For All They Have Heard
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This was a message that was spread in the first century – “The birth date of our God has signaled the beginning of good news for the world.” Was this some sort of early Christian message? No. These words are taken from a first century stone inscription announcing the birth of Caesar Augustus. We hear messages all the time don’t we? I was speaking last week about false promises of peace. False promises of comfort. We read front page headlines that say things like “God Isn’t Fixing This”. We hear messages that say things like building walls or keeping certain groups of people out will make us safe – will bring peace. Ad campaigns tell us that “I Want That” is the way to go, and the more things you want and the more things you get the happier you will be, because that’s how it works right? The birth date of our God has signaled the beginning of good news for the world. What would make this Christmas good news to us? What would mean love instead of fear for us this Christmas? What would the words “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,” mean? Let us look at how Luke tells the story of Jesus’ birth and hear what God might have to say to our hearts this morning.
From the beginning of his life, the birth of Jesus presented a reality that was diametrically opposed to the prevailing attitudes of the day. Luke starts chapter 2 with these words “In those days a degree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” When Emperor Augustus gave an order, people followed it. The people of Israel were well used to this. They were well used to living under what was known as the Pax Romana. The period of so called peace that began when Ceasar Augustus came to power. If there was freedom from civil strife and foreign invasion, the Pax Romana was upheld by the Roman boot and spear. If trade routes were opening and enlarging it meant economic prosperity for the few while most people struggled to exist. It meant distracting the citizens of Rome with bread and circuses while their empire crumbled around them.
Luke reminds us that God is at work even in the midst of the might of the Roman Empire. God is at work and God is fulfilling a promise made about the city of David. Bethlehem. The House of Bread. Luke spends just eight verses in describing Jesus’ birth and I’m not going to spend a lot of time on them this morning. The situation that Mary and Joseph found themselves in was not a “Joseph didn’t call ahead to make the reservation” story. The word that we’ve translated “inn” means “room”. The only other time Luke uses it is when he describes an upper room that Jesus and his followers celebrate Passover in. The situation is described like this: “…by the time Mary and Joseph arrived at the house of Joseph’s Bethlehem relatives, the guest room was already occupied. The most common design for simple, first century homes consisted of two levels. The upper floor was where the family slept and where a guest room might be available. The lower floor was used for ordinary daytime living and where the animals were kept at night. A separate stable for livestock would only be found among the well-off. The body heat from the first-floor animals would warm the air and rise to the upper sleeping quarters… So it was probably into the lower level of a relative’s house, a house already overcrowded with kin, that Jesus was born. There was no cozy stable with well-tended stalls and lots of fresh straw on the ground. What was on the floor was waiting to be shovelled out in the morning so it could be dried out and used as fuel for the cooking fire.”
So at Christmas time we have Jesus coming down into the mess. Into the mess of our existence. Into the mundane. Very often we encounter Christ in the so called mundane don’t we? Never underestimate the mundane! This is where Luke has the shepherds encountering Christ. In the mundane. There is no unearthly glow coming from this manger. No presence of kings from the east bearing gifts for Luke. Just this couple and this newborn baby, born a child and yet a king, being carefully wrapped up in cloths to make sure that his little limbs grow straight.
There is a glow in this story, however, and it’s happening in some nearby fields. Bethlehem had been famous for sheep, you see, since the days of the shepherd David. In that region there shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Bethlehem is only two miles from Jerusalem. Part of the daily temple worship there was to sacrifice two lambs. Before Passover each year local shepherds would herd lambs into Jerusalem to be sold to families who could afford one for Passover. These lambs needed to be without a mark on them. When they were born they would be wrapped in bands of cloth to keep them from injuring or marking themselves. Note that these shepherds were living outside. They were not among the well thought of in society. They were not among the elite. There was no “Top 30 Under 30” for shepherds! The prophecy of Isaiah 61:1 was coming true – “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me, to bring good news to the poor…” or as Jesus would put it “Good news to the poor.”
To such as these belong the kingdom of God. To those who know their need for God. To those willing to accept the invitation to come to his banquet. Invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame. This will be the guest list for a dinner in a story that Jesus will later tell. A broken and contrite heart Lord, you will not despise. God works on the margins you see. Don’t ever be fretful that Christianity has been pushed to the margins of society, if you see things like that. God is at work on the margins. Let us join God there. Let us join the angel there in proclaiming the good news in all that we say and do. Good news of great joy for all the people – for everyone. “… to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” The people of the time were familiar with the idea of a saviour. They were familiar with the prevailing wisdom of the day that told them that their Ceasar would save them. There are a lot of messages out there that tell us what will save us. A political party – or maybe a politician. Good planning. A concealed carry permit. This angel is telling a different story. The angel is telling of the fulfillment of a promise made by the prophet Zechariah - 10 Sing and rejoice, O daughter Zion! For lo, I will come and dwell in your midst, says the Lord. 11 Many nations shall join themselves to the Lord on that day, and shall be my people; and I will dwell in your midst. And you shall know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you.
I will come and dwell in your midst. The angels can’t contain themselves and we have these moments where this transcendent reality is breaking through and we have this host of angels proclaiming “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favours!” God’s favour to humanity has been shown in the person of this little helpless baby. God’s favour has been shown in vulnerable, humble love.
We make ourselves vulnerable when we offer love don’t we. We make ourselves vulnerable when we offer hospitality. We run the risk of being rejected. Of being turned down. Of being criticized or judged. We run the risk of stepping out into the unknown. This is how God comes to us. I’ve often said God doesn’t coerce. God makes the invitation. Follow me! In our story the angels make the invitation. This is what has happened in the city of David, and this is how you will find him. Nothing miraculous here at all – simply a baby bound up in bands of cloth like any other baby you might see. There is something completely different about this one though…
It is at this point that the shepherds have a choice to make. The angelic visitation is over. The heavenly army has appeared and is suddenly gone. “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven…” Luke writes. When the heavenly glow is gone and you’re back in the middle of a dark field in the middle of the night and you’re still keeping watch because there are dangers out there. You’re tired because looking after sheep is not an easy job and you have a lot on your mind. The heavenly glow is gone and you’re left with all the sights and sounds and smells of your day to day life. When the rush of Christmas is over and family has gone home or you’ve returned home. When the round of parties and dinners and get-togethers is over. When it is back to life. Back to reality.
The echoes remain however. Like the carol goes – “And the mountains in reply echoing their joyous strain.” Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those whom he favours. This is the message that the shepherds have heard. The echoes of this message remain. This is the message that we have been hearing over the last 5 weeks! We’re back to reality, but the angels have proclaimed a different reality, haven’t they? A new reality which means that nothing would ever be the same. “But everything looks the same to them,” you say. “Everything looks the same to me.” There is an unseen thing going on however. May God give us the eyes to see it. The shepherds have had this good news proclaimed to them. They’re invited to go meet the Saviour. To go, and see.
So they decide to go, and see. “Let us go now to Bethlehem (there’s always an immediacy to this invitation isn’t there?) and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” In light of what has been revealed, how can we not respond? Respond quickly in fact. “So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger.” Nothing miraculous to see here, note. Just a father and mother, and their child. Born in a place that anyone could go into. Born into the mess. Luke doesn’t tell us what animals might have been around. Christian tradition has it that there were oxen there. Donkeys. Typical working animals for a first century Palestinian family. Reminders that this salvation which the angels were proclaiming is not just for us as individuals, though it is that. We must never reduce it to just us though. God’s saving plan was one for all of creation, all of creation that groans in anticipation. Don’t forget the animals! They might have had a few lambs along with them. Who knows? I would like to think that a few lambs were carried by the shepherds so the could meet this little lamb of God.
This would be a sign for them. There’s nothing miraculous in a child being wrapped in bands of cloth. How could they hear and see this though and not think of their sacrificial lambs? How can we hear this story about Jesus being wrapped in bands of cloth and surrounded by people who were far from what was deemed as polite company and not think of the man he would become? The man who at his death would be with people on either side of him who were far from what was considered respectable. The man whose body would be wrapped in cloths by an old Pharisee friend of Jesus called Nicodemus and by a man called Joseph from a place called Arimathea. There was nothing unusual here either – simply common burial practice. Three days later the disciple that Jesus loved would outrun his friend Peter when they heard the news. Just as the shepherds likely had to bend down to see Jesus. At the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the doorway is only about 4 feet high. We don’t know where Jesus was born but church tradition has it that this church was built over the site. To visit it you have to bend down. Make yourself low. The disciple that Jesus loved bent down to look in, and saw the linen wrappings lying there. Peter goes in and sees them, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed…
When the shepherds saw, they made known what had been told them about this child. They met him, they made known what had been revealed to them. God grant that as we move on together from this Advent season that this will be true for us. The shepherds returned. Back to their lives, but they would never again see their lives in the same way. Their reality had been transcended. God give us the eyes to see his transcendent reality. To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. They glorified and praised God for all they had heard and seen. They made God’s glory known. In other words they made who God is – known, and praised him. May God put this same desire in our hearts. May God make God’s love and justice and mercy and grace known in and through us. May God appear to us – whether it be in the every-dayness of bands of cloth around a baby or in the foundation shaking reality of empty linens in an empty tomb. May God grant that this will be true for us all.