25 December 2009

Born to Save

Luke 2: 1-20

Christmas Eve/ 24th December 2009

One of the many challenges preaching on a text like Luke’s birth narrative is familiarity. How many times have we heard this story? There’s always the risk of thinking we’ve heard it all before. But when this happens we run the risk of losing that sense of holy awe and fear, the terror and wonder found in this extraordinary text, and we miss an opportunity to hear the Word of God with fresh ears, to have it dwell within us, to have it enfleshed in our bodies, dance in our hearts.

First as a boy and even now, Luke 2 never fails to leave me speechless. Luke’s way of telling the story is masterful, theologically, even politically astonishingly rich. It is bold and radical. There’s nothing “all is bright, all is calm” about it. Sometimes, I fear, we have domesticated and tamed this story, at times almost beyond recognition. We always need new eyes.

The word that caught my eye this year – and, I’ll admit, I never noticed it until just last week – is host as in “a multitude of heavenly host.” My study Bible has a little superscript that reads, army as an alternate reading of host, which I’ve overlooked. But then it hit me. I shouldn’t have been surprised, given what we know about this birth story. The Greek reads, stratia, an army, a band of soldiers, Roman soldiers. It’s the designation for a Roman army, except here in Luke we have an army of angels who bring not war or the threat of violence for stepping out of line, but peace, God’s peace. Luke is up to something.

Yes, the angels bring, “Good news of great joy for all the people.” That’s wonderful. But the subtext, the text behind this text, the story behind this story, the people behind the shepherds and Mary and Joseph, are the gods and armies of Rome. Indeed, the person in the foreground of Luke’s Christmas pageant, the person who is never depicted in any crèche scene, or pageants or nativity plays that I’ve ever seen is none other than Caesar Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD), Emperor of Rome. That’s where the story begins – Augustus sets into motion the journey to Bethlehem. But he’s more than an incidental in this drama. The cultural, political background to this text, to this story that we celebrate tonight is none other than Rome. To our eyes it’s difficult to see; it’s implicit to Luke’s world. But scratch the surface, do a few word studies (pay attention to a word like host), and we find the historical setting for the birth of Jesus Christ – Imperial Rome.

Here’s another example. Supposed we traveled together to Berlin. I would take you into the Pergamum Museum. There we’ll find an inscription on marble that came from Turkey, near Ephesus. It’s a gift to mark the birth of a divine child. See if this sounds familiar: providence, “filled with virtues for the benefit of mankind, bestowing him upon us and our descendants as savior – he who put an end to war and will order peace, …who by his epiphany exceeded the hopes of those who prophesied good tidings [good news] not only outdoing the benefactors of the past, but also allowing no hope of greater benefactors in the future; and since the birthday of the god first brought to the world the good tidings residing him.” (1) This is not a Christian inscription. It did mark the birth of one who claimed to be god, though: Caesar Augustus. It dates from 9 B.C. In Luke’s time Savior, soter, s_t_r, was a title given to Emperors, along with Divine, Son of God, God, God of God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, Savior of the world. (2) Sounds like Luke 2, doesn’t it?

See what Luke was doing? Hear what he’s saying? All of these titles, along with other birth proclamations for the Emperor, would have been familiar in Luke’s church. He would have known about the birthday celebrations of Caesar and so would have the early church. Here we see just how courageous the early Christians really were. To use them to refer to the “new born Jesus is either low lampoon or high treason.” (3) The good news – the good tidings – God’s army of angels bring to the world, to you and to me that deafens every other competing voice is this:
Jesus is the true Benefactor of benefactors, not Caesar.
Jesus tends to the needs of his people, not Caesar.
Jesus is the true savior, not Caesar.
Jesus – and only Jesus – as Savior
has the power to bring the peace of God, not Caesar.
Jesus does not offer peace achieved by imperial violence
(which is not really peace),
but the peace given through healing,
compassion, and
table fellowship,
where he invites us to sit at table in the kingdom of God.

In this way, Jesus is the true savior to a world crying out in need. Luke wants us to know: this is how a true God, a true Savior is born.

This is real joy to the world. That’s what God’s heavenly army shouts from the heavens. Glory! Joy to the world – to all people, the people, the faces of the people. For the true giver of peace is born, born for the people, for common, ordinary people – like shepherds.

What we find at the heart of this story is this astounding, radical idea – that God refuses to be God without us. For you shall name him, Emmanuel, “God with us. (Matthew 1:23)” It is God’s graceful determination to not be God without us, to get mixed up with our humanity and not be God without it, without our flesh and blood, because he comes to save, to liberate, to redeem, to restore, to bring light to the darkest recesses of our souls. This is what the Incarnation of God announces to us that Jesus was born to live and in and through his living, he saves.

On this night we listen to a very old story that is ever new and real. It’s for this world, with all of its aches and pains, its sorrow and suffering that God comes down and comes close. It’s for you and me, for the faces of our loved ones, the faces of people we miss tonight of all nights, the faces of strangers we meet, the faces of children, hungry faces, tired and broken faces, young and old alike; faces of the unemployed; faces of people this night struggling with disease; the faces of our armies at war; faces of people who are alone, tired, confused, worried, people who are looking for a little peace. God comes to the world to save us from everything and everyone who seeks to destroy our lives. Whoever your Caesar might be – Caesar can’t save you, Caesar can’t give true peace, can’t give what your hearts are hungering for, can’t give us a hope that won’t disappoint.

There’s a choral piece written for this night. This is the text:
The hills are bare at Bethlehem,
No future for the world they show;
Yet here new life begins to grow,
From earth’s old dust a greenwood stem.

The heart is tired at Bethlehem,
No human dream unbroken stands;
Yet here God comes to mortal hands,
And hope renewed cries out: ‘Amen.’
(4) Amen. Yes!

To a real world, full of broken dreams, God has come to save. “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:17)” Into the world, to the world, in this world, in the darkness we proclaim the light. And never denying all the challenges of reality we face daily, into this real world comes the message that has the power to claim us and overwhelm us and even ravish us: God’s joy. By God’s grace we are called to bear to the world, God’s unspeakable joy. God’s joy. So let us live and so let us sing.


Photo: Duccio Di Buoninsengna (1308-1311), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

1. Inscription from Priene, cited in Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth (HarperOne, 2007), 160.
2. Borg & Crossan, 63.
3. Borg & Crossan, 63.
4. “The Hills are Bare at Bethlehem, “ arr. Robert Scholz; text by Royce J. Scherf., Christmas at St. Olaf, Vol. VI, “What Wondrous Love,” (1993).

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