Sermon on Luke 2:1-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
At the end of every calendar year, social media and other internet sites are generally overrun with articles, tweets, videos, and other posts reviewing the year that is coming to an end. This year, the vast majority of these reflections have had a distinct and consistent theme: namely, that 2016 was the worst. In some ways, it’s hard to argue with this conclusion. This year saw the Zika virus, terror attacks in Brussels, Nice, and Berlin, and the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. This year saw economic collapse in Caracas, political disaster in Ankara, and humanitarian catastrophe in Aleppo. This year saw the deaths of Alan Rickman, Abe Vigoda, Florence Henderson, Alan Thicke, David Bowie, and Prince, to name just a few. This year saw arguably the most contentious election in this country’s history, one that devolved into a nightmarish carnival of fear, resentment, and despair. As we come to the end of this difficult year, it is hard not to buy into the notion that this was the worst year ever.
Human beings have experienced objectively worse years. There was 1348, when the Black Plague arrived on European shores. Less recently there was 72,000 BC, when a volcano in Sumatra exploded with the force of 1.5 million atomic bombs, resulting in the near extinction of the human species. Clearly, 2016 could have been much worse. Yet, it was an exceptionally difficult year. I think the main reason is that this year was so full of uncertainty. Nothing worked out the way we thought. Election results around the world defied the expectations of pollsters and prognosticators, the people who are supposed to be able to tell us what is coming. Traditional times of celebration were interrupted by terror and despair. Even the celebrities who died tended to be people whose presence signified comfort and stability: we lost veteran character actors, musical iconoclasts, and TV moms and dads, people we imagined would always be there. It’s no wonder Merriam Webster’s word of the year was “surreal.” This was a year of confounded expectations, one in which many of us experienced a profound sense of dislocation.
Rather than dislocation, tonight’s gospel reading begins with an almost radical sense of continuity. Luke begins the Christmas story by telling us that Caesar Augustus issued a decree while Quirinius was governor of Syria. This is one of the narrative quirks of this gospel. Luke loves to let us know who was in charge when the events he describes took place. This is about more than providing historical context. The world of Luke’s gospel was one in which the personalities of those in power had a profound effect on the lives of those they governed. The fact that the emperor could send people to their hometowns on a whim is evidence enough of that. Moreover, it was a time when rulers stayed in power for a very long time. By mentioning these world leaders, Luke strongly implies that the world is unlikely to change any time soon.
In the midst of this political stability, however, an angel proclaims to a group of shepherds: “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy.” The angel tells the shepherds that this babe wrapped in swaddling clothes represents something entirely new in the world. Moreover, the angel uses a politically loaded term to describe the birth of Jesus. The word we translate as “good news” is the same word that was used to announce when the emperor had a son. It referred to the birth of a new king. According to Luke’s account, the birth of this child represents a challenge to the present order. And yet, not much changes politically after the birth of Jesus. Augustus remains the emperor and Quirinius remains the governor. The sanguine expectations of the angels appear to have been confounded. Our refrain of “glory to the newborn king” seems tinged with irony. In this gospel reading, it would appear that we are experiencing a profound sense of dislocation.
But this reading ignores a small yet crucial detail in Luke’s narrative. After the shepherds left the babe alone with his parents, Luke tells us that Mary “treasured these things and pondered them in her heart.” Though Luke could be describing the pride that every parent feels when her child is adored by strangers, there is a much more powerful dimension to this statement. By pondering these things in her heart, Mary ensures that the affairs of the world, no matter how dispiriting or dislocating, will never diminish the good news of Jesus’ birth. This is that good news: unlike those leaders that history has mostly forgotten, Jesus is a different kind of king. Jesus is the one who rules our hearts. While this may seem saccharine, even trivial, it is actually of monumental importance. It signals that God’s claim on us transcends every circumstance.
For this reason, I think that the most powerful expression of the Christmas gospel can be found in the Burial Rite of the Book of Common Prayer. The opening anthem includes these words: “For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For if we live, we live unto the Lord, and if we die, we die unto the Lord. Whether we live, therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s.” These words do more than comfort the bereaved: they demonstrate how the gospel frustrates the powers of the world. Most tyrannical regimes coerce obedience by threatening death. But, if we can say with confidence that we are the Lord’s whether we live or die, we have nullified the tyrant’s ultimate threat. The gospel we proclaim tonight is deeply and quietly subversive because it insists that those who claim worldly authority have no real power over us, that the only power that truly matters is that of the babe lying in the manger.
No matter how many times we may hear it, the birth of Jesus is always news, because the bad news is always changing. In the midst of a world that is filled with uncertainty, we must treasure this good news, confident that Jesus Christ is the one who rules our hearts.