Sunday 25 December 2016
Of all the familiar stories in the bible, the passage we read this morning from the Gospel of Luke is perhaps the most familiar of all. In fact, it would be entirely possible for someone to have this passage memorized, even if they had never set foot in a church and had never cracked open a bible. Because if you know that Lucy pulls the football out from under Charlie Brown whenever he is about to kick it, you know that when Charlie Brown wants to know the meaning of Christmas, Linus gets out on the stage, dims the lights, and begins reciting from the King James: “And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.” All you have to do to be familiar with this passage is to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas. And since it has shown on network TV at least twice every year for the last fifty-one years, that is something nearly every person alive in the US has done at least once.
And when a story is as familiar as this one is, it is easy for us to forget just how strange it is. This is a very strange story. For one thing, most of us have it rattling around in our heads in the antiquated words of the King James version. What are swaddling clothes, anyway? What is a heavenly host? What does it mean to be sore afraid? But even if clear up some of the confusion by updating our language, it is still a very strange story, even by the standards of the bible. So let’s take the time to walk through it again, a little more slowly, and to notice some of the details that we usually let slip past us in the poetry of it all.
Even in the original Greek, this story is written in an antiquated style. Luke writes it to sound like one of the ancient tales from the Old Testament. He wants it to sound old-timey, to sound like scripture. So maybe reading it in the King James isn’t so far off, after all, at least in terms of style.
The story begins not with Mary or Joseph or the shepherds, but with the emperor, Caesar Augustus. He was the first Roman emperor, who rose to power through a series of political machinations and civil wars to become the undisputed most powerful man in the world. Western Europe had become accustomed to living under a republic, a republic which despised kings and tyrants. And yet, now the entire Mediterranean world was ruled by one man. When he was born, he was named Gaius Octavius, but by the time of our story, his name had legally been changed to: Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus—that is, Conqueror Caesar, Son of a God, Worthy of Religious Veneration. That’s where Luke starts the story of Jesus’s birth: with the most powerful ruler in the world, a man was considered to be the Son of God in his own lifetime, a man who was worshipped by his people in temples across the empire.
Augustus enters the story in order to do one thing: order a census. A census is not just a mundane, administrative affair. Even today it has tremendous political consequences. It determines the makeup of the House of Representatives and state legislatures, it helps determine how funds are allocated for roads, schools, public health, job training, community improvements, and services to the elderly. And you can certainly find groups in America who are outraged by the census and how it is a government conspiracy to limit liberty. In the ancient world, a census was definitely about domination. Most importantly, it was about taxes, assigning how much in taxes would be levied from each group of conquered peoples. Interestingly, the Hebrew Bible actually forbids any earthly ruler from calling for a census. According to the bible, God is the only one who is allowed to order a census.
It’s the census that causes Joseph to have to leave his home in Nazareth in order to be registered in his ancestral homeland, Bethlehem. Why exactly Mary has to come along with him is unclear. But the fact that they can find no room once they are in Bethlehem is telling. Most of us have been taught that there was no room in the inn. But that’s not actually very accurate. There wouldn’t have been an inn or hotel in the sense that we think of them. Instead, houses would have had a guestroom for visitors and travelers, especially in a town as small as Bethlehem: only a few hundred people. And if Joseph’s family was from Bethlehem, then he could have reasonably expected to be put up for free by one of the villagers, whether they were direct family or not. That would have been the cultural expectation of hospitality. The fact that Mary and Joseph cannot find a room indicates that they are being snubbed. Either there are more important guests already there, or they are being shut out for other reasons, perhaps because of the shame of Mary’s unexplained pregnancy. In any case, it leaves Mary to give birth to Jesus in the room where the animals are and to make a bed for him in the feed trough.
That right there is quite a contrast. We have already been introduced to Augustus, the king of kings, the lord of lords, the son of god, who lives in luxury, commands legions of soldiers, and rules over myriads of peoples. Then we have Jesus. He is homeless. His parents are too unimportant or too shameful to warrant a guestroom, even on the night Mary is going to give birth. He spends his first night in a room full of animals. What kind of a life is that for the Messiah? What kind of life is that for the Son of God? How could it be that there was no place for the Son of God?
