Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 26th of Twelfth Month, 2021
Scripture: Luke 2:1–14, NRSV
1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph 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. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And 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. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And 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 favors!”
Good morning, Friends!
I hope everyone had a safe and enjoyable Christmas Day. It was pretty quiet for Stephanie and me, here for waiting worship in the morning and then at home for the rest of the day. We visited with family over Zoom and on the phone, and Stephanie made a really great dinner. But actually, here at West Richmond Friends, it’s been all Christmas, all the time, this weekend. We hosted the Three-meeting Christmas Eve worship, with Clear Creek Friends doing the programming, on Friday; then our customary waiting worship yesterday; and here we are this morning, considering again the story of Jesus’ birth. On Friday night we heard a fuller account of the story; this morning what we’ve heard is just a portion of it.
Luke’s Gospel is the one that gives us the most detail about the birth of Jesus:
where it happened—Joseph and Mary's journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem;
“no room at the inn”, the swaddling clothes, and the manger,
the shepherds, watching their silent flocks by night;
the angel, “do not be afraid,” and “today... there has been born for you a Savior”:
the heavenly host, “glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace”...
...all of these things make up the familiar, beloved story. You may have heard me say in the
past that there’s a lot that is not there; that there are plenty of things that have been inserted into the story by tradition, but that Luke himself does not mention. For example, when we think of Jesus laid in a manger, many of us probably have a picture in our heads of a wooden stable with animals gathered around, but it's possible—perhaps more likely—that the manger was in a cave. We just don't have that level of detail, so through the centuries, people reading the story have filled various bits of it in.
While there may be some details that Luke doesn’t give us, there are nonetheless many layers of meaning to be found in this passage. This is of course true of any good story, especially a Biblical story. One of the layers that I think is worth thinking about for a few minutes is the contrast between way empire does things, and the way that things are done in the Reign of God. Both of these agendas are visible here in this text.
Empire gets to go first: right there in verse 1. Now, if you were here several Sundays ago, you might remember my message about John the Baptist, from the next chapter of the Gospel, chapter 3. Luke also begins that chapter by telling us who the Roman emperor was at the time that the Baptist began his ministry—and Luke also mentions the local rulers, and the high priests in Jerusalem. In that message, I remarked that all those names might be there because Luke is concerned for an “orderly account”, tying the events of the Gospel to a historical framework. But we also considered that Luke may have done this because he wants to draw a contrast between those who hold worldly power and those who are working to establish the Reign of God. Remember that John the Baptist was the consummate marginal figure, nothing in the eyes of the world: he spent his time out in the wilderness, rather than in an imperial center of power; he wore rough clothes rather than fine robes; he called the people to repentance rather than commanding them to obedience. The work that he did was to prepare the way for the One whose birth we are reading about today—and in today’s story, I think we see these same contrasts.
So to return to the beginning of chapter 2: the movement of the story seems to be at the bidding of Caesar Augustus, the ruler of the empire. Now, this Caesar was the first Roman emperor, and the “Caesar” part of his name comes from Julius Caesar, the military genius who was his adoptive father. The other title, “Augustus”, was given him by the Roman Senate when it granted him supreme power, and this title also implies reverence, not unlike the kind of reverence given to a god. Later Roman emperors, of course, were believed to be gods, and the Romans would make this Caesar into a god after his death.
And in the decree, this Caesar lays claim to “all the world”. That’s how our pew Bibles render it. In other translations, you might see “all the inhabited earth” instead. This is because the Greek word (oikumene, oikumene) that is used here was often used to mean just the civilized world—for the Greeks, it was just the part where people spoke Greek. For the Romans, it was the part that Rome controlled: the part that had had the benefits of civilization conferred upon it by empire. Everyone else would be barbarians.
So first on the empire's agenda is laying claim to the ability to define boundaries. “How much of the world do we control? Well, let's call that the ‘inhabited earth’. That's the part that really matters.” The empire gets to decide who is in, and who is out—who counts, and who doesn't.
