St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

In Those Days (Christmas Eve 2018)

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.

Philip Brad­ford