December 20, 2015

Advent 4 December 20, 2015   Psalm 96, Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 2:1-20

*******************************************************

A story so very familiar, we can hear it almost without listening. The birth of Jesus – Savior, Messiah, Lord – born in a stable, laid in a manger – angels singing “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men.”

I’m quoting now from the old familiar King James Version translation of the angels’ words. The New Revised Standard Version in our bulletin says “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, peace among those whom he favors!” There is a small, but significant difference here in emphasis – between peace and good will toward all – and peace to those whom God favors. Scholars find evidence to favor both translations. Either can work… But…

The older I get the more I prefer the ‘peace, good will to all’ translation – since it keeps getting harder for me to have much confidence in my own or anyone else’s ability to really know who God favors. For example, in the current election cycle nearly all candidates seem to be sure God favors them (– almost as if they were born in a manger) – and they all seem equally sure God does not like their opponents much at all. At least not for higher office. Which is relevant today because…

St Luke’s gospel is all about who really rules in higher office – and – because Luke’s gospel begins the account of our Savior’s birth by contrasting Jesus with Augustus Caesar, CEO of the Roman empire. Caesar’s decree that all must be registered for taxation is, of course, what causes the holy family to travel all the way from Nazareth in the far North, to Bethlehem, the city of David, several days journey to the South, where Jesus is born.

Augustus Caesar’s birth story isn’t narrated in our gospel, but historians tell us when Emperor Augustus was born, a new imperial calendar was created, with his birthday now made to be first day of the new year for all the empire. One of the altars built to mark his birth bears an inscription saying: “The birthday of the god has marked the beginning of the good news for the world.”

St Luke not-very subtly reminds us of the contrast in the way emperors and followers of Jesus use the same words – peace and good news. Augustus Caesar’s Press Secretaries claimed Augustus was a son of God, a divine savior, and celebrated his rule of peace. But “good news” in Empire-speech meant yet-another military victory for the Empire. And “peace” according to Caesar meant something very closely resembling the remark of one of our recent candidates, who spoke about ‘carpet bombing them till the desert glows.’ Caesars were famous for peace through power – killing, even crucifying, one’s opposition was a standard tool of the trade. Up to five thousand Jewish men at a time were crucified by Rome on suspicion of rebellion. Jerusalem was finally burned to the ground for resisting Roman rule. There’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to Empires striking back. And whatever the empire wants, it takes.

So in the birth of Jesus we have quite a contrast. Not only is there no display of imperial power – there’s not even any room in the inn. No guest room is available anywhere in Bethlehem for the holy family. ‘Sorry folks, best we can do is to let you bunk with the farm animals, out on the barn end of our compound…’ A feeding trough for animals serves as our Savior’s cradle.

Yet to certain poor shepherds, keeping watch over flocks by night…Good news comes. And time really does now start anew. As the angel announces – “good news of great joy for all the people – for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be the sign for you – you will find a child wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host – singing – Glory to God in the highest heaven – and peace, good will to all

And the shepherds come in to town to see – and O Little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie

The contrast can hardly be more starkly drawn – between the power of Augustus Caesar – and the power of God, revealed now in the birth of God’s Son.

We’re at least somewhat ready for this contrast, now – since we’ve been pondering all through Advent, the season of making ready for the coming of Jesus – pondering the twin pregnancies of Mary, mother of Jesus, and Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist….their wombs swelling slowly as their holy children grow…

Reah, Rohi and I were out in Seattle last week for my mother’s memorial service; spending time also with family members who live there. My niece, Kate, my sister’s son’s wife, is eight months pregnant with their second child… And Teresa, the main care-giver for Reah’s mother, is about six month’s pregnant. Kate and Teresa each have a beautiful aura of peace about them. Each reminding me of the pregnancies of Elizabeth and Mary…. mothers to be of John and Jesus…

I overheard Rohi asking her aunt Kate if she could sit next to her, after the memorial service, and Kate saying, “Rohi, I always love to have you sit with me. Always!” Then, visiting Reah’s mother, Rohi kept saying, “I love you Ate Teresa” (Ate meaning older sister). Teresa kept saying back, “I love you too, Rohi. You’re very sweet.” And we’d hear them say this to each other four or five times in the course of half an hour…

Which is not exactly the kind of conversation we hear most of the time in the courts of Empire – the courts of worldly power. And even though it’s almost Christmas time, there’s no seasonal cease-fire, and news headlines continue to bombard us with images of darkness, fear, and desperation…

But in spite of, perhaps even in reaction to all the bad news we’ve had – I’ve been noticing, more often than I’m used to – people being nice to each other. Workers in motels where we stayed, and stores where we’ve bought groceries have often been very warm and friendly and helpful….

And since we’ve been home, signs of hope and light have continued. Last Wednesday Connie Soper, Rebecca Hewett and I did a short version of our Christmas Eve service of Lessons and Carols at Bourne Manor. Residents and staff joined in heartily singing some of the hymns we’re singing today… (and others we’ll sing on Christmas Eve). There were tears and smiles, often on the same faces, almost at the same time, as we heard again the familiar story; sang again the familiar songs of shepherds and angels and the birth of Jesus.

Later that day and the next day I was visiting with church members in homes and nursing homes, and as I’d sing Christmas hymns and read aloud the Christmas story again, they’d each join me in singing hymns and carols, all from memory. Some would also join in telling the gospel, remembering almost word for word the ancient story… We know the story so well… And yet…

It’s often difficult for us to hear the Christmas story anywhere near close to how it was first heard in days of old. There’s such a wide cultural gap between the original story – the birth in a stable, the holy child at rest in a manger, shepherds called to witness – and the way we hear the story now – in this world so full of noise and speed… power and things… airplanes, cars, tv, laptops, tablets, cell phones, instant information everywhere…

We’ve come such a long way… from those first shepherds watching flocks by night. Now we’ve got twenty-four-hour-information-and-entertainment-on-tap that doesn’t slow down even for Christmas… Always yet another movie to watch, always yet another big game about to begin…But not enough peace, not enough real joy… not enough time…

And still our hearts yearn to hear… the old familiar story…

Such a simple story – simple, true, and deep…

The cry of a baby… Smiles of happy parents… Just being here together in Christ’s church. Isn’t this enough to remind us – of all the ways we’re blessed beyond measure – and invited, like shepherds of old – to give thanks to God for new birth…And tell the good news to all…

Good news of new birth that changes everything…

The birth of Jesus – Savior, Messiah, Lord –

born in a stable, laid in a manger –

angels singing “Glory to God in the highest –

and on earth peace –

good will to all.”

This is still enough.

This is still what matters most.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.