December 23, 2016 by jmar198013
Manuscript of my Christmas 2016 sermon for Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA.
Text is Luke 2.8-20.
Resources I used for this sermon include:
Brendan Byrne. The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel. rev. ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015), 41-44.
Justo L. Gonzalez. Luke. Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 32-41.
Joel B. Green. The Gospel of Luke. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 124-40.
John Nolland. Luke 1 – 9:20. Word Biblical Commentary, volume 35a. (Dallas: Word Books, 1989), 93-113.
For those who’d like to listen, an audio link is embedded below
Son of God, Savior, bringer of peace
Last week, we heard Jesus’ mother, Mary, singing the gospel of Christmas. The Good News of the Lord’s visitation. A visitation made possible by the baby growing in her virgin womb, through the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s the Good News of God making the impossible possible. Mary sang that God was coming to make everything that had gone tragically wrong, right again.
He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty-handed. (Luke 1.52-53)
God is a God who takes the powerful down a few pegs, and picks up the downtrodden. A God who balances the scales in favor of those who have been forgotten, lost, put down, and thrown away. That’s why he’s worthy to be God.
And to prove this point, Luke tells us that Jesus was born in the days when Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists (Luke 2.1). Augustus Caesar was the ruler of the Roman Empire. In those days, he was the most powerful man in the world. The people called him a Son of God. They called him Savior—the liberator and healer of the world. They all said he was responsible for bringing peace on earth.
But Luke isn’t interested in telling us about Augustus. He points us to a humble town in Jewish territory: Bethlehem. The hometown of Israel’s greatest king, David. And he lets us witness the birth of a newborn king, Jesus. The one the angel Gabriel had told Mary will be called God’s Son (Luke 1.35).
And in Luke’s story, the seemingly all-powerful Caesar Augustus is really working for God. Of course, he doesn’t know that. Augustus thinks he’s just doing a head-count to extract more taxes from the kingdoms he rules. But God was using Caesar’s greedy power-trip to display God’s faithfulness. By having David’s descendant, Jesus, born in David’s hometown. Confirming the word of the prophet:
As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
though you are the least significant of Judah’s forces,
one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you.
His origin is from remote times, from ancient days. (Micah 5.2)
All because of Caesar’s census:
Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom. (Luke 2.3-7)
And Mary’s son, from David’s line, lying swaddled in a manger—a feeding trough of all places!—in David’s hometown is the one to whom God has given all authority on earth and in heaven (Matt. 28.18). Luke wants us to see that Caesar’s throne doesn’t mean anything. Like all kingdoms, Caesar’s rule will be swallowed up by the kingdom of God, which Jesus brought to earth. But God was lifting up his King from among the lowly. Just like Mary sang about. Because that’s who our God is.
Joyous news for all people
I suspect most of us have been trained to imagine Mary and Joseph as meek and mild. Not the kind of people who got angry or complained about their lot in life. But they were real people with real troubles and real feelings, just like us. They were human, after all. Anyway, if you were paying attention to the song Mary sang, you ought to know she was a spunky young firebrand who probably had lots of opinions about things.
Some of those opinions might make some of us a bit uncomfortable, I bet.
Anyway, I’m almost certain that Mary and Joseph were as put out as anybody else would be to be forced to make a cross-country journey. While Mary was great with child, as the King James translators put it, mincing no words. And then having to give birth in what I’m sure were incredibly smelly and unsanitary conditions. And even though it was God’s Child she was birthing, labor and delivery was as excruciating, bloody, and scary for Mary as it is for any mother. And then having to put their firstborn to bed in a feeding trough. All because some guy in Rome wanted to squeeze even more money out of people who were already brutally poor.
Yes, I bet that Mary and Joseph spent their journey talking about how God pulling down the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly couldn’t come soon enough!
Same for those shepherds working the graveyard shift on the outskirts of Bethlehem that night. Their work was to fight off any wolves who threatened their sheep. But Augustus Caesar was a wolf they couldn’t just chase away. And this taxation census was his way of devouring more of their flocks.
Bethlehem’s most famous son, King David, had once been a shepherd. But like most everyone in the House of Israel in those days, the glory days were long over for these Bethlehem shepherds. These were rough-hewn, hardscrabble men who dodged bill collectors and probably didn’t make it to synagogue for Sabbath services very often. I like to think they were discussing Caesar’s policies among themselves, perhaps with rather salty language, when the Lord’s angel stood before them, and the Lord’s glory shone around them. If any of them had been dozing, they were wide awake now!
