So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.
(Preached on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017)
Such a vulnerable little thing,
wrinkled and covered with vernix
who coughed and gave a cry;
the midwife feeling blest
handed him to the torn mother
who nestled him on her breast.
Such a vulnerable little thing,
bare as a new-hatched cockatoo
blinking at the stable lamps;
the father looked proudly on
not at all taken aback
by the weakness of his son.
Such a vulnerable little thing,
love framed in flesh and blood,
a God who’s born to die;
the cattle munched their straw
and shepherds came to see
as they never had before.
The poet (Australian, Bruce Prewer) captures beautifully in this poem, Incarnation, the vulnerability of this child whose birth we celebrate tonight. The reality of this birth is so different from the typical descriptions of great births. Perhaps you have heard this description before: He was honored as lord. He was called a son of god. He was hailed as the bringer of peace. He was proclaimed the savior of the world. Tonight we hear those words and believe they speak of Jesus. And they do, for those of us here tonight who believe (or at least want to believe). But in truth those very words, at the time of Jesus’ birth, had already been proclaimed about another: Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus, born 63 years before Jesus. Caesar Augustus had earned those titles through his successes in unifying an empire rent by civil war, rebuilding Rome physically and politically, enlarging her territories and increasing her influence over the known world. There was no one more powerful and important in the world than Caesar Augustus.
Luke makes this clear with the opening lines of this chapter: In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered … All went to their own towns to be registered. Marvel at the power and imperial arrogance displayed here. With a mere decree, a pregnant Mary and harried Joseph are sent scurrying like ants from a disturbed hill. Caesar’s desire to number his subjects will force them out on the open road in the final days of her pregnancy. His thirst for the tax revenue will force Mary to give birth in a stable. By all accounts and appearances, Rome pulls the strings and her people are merely puppets. Sound familiar?
I know, on a night like this one, the very last thing you want to hear about is politics. And especially politics and taxes, which is currently a very sore subject! It was almost a relief this morning to open the morning paper and realize that the politicians in Washington were all home with their families and couldn’t muck around with our lives so arbitrarily and so poorly as they have been doing. At least not for a couple of weeks! But alas, even tonight politics rears its ugly head because this is church and we’re on the threshold of the birth of God-in-flesh, Emmanuel, God-with-us. I would like nothing better than to let this whole political idea go, but we can’t because our Scripture for tonight won’t let us. The passage from Isaiah set the stage and then Luke jumps right in there.
In the Roman Empire, taxes were, to a significant extent, a form of legalized theft of the poor by the rich. The extraction of taxes under the threat of violence was central to the means and purposes of the Empire. Not by coincidence, taxes form a critical part of the backdrop for the Christmas story. This registration, this census, was a form of Emperor Augustus flexing his muscles and reminding everybody in the world just who was in charge. For us in the United States, the tax situation is different today, but as we recently saw in the U.S. Congress, taxes are still about power and wealth.
You see, the Christmas story is really all about who is in charge! Is it the one who demands our obedience through fear and law? Or is it the One who invites us to his lowly manger bed and captures our hearts with his humility? Who is the true Son of God? Is it the one who picks up a sword and destroys his enemies? It would be understandable for us to think so. After all, isn’t that the way the world works? Earthly rulers all make the same mistake. They think they know how to win the game. They think the goal of life is like the aim of Monopoly: more power, more glory, more land, and more wealth. To win a game of Monopoly, one must choose greed and often wind up with enemies.
That is why this birth story is such a scandal. Because this birth story proclaims, as Philip Yancey states: “though the world may be tilted toward the rich and powerful, God is tilted toward the underdog.” Here is the promised Messiah; here is the one proclaimed by the angels as Savior, Lord, Son of God, born in a manger, a dirty feed trough for animals. Think about it: here is God-made-flesh, the One who created the universe, the One who raised mountains and filled the seas, lying prone and helpless on a bed of barn straw. Did he know he was helpless to clean himself? Did he know that he had to wait for someone to notice the dampness and the odor and come to his aid? Talk about a lowly beginning! This is about as underdog a beginning to life for Jesus as one could imagine!
And that is the Good News of this night! God-made-flesh in this way means that all bodies are now God’s body; whether buried in the rubble of a suicide bomber in Afghanistan or broken by the crash of a car driven into an innocent crowd; whether ravaged by AIDS in Africa or dying in a nursing home in South Florida; whether worried about losing your healthcare coverage or just what will happen to my taxes in the new year. God did not move ON from the folly and suffering of the world, but God moved IN. Not just in anybody but in Jesus, born in a manger, lifted up on a cross, and lifted out of a tomb.
God knows that some of you have come tonight with more anxiety than cheer this Christmas Eve. Far from being wise people bearing gifts to the Christ child, we find ourselves foolish and burdened with guilt and fear. But our authority in life, unlike those who pretend to hold authority over us, not only knows how you feel, but God cares how you feel. If we trust the God we find in this lowly manger, we can find courage and hope. For like the shepherds, we can come and marvel and then leave rejoicing at our salvation. For we leave here knowing that we do not leave alone, but God-is-with-us, Emmanuel!