel to Joseph’s ancestral village, Bethlehem, to register for the census. Mary and Joseph are the antithesis of Rome’s power. They are simple, hard-working peasants from a small town in Galilee. While in Bethlehem (which is incidentally the hometown of Israel’s greatest king, David,) Mary gives birth to a son, who will not be named for eight days, according to Jewish custom. Right about that time in the hills outside of town, a messenger from God appears to a group of night shepherds, telling them of the birth and declaring that the baby is a savior, a messiah, and a lord. And at that moment, our translation of the text says that a multitude of messengers of God join the first one. But the original Greek text gets it right. It is a heavenly army that joins the first messenger. The emperor has an army, and God has his. The shepherds too are antithetical to Rome’s power. They are not rich, not educated, hold no positions of authority, but they have been chosen to be the first people on earth to learn of the birth of Jesus, the incarnation. You know, its one thing to be a shepherd: basic, hard-working, peasant stock. But it’s something else to be a shepherd who pulls the night shift – really basic! Yet this is the group that the messenger chooses first, before any others, to hear the news about the birth.
It seems to me that Luke is not just telling the story of Jesus’ birth, but in doing so is also setting up two contradicting realities. On the one hand there is the Roman reality which is all about dominance, control, fear, violence and wealth. (Did I mention that Quirinius was filthy rich?) On the other hand there is God’s reality that is all about faithfulness and reliance on God’s grace and goodness and concern for one’s neighbor. Who is going to win between these two realities? Which will capture the hearts of the people? By which will people be inspired to construct and order their lives? Augustus, Quirinius, taxes and a powerful Roman army on one side, and an unmarried, pregnant women, night shepherds and a heavenly army on the other. Everything depends on it – everything. Rome is powerful and possesses the most sophisticated and well-trained and well-equipped military in the world. It is not threatened by small bands of Jewish guerrilla fighters that roamed the hills of Israel in Jesus’ day. And just in case you were thinking that all those fancy titles the messenger of God rattled off to the shepherds would certainly tip the scales in God’s favor, the Emperor Augustus had fancy titles too. There’s a stone inscription in the ancient city of Prienes, in western Turkey that refers to Augustus as, and I quote: …a savior, who makes wars to cease and shall put everything in peaceful order, whose birth signaled the beginning of good news for the world.” Sound familiar to anyone? Tit for tat.
So who’s going to win out? It looks like all the cards are stacked in Rome’s favor. Jewish peasants going up against the Roman Empire feels a little bit like the Saugerties High School football team going up against the Super Bowl champs. But if Luke really thought that there was no chance of victory whatsoever why is he writing a book and calling it “good news” – gospel?
He knows something, and its not in the Christmas story that we hear tonight, at least not explicitly. It is a detail he mentions in his gospel a few paragraphs earlier: pregnant Mary is a virgin. Now in case you skipped your high school biology class when the teacher talked about how babies are made, let me bring you up to speed. Virgins cannot be pregnant. It’s impossible. Scientifically it cannot occur. And I’m not saying that there are only a handful of instances in medical history of virgins becoming pregnant, I’m saying there are none. And yet,….and yet, Mary is pregnant.
When Luke includes this little detail in his narrative he’s not just trying to illustrate what a special guy Jesus was for having a unique in utero experience. Luke is telling us all that in God’s holiness there is hope. Impossible things can happen, so even the unlikely or unexpected are now within the realm of possibility.
Now, I’m not saying that God makes everyone’s fantasies come true. What I’m saying is that God brings hope. Rome was by far the most powerful force on the planet when Jesus was alive. But the Roman Empire fell, while the church of God lives on. Humans live amidst temporal things. God deals in things eternal. Luke knows who will win in the end. The things that truly matter will come to pass, even if that seems totally impossible at the moment.
Luke begins his Christmas story with the taste of bitterness and ends it with the sweet odor of hope. We have been given good tidings of great joy – this child is born.
In Christ’s name. Amen.