In Those Days
Christmas Eve Sermon, preached at Enmore, 2018.
Reading: Luke 2.1–20
Living in a society that has made Christmas into a great commercial enterprise it is not surprising that many of us get to Christmas day feeling a little jaded. We have spent hours in shops buying food and presents, we have been subjected to the worst recordings of Christmas Carols, inter woven with Jingle bells, Rudolph the red nosed reindeer and little drummer boys and in our minds it becomes difficult to unravel fact from fiction and reality from fantasy. So this evening I want us to pause for a few moments to look at Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus and to be reminded again of what we are celebrating this night. Luke is a great story teller and the details he includes all have a purpose in reinforcing his message.
We notice first of all, Luke wants us to know that Jesus was born at a particular time in human history. It happened, he tells us, when Augustus was Emperor. Social analysts like Hugh McKay tell us that the time and place of our birth to some extent shapes who we are and the way we view our world. I was born in 1948 which makes me, along with a number of others here, a baby boomer. Our parents grew up during the depression and survived the hardships of the war. My Dad went to primary school in Lane Cove and was proud of the fact that he sometimes walked to school in bare feet because his parents couldn’t afford shoes for all of their six children. We baby boomers had shoes, we had food on our plates and grew up in the era of post war recovery with almost full employment and steady economic growth.
Jesus was born into a country on the Eastern fringe of the Roman Empire, a land under occupation, where Roman soldiers were a common sight. Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar and became sole ruler of the Roman world after a bloody civil war in which he overcame all his rivals. Augustus transformed the great Roman republic into an empire, with himself at the head; he was a master of spin well before that term was invented. He proclaimed that he had brought justice and peace to the whole world. Around 10 B.C. a great altar was erected in Rome celebrating the peace brought about by Augustus. The Greek cities of Asia Minor adopted September 23rd, the birthday of the Emperor as the first day of the New Year. Many hailed him as the Saviour of the whole world.
This is the world into which Jesus was born: a real birth at a particular time in human history. The birth of a boy in the remote town of Bethlehem to a young peasant woman far from her home would have held no interest for the powerful men in Rome. Yet, Luke in his subtle way suggests that this birth will usher in a new age far more profound in its implications than the one proclaimed by Augustus. This baby will grow up to announce to his hearers that the Kingdom of God has come among them.
The second thing we notice in Luke’s beautiful narrative is that the angelic messengers announce the birth of Jesus to an unusual audience. In the Roman Empire the birth of a boy destined to be an emperor was usually heralded by poets and orators declaring peace and prosperity. Once again Luke subverts these expectations and has the angels proclaim peace and good will to a bunch of shepherds, “keeping watch over their flocks by night” as the KJV puts it so poetically. Shepherds in first century Palestine were poor, uneducated and were regarded by the religious authorities as unclean. Five lists of “proscribed trades” are listed in rabbinic literature and shepherds appear in three of the five. The shepherds are afraid when they see and hear the angels and are doubtless astonished when told they are to visit this special child who is none other than the promised Messiah.
Why does God choose shepherds to be the first to hear the good news and to greet the Christ child? Despite their lowly status in the first century, Israel had at least one famous shepherd. 1 Samuel 16 tells the famous story of Samuel the prophet being called by God to go to Bethlehem and anoint a new King from the sons of Jesse. Samuel goes and meets all the sons – who are lined up before him. But God, speaking through Samuel rejects all of them. When Samuel asks are there any more sons, Jesse says ‘yes, there is the youngest son, David, but he is out minding the sheep’. David, the shepherd boy from Bethlehem becomes the great King David and God declares that from his line will come a kingdom that will endure forever. Luke has already informed us that Joseph is from the house of David, so readers with any knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures can now join the dots and realise that the birth of Jesus means the fulfilment of God’s promises to David. A new King has been born who will be even greater than his ancestor, David.
The shepherds are given a sign so they will know when they have found the right baby. (Bethlehem was a small town so finding a new baby wouldn’t have been too difficult.) However, the sign they are given is full of meaning. “You will find a baby wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” Wrapping new born babies in bands of cloth was standard practice at that time, people believed it helped to keep the body straight and promoted good growth, as well as keeping them warm. In a country where the poor often slept in the same room as their animals, finding a baby lying in a manger may not have been completely unknown but the shepherds would have been reassured that they were not going to visit the high and mighty but rather, a very humble dwelling, where they would feel at home. Again Luke makes it clear that this Saviour is born to bring joy and hope to all people, including the poor, and the outcast.
Luke’s story is simply told: a narrative about an ordinary couple, inconvenienced by a decree from an Emperor far away who cares little about the impact his decisions have on his subjects and having to care for their new born baby, a long way from home in very lowly circumstances. Yet at the same time Luke indicates that this birth is unlike any other before or since. For in this birth, to borrow Matthew’s words, ‘God is with us’ in a new way. God, the one, all the universe could not contain, comes down into the world of little things, the little things in my life and yours, into the world of homelessness and refugees, of powerful presidents and overpaid CEO’s, of new born babies and the aged and infirm. He came into this world with all its messiness; its beauty and ugliness, joy and heartache, pain and promise. He was wrapped in bands of cloth at his birth and cradled in a borrowed manger and at his death he was bound again in bands of cloth and placed in a borrowed tomb. He did it all to show that his love can reach us anywhere and everywhere and that there are no depths in my life where he has not already come to meet me and to bring me back home. As Paul put it, ‘he who was rich for our sakes became poor so that we through his poverty might be rich.’ God in Christ brought heaven and earth together- the wall of separation dividing God and fallen humanity has been breached. Tonight we celebrate the birth of the saviour who showed us how much we are loved by God. On this day of giving let us not forget God’s great gift to us but welcome his Christ into our hearts and lives.