“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree (to) all the world…” With regal themes Luke timestamps Jesus’ birth year. In four verses, Luke will reference a king, emperor, or empire seven times. Luke did not reference the High Priest in Jerusalem or the local governor, but Caesar in Italy and Quirinius in Syria. The Roman Empire installed Quirinius as a military governor over Israel’s neighbor to crush a minor Jewish revolt. The Empire hailed Caesar with titles like “God”, “Son of God”, “Savior”, and “Father”. After establishing the date, Luke tells us the setting of Bethlehem not with the town’s name “Bethlehem” but with the phrase “the City of David.” We read that Joseph belongs to “David’s house” and “from the (blood)line of David”. The title “Christ” means “The anointed one” as in Samuel anointed David as King or Moses anointed Aaron as High Priest. (1 Samuel 16; Exodus 29) Tonight, we celebrate an impromptu coronation as an angel army, God’s Holy Spirit, Mary’s water, local shepherds, and foreign Magi anoint Jesus as “The Christ”! We hail Jesus as Christ, God’s Anointed One, Son of God, Savior, Prince of Peace, and Lord. Before the first century ended, the title “Christ” became so closely associated with Jesus that it functions for us like a proper name: Jesus Christ. Tonight we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ: a very different kind of king.
In contrast to Caesar Augustus, King David, or Lord Quirinius, Jesus Christ was born into insecure housing. Jesus’ legal parents aren’t yet married. Joseph’s family in Bethlehem can’t make room for his pregnant fiancé’. The Holy Family can’t find a hospital or even a hotel room. So Christ, the Son of God, and Prince of Peace is born inside a borrowed barn, wrapped up in common cloth, and laid in a commandeered sheep’s feedbox as a bed. God’s deep compassion for all of humanity draws God to come and be born in a tent beside an underpass. Allow the Caesar and Christ contrast to soak into your soul. What kind of King is Jesus? What kin-dom does such a king build?
If we miss Luke’s Caesar and Christ contrast we likely will miss the deeper message of Christ. Hear the angels singing of Good News for all people- hope for all people- justice for all people- joy for all people. Tonight, we sing of the Christ Child laid in the manger and shout out that Christ comes to break every oppressive yoke. We sing of the in-breaking “kin-dom of God” (Luke): the arrival of the liberating “kin-dom of heaven”. (Matthew)
Marcus Borg points us to the treasonous audacity of the early church who proclaimed Jesus as Christ and Lord: “The proclamation of Jesus as Son of God, Lord, and Savior directly countered Roman imperial theology…. Jesus was Lord and the emperor was not! ‘Jesus is Lord’ was high treason!… (The) message challenged the normalcy of civilization, then and now, with an alternative vision of how life on earth can and should be.” (Marcus Borg- The First Paul). Tonight, lift your candle in solidarity with a different kind of kingdom, where babies are not born in barns, the hungry are fed, the thirsty have clean water, the sick get free healthcare, prisoners find liberation, strangers are welcomed, and all people hear Good News. (Matthew 11&25)
Back in those days before cell phones or street lights, the only people awake at two am were midwives, new parents and shepherds. Out in their fields shepherds were keeping watch for wolves and thieves when suddenly an angel of the Lord stood before them and the glory of the Lord shone around them. What was that like? Exodus 34 tells a beautiful story of Moses coming down off Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments. Moses’ face, hands and beard were literally shining, having seen God’s Glory a radiant glow lingered on Moses’ hair. Freaked out by Moses’ shimmering halo, the people demand Moses cover his face with a veil. When the overwhelming glory of God shone all around the shepherds, they too were terrified. Tonight, Joseph holds God’s unveiled glory, The Light of The World, in the tiny baby human in his arms. Mary sings a lullaby as she cradles Almighty God tenderly nursing the Holy of Holies. Tonight, there is no fear, no blinding light, no need to wear a veil or worry over being struck down by God. (Leviticus 16 , 1 Chronicles 13, 1 John 4) Tonight, God becomes so vulnerable as to need us. Ponder the mystery of Love coming so near as to become one of us.
The shimmering angel proclaims: “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.”
Hear God’s Good News for all people- God’s salvation for all people. See the sign, how God enters our world, Christ is with us, not with throne, swords or chariots. God takes on our humanity, our bodies, our vulnerability. As we lift our candles and celebrate Jesus, the Light of the world, we remember that Jesus sings to us: “You are the light of the world. You are a city set high on a hill shining hope through your good works”. We care for God when we house a family living under life’s underpass.
Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”
The line limiting God’s favor skips like a scratched record. Why would God withhold peace from some of us? What kind of heavenly father or mother plays favorites at Christmas? Jesus and our Jewish ancestors understood peace not as a prayerful exercise but as a holistic way of living; peace is the deepest expression of right relationships with God and other human beings. Peace in the Hebrew Bible and Gospels is not about inward feelings, but is the linking one’s whole heart, body and mind to the work of lovingkindness, justice, and mercy. (Psalm 85) To seek God’s peace was to make a vow to strive for harmonious relationships with God, ourselves, neighbors, strangers, and opponents.
Not all of us want that kind of peace. Not all of us are ready to become children of God- if that means we must make peace, do good to those who hate us, offer loving-kindness to enemies, welcome strangers, stop living for earthly treasures, and forgive seventy seven more times. ( Matthew 5-7) Not all of us are willing to be as vulnerable as our Savior- we cling to positions, power and possessions that never free us. It feels spiritually selfish to long for inner peace, if we are unwilling to do the harder work of making real-life peace? But these works go together! God is not withholding favor or peace from those who say the wrong theological formulas, but offering peace to those who will walk the path of Peace, Justice and Love. Tonight, let us move deeper than feel good anthems of inner peace but lift up our candles resolving to work for peace around our tables, reconciliation across our divides and equity on earth as in heaven. Let us lift our candles not only longing for personal peace but pledging to do the work of justice and forgiveness that bring peace about.
After the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. They went quickly and found the Holy Family and shared with them everything the angels had told them about Jesus the Christ. Everyone was amazed, but Mary treasured all these things in her heart. And then the shepherds returned to the fields, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.
It is shepherds, nightshift farmhands, who anoint Jesus as the Christ. It is not a princess, duke or earl that crowns Jesus as the Christ but guys smelling of the fields, sheep and strong coffee. They repeat the angel’s song that Mary already knew: “Don’t be afraid! Look! God brings good news to us all—wonderful, joyous news for all people. Our savior is born tonight; Christ the Lord.” This impromptu coronation welcomes all people- dignifies all people- includes all people. God’s love leaves no one out. How can Perfect Love leave anyone out?
So tonight, sing for all that Christ means to you, but listen for heaven’s more complex melody. God’s Christmas song challenges every Caesar, lifts every voice, and brings Good News to all people. Tonight, let us hold vigil for a better world. Lift your candle resolving to help build Christ’s kingdom- where babies are not born in stables, the hungry are fed, the thirsty have clean water, peace-making is our routine, the sick receive free healthcare, prisoners find liberation, strangers are welcomed, and all people- all people are welcomed. Come and sing of the Light of the World, and raise your candle to light this world. Amen.