Remember that in the Christmas story, Luke is “writing theology in narrative form…” (Bill Loader)
Gospel: Luke 2:1-21 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
21 After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
On Saturday December 19, as I was buying mince pies at Baker’s Delight, the woman next to me asked if they had any hot cross buns. “Not until after Christmas!” said the baker’s daughter. I’m glad someone is keeping to the old standards.
It’s another Christmas without my Dad. Mum is living in a nursing home. The younger child lives in his own place now, so I can’t even outsource the family Christmas letter to him, which is what a colleague has done for his family letter this year. On the other hand, he is taking over his Aunt’s tradition of the Christmas trifle!
Church has been its usual mixture of inspiration and ordered chaos. We had to use a fire extinguisher to put out the barbecue at Carols on the Court last night. At least it was a bearable night, almost cool after four days above 40 degrees centigrade. At morning service, here at Pilgrim, the ceiling fans in the church hall kept blowing out the tapers as we tried to light the Advent candles; the church was still too warm for comfort. The liturgist left her glasses home, and I was so tired I forgot the closing hymn, and began the Benediction straight after Communion.
Like everyone else, I bring a mixture of pain and frustration, and hilarity and hope home for Christmas.
I was tidying up some coding on my web site during the week, whilst wondering how to preach into a season which holds so much hope and hurt together, when I found a note attached to an old Christmas sermon: “the only sermon where I have been a) heckled, b) had people walk out and, c) been physically intimidated after church!” I dared to bring politics into a sermon near Christmas by suggesting that Jesus was a refugee, and that we would have locked him up in a detention centre— it was true fifteen years ago and, to our shame, is still true.
That sermon, and the response, clarifies some of my ambivalence about Christmas. Christmasshould be about family. Jesus is born in the midst of family. The story is almost certainly more correctly translated not as “there was no room in the inn,” but as “the guest room was already full.” (See below) Mary and Joseph were having to share that part of the family compound where the animals spend the night when the gates are shut— a bit like how the cousins may have to camp on the veranda at Christmas time.
So the son of God is born into family in the ancestral home. God made flesh is truly one of us; he is part of a family. He comes into a family riding out the demands of empire for higher taxation, and living with all the other stresses of life. Even here, new life begins and, even in poverty, childbirth carries a hope for a future.
But Christmas, as Luke tells it, looks far beyond family. It looks outward. Yes, with its commercialism the retail industry has hijacked Christmas, but a family centred Christmas can be a hijacking of its own, which is too inward looking. Perhaps we could say that Christmas is part of God’s promise for the freeing of family to be what it should be, rather than being a yearly denial of, and a defence from, the injustice of the world; much less an endurance test in tolerating the family outliers, or testing the resilience of our credit cards.
Luke begins the story by naming the Roman Emperor Augustus who “was hailed as son of God, as bringer of peace, as saviour, as a good news person.” (Bill Loader) And Luke then says, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”(Luke 2:10-11) Not only does he hijack the titles of Emperor Augustus’, but he ramps up the political implications of the story with his repetitive mention of David and his birthplace. David was the great King of Israel and a symbol of Jewish nationalist hopes. Luke deliberately mentions “the child” five times, and says he is a sign from God. The Romans may not have noticed this, but Jewish people would.
13Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. (Isaiah 7:13-16)
In short, Jesus is Saviour and Lord, not Caesar. Caesar is just another king.
The gospel of Luke begins and ends in the temple:
Luke’s story starts, not in Caesar’s palace screaming with military trumpets, but in the Temple, in the Holy of Holies, that quiet, dark, Jewish place at the symbolic center of the Jerusalem Temple (and thus the center of the entire universe). It starts, not with the Governor of Syria, but with an old priest who is married to an old woman of the priestly tribe of Aaron, an old priest who encounters an angel while carrying out his part in bringing the world into balance by performing Temple service. From the start of Luke’s story, one thing is clear: it may be a Roman world, but it is a Jewish universe, no matter what Caesar Augustus thinks. (Richard Swanson)
Jesus is Saviour and Lord because he is part of the establishment of that Jewish universe, and of that bringing the world into balance, as an actuality for all people, not just the Roman elite, or the Jewish nation. Luke takes good care in The Acts of the Apostles to show the gospel transcending all social and national boundaries. We see the beginnings of this transcendence as the birth of Jesus is announced, first of all, to the socially outcast: to the shepherds.
Marc Kolden’s article The Birth of Jesus never saved anyone, summarises the place of Christmas in all this.
The New Testament does not think salvation or the new birth occurs through Jesus’ actual historical birth or through any sort of birth of Christ in us. The birth of Jesus as such is not redemptive. Redemption for the New Testament writers as well as for the early church involved principally Jesus’ death and resurrection. Our rebirth is not a participation in Christ’s birth but in his death and resurrection. [And for]… the evangelist Luke, the salvific focus is not only not on Jesus’ birth, but it is not even primarily on Jesus’ death and resurrection. … the Advent texts are not primarily pointing believers to Christmas. [The ultimate focus is upon] … the biblical hope for the coming of the kingdom of God, the destruction of the powers of sin, death, and evil, and the future manifestation of God to all flesh… [which is] God’s final fulfillment.
Christmas which looks only inward and flees the world, and primarily becomes a focus on the family, is an orphaned and malnourished celebration. The family which looks outward, and lives to co-create the kingdom of God, celebrates the hope of God’s final fulfilment at Christmas, and in the awkward giving of socks and dealing with difficult in-laws, may yet find something new is born.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Richard Swanson says, “… although the NRSV translates the place where there was no room (kataluma) as “inn” in 2:7, we should read the word differently. In Luke 22:11 the NRSV translates the same word as the “guest room” where Jesus will eat the Passover with his disciples. We should read both of these rooms as guest rooms…” (Richard Swanson. cf John Petty’s translation of the text.)