Sermon preached in Bishopton Parish Church, on 24th December 2010, Christmas Eve
Christmas is that time of the year when preachers usually go into imagination melt-down. Virtually every year at Christmas we have to preach from the same passage, so it is quite difficult to know what we can say that is new and fresh. Everyone knows about the baby born in a stable, the shepherds, the choir of angels, the wise men and so on. Is there anything surprising about Christmas anymore? Haven’t we already said everything that can be said about it?
Every year we hear that Christmas is not about pine trees and tinsel, or about buying and receiving gifts, but about the baby Jesus being born in a stable. We are urged to think about the Son of God being born into the world, and to not allow ourselves to get distracted by all the commercial hype around Christmas. That is a good message in itself, but it’s getting a bit old now and I have to admit I am getting tired of hearing it. It’s like a broken record. Is there anything new and surprising about the birth story of Jesus?
The problem for us today is that we know it’s coming. We had four Sundays of Advent to think about its coming. We’ve been forewarned. We talked about its coming, we sang about it, we lit four consecutive candles. It doesn’t get more obvious than that. We are all prepared for it. We know the day and the hour when it arrives. It is clearly marked in our diaries. Our trees and homes are decorated; the gifts are all wrapped, even if we know Christmas is not about those things. We are ready. It is not surprising. Nobody is going to say on Christmas morning: “Oh, it’s Christmas! It caught me by surprise this year!”
That is perhaps why we miss the true splendour of the coming of Christ in the world; because we are no longer surprised. It is no longer the great surprise it was for everyone in the first century when the Son of God came into the world in a humble stable. Nobody expected the King of Kings to be born in such humble conditions, with no army to protect him, with no servants or soft royal robes.
It was very surprising for the shepherds to hear the good news. It was so surprising for them that they almost had a heart attack when the light of the angels broke through the darkness they dwelt in. Just try to imagine their terror! And try to imagine their surprise that the choir of angels bothered to tell THEM the good news. The shepherds were the lowest cast in Judea. They must have wondered if the angels got the wrong address: “No, mister angel, Jerusalem is three miles that way. Same post code, wrong house.” Of course they didn’t say that, they were terrified and lost for words.
Today, when the children try to re-enact the nativity story, we try to at least act surprised when the angels announce the good news, but we all know it’s just an act. We are no longer terrified and lost for words. We know the words. We’ve heard it all before. It doesn’t have the same effect on us that it did on those who were desperate for a Saviour, but had no clue when he would come and how. And the kind of Saviour they did receive was very different to the one they were expecting. That was another big surprise. But perhaps this is where we could be surprised as well…
We may be tempted to think that the birth of Jesus has an exclusively personal spiritual significance, and it has little to do with, say, global politics or economics. I remember being bombarded every Christmas with questions such as: “Was Jesus born in your heart this Christmas?” I always struggled with that question as a child – “How does that work exactly? What does it mean?” The implication of that question is that the birth of Jesus only has a personal significance – it’s about me and Jesus, my personal Saviour.
What we perhaps miss at Christmas is that expressions such as “the Son of God” and “the saviour of the world” were not new to the people living under Roman occupation. They were already in circulation before Jesus was born. They were not surprising expressions. These attributes had already been associated with the person named in the beginning of the chapter in Luke’s gospel.
Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor was named or rather named himself as the “the son of God” and he was praised by contemporary historians and hailed as the “saviour of the world”. After the assassination of Julius Caesar, Octavian joined with Mark Anthony and defeated the anti-Caesar faction lead by Brutus and Cassius. Then, after falling out with Mark Anthony, Octavian defeated Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, putting an end to the Roman Civil war. Octavian became Caesar Augustus, conceived by the gods, the saviour of the world.
Perhaps it is surprising for us to realise that actually what we thought could be described as a quiet, private family event in a small town in Judea had such dramatic political overtones. There is perhaps a long way to go from “Jesus being born in our hearts” to a strong political statement made through the mouths of angels. The angels indirectly announced that the Saviour was not Caesar Augustus, but the baby born in the city of David. Christ is the real Lord, not Caesar! That was a strongly political statement.
From his very birth Jesus would be in opposition to the empire. He was a King, but not like Caesar. He would not use armies and war to expand his kingdom. He was a Saviour, but a different kind of saviour to Caesar. Caesar was perhaps a saviour for the Romans, but Jesus would be a saviour for all the world.
That is why the angel said to the shepherds: “Don’t be afraid! I am here with good news for you, which will bring great joy to ALL the people.” – To all the people; not just to the powerful and the wealthy, or to the scholarly and the respectable. This good news was for ALL the people, across national and temporal divides. And Jesus would demonstrate that the good news was for all people by spending time with the rejected and the marginalised, by opposing injustice and tyranny, by focusing on inclusion and reconciliation throughout his ministry on earth.
It is perhaps surprising that such a blatantly political statement about Jesus would be communicated to such insignificant and uneducated people as the shepherds. We would rightly expect this message to go directly to the priestly elite in Jerusalem. But that would have meant that Jesus bought into the top-down model that the Empire was so good at. By announcing the good news to the lowliest of the low, God reaches the grassroots of society. His strategy is down – up. That is why Jesus spent his time with apparently insignificant people and not with the elite. That is why he chose his disciples from among normal people.
When they hear the good news, the shepherds all agreed that they should go to Bethlehem and find the child. They weren’t commanded to do so by their leader, but they all agreed that they should go – the shepherds said TO ONE ANOTHER: “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us.”
The decision to go and see the Saviour came from their own hearts – it was not imposed from the top. If we think about it this way, then perhaps we can understand ‘Jesus being born in our hearts’ from a different perspective. From his birth, Jesus would stand in opposition to the Empire. But instead of attacking the Empire from the top-down, Jesus exposes the Empire which dwells deep in our hearts. And so the best way to fight against the empire and its crooked values is not to wage war against it, thus using imperial methods, but to challenge the empire inside our own beings.
For Jesus to be born in our hearts, then, it would mean that we would resist the temptation to use whatever methods the Empire uses to control people. We would resist using power to dominate people, and instead to embrace his vulnerability and sacrificial love. Jesus is a saviour, but not like Caesar, killing our enemies for us. Jesus is a saviour who enables all people to recognise and oppose the enemy within, this being the best way to fight against the external enemies. Jesus brought about liberation – a salvation that does not depend on external factors.
The Jews were terribly oppressed by the Empire and they desperately needed a Saviour who would liberate them. What they did not expect, was for that Saviour to challenge the Empire that took hold of their own hearts and controlled the way they lived their lives and related to people around them.
Perhaps it would be surprising for us this Christmas to be challenged by the angel’s announcement to not put our trust and hopes in political and economic leaders for our lives to get better. They are not Saviours and Messiahs, not matter how much nations are expecting them to be just that. It is highly unfair of people to ask politicians to be Messiahs.
The role of governments is to insure that justice is done on every level. That is the mandate given to governments by God. But the Messiah is always Jesus, who came as a vulnerable baby born in a stable, who challenges people to look at the evil inside, rather than always pointing at the evil outside. I heard a former president of a European country saying that his country is not lacking in good leaders; it is lacking in citizens. Forget about the Caesar out there. Expose the little Caesar inside. Transformation is effected in the ‘Kingdom way’ only from the ground – up.
Is this a surprising message? In a world crying out for strong leaders, perhaps it is. If it is not surprising, it is certainly counter-cultural. Let the good news of Christmas fill us with hope, and empower all of us to do our part in the transformation of our world according to the values of the Kingdom of God. Amen!