And it is, literally, about counting: the decree commands that the people of the inhabited earth “should be registered”—and the registration was so that a census could be taken. Here we see another item on the empire's agenda. To count, to enumerate, is to control. You have to know how much you have in order to know how much you can get. Having good numbers enables you to extract the resources needed to keep the machine of empire running. Some scholars have estimated that imperial taxes and duties would have taken something like half of the wealth of tradespeople like Joseph, a carpenter. And that was before things like the Temple tax, required of observant Jews.
The counterpoint to the imperial decree in this narrative is the joyful voices of the angel and all the heavenly host. The first words of the angel are, “Do not be afraid,” a common preamble whenever one of God's messengers shows up. Those who heard the decree from the emperor would have heard behind it the implied threat of force: if you do not comply with this, there will be consequences. Fear would be the natural result. In contrast, the angel says, “Have no fear—this is good news.”
Not only is it good news, it “will be for all people”. Rather than “all the inhabited earth,” which isn't really everyone, this herald is truly global. God's Reign lays claim to all tribes, all nations, all tongues. No one is left out of this invitation; all people will get the opportunity to hear, and respond.
Note also the audience for this announcement of good news. The imperial decree would have gone out first to generals and governors, then through the ranks of civil servants, to Roman citizens, and then, eventually, the common people. By contrast, God's message here goes directly to a group of nobodies. The shepherds, who ordinarily would have been the last to know of anything the emperor was planning, are privileged to be the first to hear of the birth of the Christ.
So who is it that each of these declarations announces? Behind the decree is Caesar Augustus, by the measure of the world the most powerful human being on earth. And the counterpoint to Caesar is a baby—a lowly infant—lying in a manger in a dirty, overcrowded city.
Throughout “all the inhabited earth,” the empire of Rome established peace by conquest—the so-called pax Romana, rooted in superior military might and the fear that it engendered.Yesterday in waiting worship, Jody Richmond reminded us of what Jesus says about peace in John 14: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (14:27) The peace of the Reign of God comes as a gift rather than a curse; this is peace based in love rather than in fear.
Throughout his empire, Caesar Augustus and those who came after him established greatness through hierarchy and domination. The One born in Bethlehem would show the way to greatness through servanthood. His was the way of willing service, of considering others better than yourself, of being willing to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. He taught that those would be first under the reign of God must be last in the ways of the world.
In these dimensions, and in others that probably come to your minds, we see the competing agendas of empire and the Reign of God. And in our day and age, we still have competing agendas.
We have just come through a time which the agenda of our consumer-oriented society labels “the Christmas season”, which is mostly about shopping; the church’s counterpoint is Advent, a time of expectation and preparation and hope for the visitation of God.
The agenda of empire is still with us, seeking to define who is in and who is out, who counts and who doesn't, still seeking to dominate and control; except that today the pax Romana has been replaced by a now-crumbling pax Americana. And we have to acknowledge that the church has been complicit in the expansion of empire through the centuries; nonetheless, Christ continues to call us out from peace imposed by power, to the peace that comes as a gift.
We each have our own personal agendas that often conflict with the agenda of the reign of God. I encounter this conflict every day, when I consider what I want to do with my morning or my afternoon, and what God might be calling me to. I’ve spoken recently about that daily struggle, to lay aside my own agenda and adopt the agenda of God’s Reign. This is a difficult and a daily struggle.
And I think we sometimes have competing agendas for West Richmond Friends, for what we are to be and to do together. We sometimes differ in what we want in worship; sometimes it’s about who is in and who is out; sometimes it’s about how best to help in our community or our world. In any of these dimensions, we need to seek God’s will together, for our corporate agenda. And sometimes that can be a difficult and lengthy struggle.
Today we celebrate the birth of a lowly infant, born among common people, on the margins of empire. We celebrate the sign for the shepherds, and for all people, of a new way of being. We celebrate this birth in hope: hope that enables us to lay aside our own agendas, to turn aside from the agenda of empire, and, as individuals and as a body, to seek the agenda of the Reign of God.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the 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.
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