Vicar's Sermon - Christmas Day
At the time that Jesus was born the Emperor Augustus had been pulling the levers of power in the Roman Empire for the best part of 45 years. He would reign for another 15 years. Initially part of the Roman Triumvirate with Mark Anthony and Marcus Lepidus he eventually saw off his two rivals in 27 BC and ruled alone from that point on. He was clearly a remarkable man. He once said ‘I found Rome a city of bricks, I left it a city of marble’. And yet, Augustus’ reign was not all sweetness and light. Whilst most of his rule was marked by the famous ‘Pax Romana’ this was only achieved by Rome conducting a series of wars on the fringes of the Empire – Augustus ran a military dictatorship and whilst dictatorship may well provide a degree of stability it is also a less than ideal model for exercising political power. It relies on there being soldiers on the streets and swift and brutal elimination of any challengers. When the Emperor says jump your only answer was to ask ‘how high?’
We don’t know what this feels like, we don’t know what it feels like to be ruled over by someone not of our choosing. Here in the west we like to think that we are in charge of our own destiny. Quite rightly we can be proud of our Parliamentary democracy. Too much power concentrated in too few hands doesn’t make for good government – but this was not the case of 1st century Palestine where the sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’ threatened to boil over any number of times. Put simply, it was spiritually and politically unacceptable that Rome should rule over God’s chosen people yet for all the ‘fig leaf’ of Herod the Great being King, he was the Emperor’s client: Rome pulled the levers of power in Israel as it did elsewhere.
Again, we have no idea what this feels like. Britannia ‘ruled the waves’ for a very long time and most maps were filled with the red of Empire until the middle of the last century: we have tended to be rulers of people rather than those who were ‘ruled’. But if, by some leap of imagination we might step into the shoes of the ‘un-Free’ we might begin to understand just how strong the desire is for ‘deliverance’, for a ‘Saviour’: someone who will help their people to cast aside their sense of being ‘second class’ citizens in their own country, someone who will value the culture and language of their people rather than look down upon it. We might also discover just how debilitating years and years of powerlessness can be, how it can rob a nation of its creativity and life as everything of value is stripped from it and taken to the modern equivalent of Rome – which quite possibly now lies behind a fake name plate in the Cayman Islands.
Luke’s Nativity story sets us well and truly in Augustus’ world. His head is on every coin. His cult will proclaim him a ‘god.’ His soldiers will march to the ends of the known world for him. There will be, in the language of the Old Testament, much ‘tramping of warriors’ and ‘garments rolled in blood’ on Augustus’ watch. Yet whilst Rome’s Empire is exercising its power over tens of thousands, whilst the whole Empire is convulsed by the requirements of this census something else is going on in a back room of a crowded house in Bethlehem. It will be another 30 years or so before the significance of what is taking place is revealed but this is the beginning…or at least, this is the end of the beginning for the beginning lay in the heart of God before the foundation of the world. It came to light when Mary made room for the Holy Spirit to work within her when the angel greeted her in her home.
Jesus’ name is not given in this passage – he must still be hidden, his birth takes place at night, very few are aware of it – only a bunch of shepherds probably tanked up with winter cheer. Like his ancestor David before Him Jesus is proclaimed king, Messiah, the Christ, long before He is revealed as such. Yet this name, this Jesus will become known. Again, like David before Him he will appear to be as nothing before the giants of His world, yet slay them he will! The prophets years before had said that there would be nothing in his appearance to commend him…but he will bind the strong men of poverty and disease, he will set free those in captivity to the lure of wealth and status, he will open the eyes of the blind to see the glory of God around them and he will host the Messianic banquet with guests from the most unlikely of places – the Zacchaeus’s and Mary Magdalene’s of the world. He will go the extra mile to search out the ‘lost sheep’ of Israel and open wide his arms to embrace her prodigal sons. God’s Kingdom will come with His presence, the most unlikely of Saviours, with an unimpressive band of followers struggling to make sense of his teaching and repeatedly failing to understand a single word of it.
Yet, at this Christmas-time, when earth and heaven seem to come closer together somehow, He reveals Himself to be the Saviour that we need. And not just us but a whole world that seems to want to step backwards into darkness, that seems powerless to challenge the unseen powers that demand ever greater sacrifices from people, communities and families to satiate the desire for wealth and influence of a few , prepared to cast increasing numbers of vulnerable people onto life’s scrap heap with no-one to care for them. We all need a Saviour, someone to show us another way. Someone to lead the Way to a life where there is ‘endless peace, justice and righteousness’, where there is ‘joy for all people’.
God shows us this Way by rolling up his sleeves and getting involved: He himself comes to save us. There are, to quote Barbara Taylor Brown, ‘no up escalators’ in the Christmas story – no, we are not to be airlifted out of the mess we make of things, rather He comes down to earth from heaven and the invitation from Jesus our Saviour will soon sound loud and clear: ‘Follow me.’