Sermon on Luke 2:1-14 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX.
Every Christmas Eve, millions of people around the world tune in to listen to a Service of Lessons and Carols from King’s College in Cambridge, England. For those of us who are passionate about choral music, it’s always one of the highlights of the year, an opportunity to hear one of the world’s great choirs singing some of the classics of choral literature as well as some new compositions. As much as I love hearing new and old favorites, however, one of my favorite moments of the service comes at its very beginning. After the choir and congregation have sung “Once in Royal David’s City,” building from a single treble voice to a majestic wash of sound, the Dean of the Chapel intones the words of the Bidding Prayer: “Beloved in Christ, be it this Christmas Eve our care and delight to hear again the message of the Angels, and in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which has come to pass, and the Babe lying in a manger.” I love this prayer, not only because of its beautiful language, but also because it implies that this is a story we have heard before and need to hear again, that the story of Jesus’ birth is indeed good news.
The term “good news” is used quite a bit in our culture. There are whole websites dedicated to the sharing of good news. For the most part, all of this “good news” is the stuff of feel-good human interest stories, the last three minutes of the 6:00 news. A sampling of headlines makes this pretty clear: “At 82 years old, finally the ‘it’ girl on campus,” “Canadian Lottery Winner donates $40 million to charity,” “Girl donates her American Girl doll to raise money for the troops.” You get the idea. While I’m sure that all of these are wonderful stories of compassion and generosity, this is not the “good news” that the Angels proclaim in Luke’s gospel. The “good news” proclaimed to the shepherds on that Middle Eastern hillside twenty centuries ago has much broader and more significant implications.
If you think about it, the gospel according to Luke presents the birth of Jesus is kind of an odd way. You would think that the evangelist would want to focus exclusively on the baby and his family, on their joys and trials, their triumphs and hardships. But instead, Luke begins his account of the birth of Jesus by talking about politics. In particular, he focuses on a peculiar decree made by Caesar Augustus. The emperor wanted to take a census of his diverse empire so the appropriate taxes could be levied. This makes sense; this is part of the reason that our constitution mandates a decennial census. It gets weird, however, when we hear that everyone was required to return to his hometown in order to be counted. That’s just bizarre. Why would you force someone return to a place he no longer lives in order to conduct a census? If you do that, you’re not going to get an accurate count. Scholars have wrestled with this, and some have come to the conclusion that there was no census, that it is a literary device used by the gospel to make sure that Jesus was born in Bethlehem so that the prophecy of Micah could be fulfilled. But I wonder if Luke mentions this decree from Caesar Augustus to show us what the exercise of worldly power looks like. The emperor used his authority to command people where to go, even when those commands didn’t make any sense. By mentioning this decree, Luke exposes the way the world is: people are subject the whims of tyrants and forced to do their bidding.
It is within this context that the angels make their announcement. Even as the known world is being subjected to the whims of a capricious ruler, an angel appears to a group of shepherds and says, “Do not be afraid, for behold: I am bringing good news of great joy that will be for you and all people.” The word that we translate as “good news” or “good tidings” is euaggelion. While both of the familiar translations are accurate, they do not capture the full scope of the Greek. You see, euaggelion was not used for everyday good news; euaggelion was used specifically to announce the birth of a new emperor. The angels are not simply telling us that something good has happened in Bethlehem; the angels are telling us that a new king has arrived. Even as the rulers of the present age are forcing their will upon the world, the angels announce that a new ruler has been born and that the world is going to change. The message of the angels is that this world can be transformed. The message of the angels is that the days of the powers of this world are numbered. The message of the angels is that God has come to dwell among us and has promised new life to the world. When we hear the good news of Christmas, we are called to reevaluate our lives, reorient our priorities, and make ourselves ready for a transformed world.
Even though the angels’ announcement is ultimately a political proclamation, we must remember that today we celebrate the arrival of a very different kind of king. While most worldly rulers are heralded by military parades and housed in magnificent palaces, the king we welcome today was heralded by a humble donkey and housed in a stable. While most worldly rulers demonstrate their power through oppression and violence, the king we welcome today reveals his power in compassion and love. And while most worldly rulers would do anything to stay in power and preserve their lives, the king we welcome today gave himself up for us on a Roman cross. Today we affirm the deep logic of the Christian faith: in the Incarnation, God became one of us and demonstrated how we are meant to care for one another. We are not meant to impose our will on others, we are not meant to presume that we know better than our neighbors, we are not meant to turn anyone away because of who they are or what they have done. God has taken our human nature upon him; thus, we are called to welcome as a gift from God anyone who shares our humanity. We are called to humble ourselves before the one who humbled himself as we reach out in love to the world Christ came to save.
Perhaps the most dramatic moment of Lessons and Carols takes place silently and away from the eyes of the congregation. As the organist plays the final notes of the prelude, the choir gathers in the rear of that beautiful chapel. As they prepare to sing “Once in Royal David’s City,” sixteen young boy trebles huddle next to one another, uncertain about which one of them will sing the first verse. It is not until the choirmaster sounds an opening pitch and points to one of them that they know who will sing an unaccompanied solo for the hundreds gathered in the chapel and the millions listening around the world (no pressure!). It’s a powerful and dramatic moment, one that requires the boys to be ready for anything. But more importantly, that nervous child singing about the birth of Jesus for millions upon millions of people is an icon of the Incarnation, a celebration of the fact that God shared our frail humanity and came to bring us good news.