And the angel said: Don’t be afraid! Angels almost always say that in the Bible when they show up. Gabriel had said the same thing to Mary when he came announce that she would conceive Jesus. These shepherds had probably just been talking about their fears. How were they going to get by when Caesar demanded even more payments from them? How would they feed their wives and children? Caesar’s census had anxiety levels sky high in the region. According to Acts 5.37—which Luke also wrote—such a census was even known to spark rebellions.
Then the angel told the anxious shepherds: Look! I bring good news to you. In other words, this angel has come to preach the gospel. The angel says the gospel he brings is wonderful, joyous news for all people. If the gospel we proclaim and live by isn’t first good news for folks like those anxious shepherds, it’s not the real gospel.
In Luke’s writings, all the people means all the common people. For instance, early in the book of Acts, there’s a story about Peter and John healing a well-known beggar who’d been paralyzed since birth. Luke reports that when they saw this beggar they recognized walking around praising God, all the people rushed toward them … completely amazed (Acts 3.11). All the people means the random folks who’d be milling around Wal-Mart at 3:00 in the afternoon. The kind of people who might be personally familiar with all the panhandlers in town.
Specifically, the angels had good news for people like the shepherds. For the lowly and the hungry. And the good news was that the Messiah—God’s anointed King—had finally arrived to rescue the people. Your savior is born today in David’s city, said the angel. And then he told them how to find their Messiah: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.
The things Mary had sung about were already coming true. Augustus Caesar had just been dethroned, and didn’t even know it yet. The real Son of God and Savior has just come into the world. And the lowly were already being lifted up. Because God didn’t bother to share this good news with the powerful, the rich, the religious establishment, or any of the movers and shakers of the time. No. God sent his angel to share this news with a bunch of tired shepherds.
And Luke invites us to come along, to follow those shepherds on their breathless chase to meet the newborn King in his manger bed.
And as they run to meet their King, they’re serenaded by a band of heavenly warriors, singing: Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.
And so we find ourselves, along with those shepherds, among those whom God favors.
The gospel of Christmas
The gospel of Christmas is the same Good News announced time and time again throughout all the scriptures. And it is this: God comes to rescue, redeem, and restore his people and his creation.
But the reality of this Good News is that it often shows up in unexpected places. At inconvenient times. Through people, circumstances, and events that may seem rather insignificant at the time. And often, the people who catch the first glimpse of what God is doing aren’t the people you or I would have picked.
One of the many ways the scriptures serve us is by training us how to see what’s going on around us. To wait on God. To look for God at work in unexpected places. To find the holy in what might seem insignificant. To be able to recognize what God is doing in and through other people. Maybe especially people who often get overlooked.
The story of Christmas does all that for us. We just listened as Luke led us past the emperor Caesar Augustus—the ruler of the known world. Who was called Son of God and Savior. Who was credited with making peace on earth. Luke leads us right by the most powerful, the wealthiest, the ones who have the power to shake things up down here. And Luke says, Yeah, those guys are just footnotes, really.
And after bypassing Caesar and his kingdom and his army of bureaucrats, Luke points us to a newborn baby boy. The firstborn son of working class parents who weren’t even quite married, yet. Asleep in a feeding trough. With a crop of crusty shepherds cooing and fawning over him. And Luke points us to that newborn boy and insists: Now there’s the Son of God and the Savior! And do you want to know the real meaning of peace on earth? Listen to the heavenly armies singing! And their song still hangs in the air around this scene: Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.
And then you realize that the favor of God that night rested on the ones who watched that little baby boy sleeping in that manger. A virgin mother who believed that all things are possible for God. A day laborer with royal DNA in him. Along with a handful of grizzled night watchmen who just happened to be around.
And Luke has brought us along to stand there with them. Awestruck. Falling in love with this baby boy, this Son of God who is the salvation of the world. And as we find ourselves among that strange little community that welcomed Jesus into the world—who felt God’s presence in the person of this child—maybe we begin to feel at peace, as well.
After all, if God’s favor was with them—Mary, Joseph, those shepherds—then there’s probably also room in God’s favor for you and me.
Seems like Luke wants us to understand, from the beginning, God extends his favor to anyone who finds a way to make room for his Son. God welcomes all who welcome Jesus.
And that’s the Good News of Christmas: Peace among those whom God favors. And God’s favor extends to folks like Mary.
And those shepherds.
And all the people who are lowly and need to be lifted up. Who are hungry and need to be filled.
And yes: even to folks like you and me.