So we have finally made it. Tomorrow is Christmas the culmination of weeks of preparation. Shopping for that one last present with a couple thousand of your closest friends. Last minute baking, wrapping, and decorating. And now its all done!
And here we are in church and you’re looking for the churches best. After all its Christmas, the birth of the Messiah, Christ our Saviour. And what do we get, not John’s Gospel and all its theological weight, not Matthew and the host of Angels surrounding the baby Jesus. No we get Luke. And the simple story of Jesus birth and the appearance of Angels not to Mary and Joseph but to poor Shepherds. The world has given us a season of heighten activity and frenzy – and the church offers simplicity. You have to admit, it is and interesting contradiction. Who says God doesn’t know what God’s doing!
So we look at Luke’s account of Christmas. We all know Emperor Augustus, the great Roman leader who brought peace to all the world during his administration. And we might even have heard of Quirinius the governor. These men, these mighty men who commanded armies of thousands, enacted laws, and ruled the world.
Sure we know and understand them. But who are this Mary and Joseph who have been made part of our history? Who is this God who inserts God-self into human history through the likes of poor Jewish peasants named Mary and Joseph?
A smile breaks out on the face of the Church. Where are Augustus and Quirinius now? These men, these mighty men, so significant in their own day that with a stroke of a pen they could send this couple packing across Judea to be registered, where are these men now ?
Did you ever wonder why it was that Mary and Joseph had to registered? They had to register for the same reason that black folk in South Africa had to carry identity cards under the rule of apartheid. Augustus couldn’t keep up with , couldn’t keep down, these Jews without registration. And do you remember how it was that the world was at peace when Jesus was born? It was a Roman Military enforced peace with all the world under the heel of a ruthless dictator. In truth the was no peace.
Where are Augustus and Quirinius now? I will tell you where they are they’re dead. Even by the time Luke first wrote this story down they were in their tombs somewhere!
But the baby – wrapped in rags, lying in a feeding trough, that baby for whom there was no room in the inn – that baby’s people are gathered together in all corners of this world tonight. Millions of people, God’s rainbow people, black, white, yellow, rich, poor, ugly, and beautiful, have gathered tonight to dismantle the world of Augustus and those like him one stone at a time.
You see the simple story of Jesus birth is the Churches answer for much that passes for history. So be careful not to be too impressed by what the world calls “History”. Don’t be taken in by what the world calls news, for there is good news beyond the news on CBC, good news of God’s world beyond the conventional headlines. The church would convert you to see the world differently, to see the world through simple stories like Luke’s account of Christmas.
Oh I know, you can’t be converted. You need hard factual evidence. Christianity is just about opinions and it’s just one among many. I am the child of the enlightenment and I need to see it to believe it. Well maybe, maybe not.
There is a university professor in the United States who is famous for what his critics would call backward thinking. His books and lectures are filled with the voices of writers from the middle age. One day he was confronted by an exasperated student who said: ” What do you want out of us? Do you expect us to go back to some pre historic world where the Sun revolves around the earth?”
How do you know that the sun does not revolve around the earth; responded the professor. If you walk outside tomorrow at dawn, you will clearly see the sun coming up in the east. At dusk, it will clearly go down in the west. Any fool can see that the sun is revolving around the earth.
And yet, the amazing thing is that you don’t believe that! Despite the data rendered by your eyes, your brain, you will not say, “Look there goes the sun revolving around the earth. You will say, See the earth is revolving around the sun. That my friends is some conversion! At some point in your life – when was it? – We convinced you that your eyes lied and that the sun was the centre of our bit of the universe, and not the earth.
My point is not to ask you to return to a false astronomy, but to make you wonder about how many other conversions you have gone through in your life. How many times you have been converted to a world view that makes you notice some things and ignore others?
The belief that the earth rotates around the sun is a rather trivial matter. Few people’s lives are changed or harmed by believing otherwise.
The conviction that there is no king but Caesar is a much more dangerous idea, leading to massive carnage and destruction in Jerusalem in the year 70, and again in Germany and Russia and China, and Cambodia and North Korea and Iraq and Libya and Syria, and the list is so long I haven’t got time to tell you them all. No king but Caesar, whoever Caesar might be at the moment, continues to claim too many lives of powerless folk; the likes of Mary and Joseph – you and I.
How many times have we been converted? What description of the world presently holds us captive? Are we not conditioned to believe that there is no greater power on earth than the government, no people more important than those who rule in Washington D.C., London, Berlin, Ottawa or Moscow. And we seem unable to imagine any solution to what ails us other than that offered through the armies and bureaucracies of government and through those like Augustus and Quirinius who run them.
We certainly have not been looking for a solution from Jewish peasants like Mary and Joseph and the story of the birth of a child in a Palestinian backwater called Bethlehem. Yet, this is the very story of our world that the Church would convert us all to:
“I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.” The one Isaiah called, “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
This is the Lord of all creation. On him we are invited to place our hopes and dreams. With him we shall find the solutions to our questions. And unlike the rulers of this present age – this Lord brings genuine peace to all humankind.
And remember the shepherds. They belong to the story not only because they tie Jesus with the great Shepherd King David, but, also because they belong to the new world order of God; the poor, the maimed, the blind, the lame, and the forgotten. And so the Angels appear to Shepherds and they go to the city of David. And before them is perhaps the most human of all scenes. Mary and Joseph and the babe lying in a manger.
Luke describes the event using some of his most favourite words; Wondering, Pondering, Revelation, Praising and glorifying. We know that while the stable might have been bare, might in fact been more of a cave than a stable the glory of God floods and overflows the entire story.
And so we can go home tonight and see the product of our labours these past few weeks. The tree richly decorated, presents wrapped and under the tree, stockings stuffed. Or we can go home to a tree that only Charlie Brown could love, and empty stockings. And we can all know that God reigns. That with the birth of Jesus we can be converted to a new story of peace in our hearts and world, of Love for ourselves and neighbours, and in the simplicity of the Christmas story we can have hope for a better future.
You have been converted before – this Christmas I would invite you to be converted once more, by the simple story of Christmas. Jesus our Lord and Saviour waits to be born in our hearts and lives. A Quaker writer once put the invitation of Christmas this way;
“Over the margins of life comes a whisper, a faint call, a premonition of richer living which we know we are passing by. We have hints that there is a way of life vastly richer and deeper than all this hurried existence, a life of unhurried serenity and peace and power.”
The invitation of the Christ child in the manger tonight is to this sort of life. You have only to allow your imagination to be converted this one more time. And a life rich far beyond your wildest imagination awaits us all. Amen.