The scene changes, and we move from the little town of Bethlehem to a group of shepherds out in the fields. Sometimes shepherds were romanticized. King David was. The 23rd Psalm imagines God as a good shepherd. But generally speaking, shepherds were part of the underclass. In this period, they only rarely owned their own flocks. They were usually hired hands. It was dirty work. And because it kept them out at night, it was dishonorable work. They weren’t home at night to protect their families. No one would have aspired to be a shepherd. It was the kind of work that polite, reputable people didn’t want to do. Like many of the jobs today in the agricultural industry, shepherding was vitally necessary work, but it was not the work that stable people wanted to do.
But on this one particular night, as this particular group of shepherds is out in the fields with the sheep, something happens. One of God’s messengers shows up. That’s what angel means: messenger. The emperor had angels too, messengers who would go from town to town proclaiming the good news of the empire. We aren’t told what God’s angel looked like, except that he was was shining with God’s glory, and something about him made the shepherds feel terrified.
The angel tells the shepherds not to be afraid. Just like one of the emperor’s messengers, he has good news to share. The emperor’s good news, the emperor’s gospel, would be stories like Rome’s military victories, or the birth or wedding of someone in the imperial family, or the proclamation of some kind of festival or games. Imperial good news was supposed to impress the people, to make them feel grateful for being a part of the empire, or at least to make them feel like the empire was too strong to be resisted.
So what kind of good news does God’s messenger bring? Well, it’s surprisingly similar to the emperor’s gospel. A new ruler has been born. He will be a savior of the people. He is the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed king. This is good news for all the people. And the sign that this message is true is that you will find this new savior, messiah, king lying in a feed trough.
And then what happens? The great multitude of the heavenly host. And when we talk about a heavenly host, we’re not talking about someone who welcomes you at the door and leads you to your table. We’re talking about a much older meaning of the English word host. In this passage, host means army. What appears before the shepherds is a heavenly army. And not a small one either. It is a great multitude of God’s heavenly army, decked out for war. That’s actually how the bible pictures angels. Not cute cherubs with harps and wings. That’s medieval imagery. In the bible, angels are otherworldly soldiers. No wonder the shepherds were terrified.
God’s army delivers its message: Glory to God and peace on earth. Then they go back to heaven. And the shepherds hurry into town. And they find Jesus there in the manger, and they tell the story of what they have seen. And everyone is amazed.
It is a very strange story with striking contrasts. On the one hand the most powerful man in the world, the Son of God, the savior, the conquerer, the bringer of peace, of the Pax Romana, Caesar Augustus. On the other hand, a newborn baby boy, homeless, lying in a feed trough because his parents don’t warrant a room, because there was no place for them, Jesus. On the one hand legions of powerful angel-soldiers, lighting up the night’s sky with the light of the glory of God. On the other hand, poor, dirty shepherds living on the margins of society, with no honor or power to speak of. How could it be that the homeless baby in the feed trough is of more significance than the emperor ruling over the world? How could it be that legions of angels take their message not to the Senate, not to the Sanhedrin, not to the temple, not even to the city forum or to the village square? How could it be that legions of angels take their good news to ragged, poor shepherds living in the fields? What could that possibly mean?
It can mean nothing else except that God makes a place for those who have no place. God makes a home among those who have no home. God looks over emperors and empresses, kings and queens, princes and princesses, and chooses a young, poor, homeless couple huddled among the animals. God looks over senators, governors, generals, town councillors, priests, scribes, and soldiers, and chooses marginalized agricultural workers living in the fields.
And God continues to make a home among those who have no place. Among the homeless looking for shelter from the cold. Among the orphan looking for a family. Among the unemployed looking for the stability and dignity of a job. Among the sick and diseased looking for healing. Among the disabled looking accommodation and respect. Among the victimized looking for justice. Among the marginalized looking for a place. Among the despised looking for acceptance. Among the scapegoat looking for fairness. Among the immigrant looking for a home. Among the refugee looking for peace. Among the brokenhearted looking for restoration. Among the depressed looking for hope. Among the anxious looking for confidence. Among the dying looking for comfort. Among the grieving looking for assurance.
This is where God lives. God appears not in places of greatest strength, but in the places of greatest weakness. God find a place among those who have no place. Among an unwed mother like Mary. Among dirty, poor shepherds. Among all those who by their very need of God are able to be a home for Emmanuel, God-with-us.