Christmas 2016 (Isaiah 9:2-7, Luke 2:1-20, John 1:1-5)
Luke, the Gospel writer, when he tells the story of the birth of Jesus, he begins with all of this business about Caeser and Quirinius, the Roman governor in Syria, and about some kind of registration that they were doing. I remember as a kid on Christmas Eve this stuff about a registration and Quirinius just losing me from the start. All these strange Bible words, and right up front in the story, I’d really start to get itchy for church to hurry up so we can get home and get to the presents.
But for Luke’s audience, for the original audience he was sharing this story with, all this business about Quirinius and Caesar and the census would get them to sit bolt upright at the edge of their chairs:
“Whoa, you’re talking about the time of one of the first insurrections. You’re talking about a time of rebellion, times of fear and darkness and conflict and uncertainty. You’re talking about when people where all excited about Judas the Galilean, thinking that he was the Messiah.”
You see, when Jesus was born, there actually was another Messiah running around Galilee at the time – or so-called Messiah. His name was Judas. Judas was a common name, by the way – we’re not talking about Judas the disciple of Jesus who betrayed him. This Judas was called Judas the Galilean. He was the Messiah, or so-called Messiah, that everyone was talking about when Jesus was born. Because they thought he was the one anointed by God to save his people … to save his people from what? From Rome.
This Messiah said he had a divine mandate to take up arms and drive out the Roman pigs that had trampled all over Galilee and Judea and were feasting on the spoils. They had befouled the holy temple in Jerusalem and had beguiled and bought off the priests and political leaders. And Judas the Galilean wasn’t going to take that sitting down, he was going to fight for his God and free his people.
And it was this registration that got him really mad.
Because, you see, these registrations were how Rome got its teeth into the meat of the nations that it had conquered. It was a census to take account of the population and its wealth, so Rome knew what it could extract through taxation (without representation, by the way, but with plenty of repression).
So when Quirinius, the Roman governor in Syria, demanded a census for Galilee and Judea around the year 6, that was the moment for Judas the Galilean decided to fight back. And many others joined him. They were called the Zealots, and they were zealous for their people’s freedom to govern themselves and to follow the laws of their God alone.
But the rebellion did not end well. Rome marched in two legions of soldiers and crushed the rebels, without breaking a sweat. And, by the way, these Roman soldiers themselves were following their so-called savior, Caesar Augustus.
The consequence of all this is that Judas the Galilean and countless others met the same brutal end that Jesus would suffer some 30 years later.
So, that’s the beginning of the Christmas story, you all. Merry Christmas.
But, really, I mean it:
Because what was the end for Judas the Galilean was just the beginning for Jesus of Nazareth.
Because when it comes to Jesus, we are talking about a very different sort of savior and a very different sort of salvation – tried and true, enduring, everlasting … and surprising.
And you can tell something’s different from the beginning of his life.
So let’s hear it again, the gospel, the good news, according to Luke: There once was a time of darkness, a time of trouble, a time of conflict and uncertainty. The people were seeking salvation. Some were seeking salvation through the sword.Some were seeking salvation through riches. Some were seeking salvation through the power of Caesars and kings.
But that only brought further darkness … until …
“O, my people who have been walking in darkness, look! A great light!
A child has been born for us. A new life dawns among us. A Wonderful Counselor, a Mighty God, an Everlasting Father, a Prince of Peace.”
But do not look for this Light, this new life in the halls of power. Do not look at the head of armies.
Look instead to a backwater town in a backwater province, where a poor young couple travels alone. Bethlehem, Joseph’s hometown. He’s come home with his pregnant bride, Mary. But no one will give them shelter for the night. Wouldn’t you think Joseph would still have family in town to put them up in their hour of need? Hmm.
Joseph himself not long before had considered abandoning Mary, who is pregnant with a child that’s not his. But in a strange dream a messenger came to him, the same angel from heaven who had come to Mary. And this messenger had a surprise. Their shame was their joy. Look, here is the Light in the darkness.
So Joseph joined Mary in this place among the least and the last and the lost. And together they sheltered that Light as she labored and brought forth. Precious new life born into a dangerous world.
With this child, here, in this unexpected place and unexpected time, amidst such trouble and uncertainty – here, with this helpless little baby, demanding our unconditional love, God surprises earth with heaven.
And who else got this message from heaven, this surprise about about where on earth to look for the Light? Not the priests, not the preachers, not the politicians, not the generals or the merchants, not the soldiers or the rebels. They were too caught up chasing their own saviors.
No, it was a bunch of shepherds – poor, dirty shepherds –who met the messenger from heaven who pointed them to the Christ child.
All of this is no accident. It’s a surprise, but no accident.
The message at the beginning of Jesus’ life is the same message that he teaches and lives out through the rest of his life and through his death and on into his resurrected life and in the Spirit that billowed and blossomed through the scrappy little community dedicated to the Way of Jesus and his God of love:
The last are the first. The least are the greatest. The lost shall be found.
This is where God surprises earth with heaven.
Look where we are last and least and lost, look where others last and least and lost, and join them there. Because it is here that God’s love can find us and flow through us.
I’ll say it again: Look where we are last and least and lost, look where others last and least and lost, and join them there.
In the words of the Advent hymn:
“To us, to all in sorrow and fear, Emmanuel comes a-singing, whose humble song is quiet and near, yet fills the earth with its ringing. Music to heal the broken soul and hymns of loving kindness, the thunder of anthems roll to shatter all hate and injustice.”
“Rejoice, rejoice, take heart in the night, though cold the winter and cheerless, the rising sun shall crown you with light, be strong and loving and fearless. Love be our song and love our prayer, and love, our endless story, may God fill every day we share, and bring us at last into glory.” [“Awake! Awake, and Greet the New Morn” by Marty Haugen.]
[Delivered Christmas Eve, 2016, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg]