Sermon for Christmas Day, Monday, December 25 2017, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20
Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus is probably the best-known story in the whole Christian tradition; people who hardly know any other passage from the Bible recognize the scene, the baby and his parents in the barn, with the cow and the sheep, the shepherds and sometimes the kings, drawn and painted and sculpted and acted and sung in a million iterations. But only Luke, of the four writers who recorded the life of Jesus, ever tells this story; Mark, Matthew, and John are either unaware of it, or don’t think it’s important.
Luke is a great storyteller, and it is, obviously, a memorable story. But that’s not the only reason he tells it. There is meaning here to be unpacked, and it’s a more complicated, stranger, richer meaning than we might immediately realize.
It starts with this bizarre census, which for some reason requires everyone to go back to the home town of their ancestors to register for taxation. This is a ridiculously inefficient way to extract taxation from conquered peoples—because this was an imperial census, and most of the peoples of the Roman empire were conquered and occupied—but it is an excellent way of creating displacement and chaos, and this has always been the way of empire. So even if the census didn’t happen quite as Luke describes, it is a very accurate expression of what imperial power does, scattering people across a landscape, subjecting the small and poor to the bureaucratic and military whims of the great.
And among the scattered mass we focus in on one young couple. The girl, we know, has already been displaced at least once, had to leave her home town in haste and perhaps secrecy when she found herself pregnant out of wedlock. Now she travels with a husband, but is not much more secure, the two of them part of a great confused crowd.
It happened here, Luke says. Not in a settled place, not in safety, but in the flux of power’s games, among the little ones who doing what they can to survive, like the people in Bethlehem and Jerusalem today, like the people all over the world who are scrambling, wandering, looking for temporary rest, hanging on to each other, because one person you can trust is sometimes all you’ve got, and more than some ever get. It happened here.
And we shift from Mary and Joseph to the shepherds, and they are wandering too. It was a precarious life, and a transient one, and not a very respectable way to make a living. They appear to be ignoring the unreasonable census, unwilling or unable to leave their flocks, living out on the edge of town, not even trying to be part of proper society. Dirty, hardened, accustomed to loneliness, right outside all the exciting action of the crowded city. And yet they carry powerful imagery, these shepherds. King David had come from those fields. The psalms and the prophets had spoken of political leaders as shepherds, good and bad, but also, and with striking tenderness, of God as a shepherd, as one who feeds and cradles the lambs. There is not just hard work, but care and nurture, in those dark hills, in that solitude. Not just a hardscrabble existence, though it is that, but also an echo of poetry, the hint of something in the nature of God.
It happened here. In this whole mix of insecurity and poverty and courage and beauty. For this is God’s proper home. God does not reside with Caesar and his games of violence and economics, but among the struggling and forgotten, those for whom the busy city of commerce has no room. It is in this place, and it could only be in this place, that God’s great act of love is made known. And in this marginal, uncomfortable, unimportant place, God comes as infant, the child of frightened children holding each other in the night. A baby, crying, helpless, in need of warmth, demanding our care. The child of humanity, the Son of Man.
And this is joy, the shepherds are told, joy universal and immense. That God comes in the midst of uncertainty and disruption, to be cared for among the poor, wills to be helpless so that we may be called to the work of nurture, that God will be small and needy for us, will be held in our inadequate arms.
For this is the child who will be our Emmanuel—God with us. One of us. A vulnerable body, fragile and beautiful as mortals are. An infant in a troubled place and time, who will grow into a man whose life was voluntarily lived among the outcast and the unclean, a man who touched the untouchable and healed them, shared food with the rejected and welcomed them home, who knelt before his friends to wash their feet. One who would be named both shepherd and lamb; the one who tends and shelters, but also the one who is weak, the one who is sacrificed. A man who died at the hands of power outside the city walls, and rose again to astonishing life beyond that death. And even then, coming to be known in the most quiet acts of mutual care—breaking bread at a table, accepting a piece of fish from the hands of his friends, cooking fish for them on the shore of a lake at dawn.
The shadow of empire lies over Luke’s story from these early moments, and Caesar’s violence draws ever closer. But here, among the little ones, the unimportant little numerals in the grand imperial census, something begins which Caesar can never control—not then, and not now. Another world is possible. Another world is being born.
Do not be afraid. Caesar’s power is real, but it is not final. God has come to the lost children in the night, to the homeless and the wandering, to everyone working in the cold and the dark, to the solitary and the lonely, to everyone caught in the brutal imperial games, to all of us who cannot be clean or nice or good, who cannot succeed in the eyes of this world or even ourselves, to all the broken hearts. God has come to you, has come to me, to bring us into that life where there is always room, where there is always welcome.
Go into the city, as the shepherds were told to go, and find the child. Find the child in your neighbour, in the stranger, in the wreckage of our own bad days. Here, now, in this marginal place—walk beyond fear. Tell the world that the story is not Caesar’s, and has never been. It is the story of the God of the outcast and the poor, who comes as child and bread. It is as simple, and as difficult, as love.