Sermon on Luke 2:1-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, PA on Christmas Eve, 2014. Audio for this sermon may be found here.
“It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!” So ends A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’ story about Ebenezer Scrooge and his overnight conversion from grumpy malcontent to jolly humanitarian. When Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, it is unlikely that he could have imagined how ubiquitous his little parable and its protagonist would become. Scrooge’s story has become an indelible part of our culture: ensembles as diverse as the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Muppets have presented adaptations of this “ghost story of Christmas.”
In spite of its omnipresence, there is something very curious about the way we remember the Dickens classic. Though it ends with Scrooge amending his ways by making a generous donation to charity, reconciling with his nephew, and giving Bob Cratchit a raise, we remember Scrooge as the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” that Dickens introduces at the beginning of the story. We ignore Scrooge’s Christmas Eve conversion and focus instead on his previous identity as a misanthropic miser. Why else would “Scrooge” be the near-universal epithet for anyone who does not enjoy the Christmas season?
Our failure to remember Scrooge’s conversion is a symptom of a larger reality: as human beings, we have a hard time believing that anyone can change. If we encountered Ebenezer Scrooge after his transformation, I suspect that most of us would cynically wonder what his angle was. We tend to live our lives according to maxims like “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” or “a leopard doesn’t change its spots” or “there’s nothing new under the sun.” This inherent suspicion is a form of self-preservation; if we refuse to trust that anyone or anything can change, then we can never be hurt. If we refuse to acknowledge that new things are possible, then we can continue to live our lives in the same way we always have.
Tonight, however, we hear an angelic announcement that something new has happened, that our world has changed, that life will no longer be the same. It’s easy to be preoccupied by the familiarity of Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, to be distracted by the images of swaddling clothes and heavenly hosts, and to listen nostalgically for the dulcet tones of Linus Van Pelt of the Charlie Brown Christmas instead of the “good news” at the heart of this story. When the angel of the Lord says, “behold, I bring you good news of a great joy,” one might think that he is merely providing information, that this is the first century equivalent of “breaking news.” But the word that we translate as “good news” refers to much more than new information; it is the same word that was used to announce the birth of a new emperor. Luke implies that Christ’s birth represents a fundamental change in the political reality of the world.
Though Luke describes the birth of Jesus with a word typically associated with social upheaval, the political situation in the world doesn’t seem to have changed all that much. After all, Luke reminds us that Augustus is the emperor of Rome and that Quirinius is the governor of Syria. There’s no indication that either leader is on his way out or that the time is ripe for the arrival of a new king. In fact, Augustus reigned for more than twenty years prior to the birth of Jesus and would rule for twenty years more. If anything, Luke implies that Jesus is born during a time of great political stability. It was a time a time when Rome’s power was largely unchallenged at home and completely unrivaled abroad. It was a time when the Emperor was so feared that he could arbitrarily order people to the towns of their birth in order to conduct a mostly meaningless census. It was a time when the Jewish people were aware and reminded frequently that their tenuous right to worship one God could be revoked without any warning. All of this makes one wonder how the birth of Jesus could possibly be “good news.” A tiny child born in a backwater province couldn’t possibly challenge the most powerful empire the world had ever known. By worldly standards, the birth of Jesus would change nothing: tyrants would persist in forcing their will on the weak and the world would continue as it always had.
But this assumes that Jesus was a typical king. Luke goes out of his way to illustrate that Jesus was not a typical king. While most worldly rulers are heralded by military parades and housed in magnificent palaces, the king we welcome tonight was heralded by a humble donkey and housed in a stable. While most worldly rulers spend their time among the elite in the centers of commerce and culture, the king we welcome tonight was first announced to downtrodden shepherds on a Judean hillside. While most worldly rulers demonstrate their power through cruelty and violence, the king we welcome tonight 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 tonight gave himself up for us on a Roman cross. Tonight, we affirm the deep logic of the Christian faith: in the Incarnation, God became one of us and empowered us to live lives of freedom and grace even in the midst of a world dominated by oppression and fear. Jesus Christ invites us to let go of our belief that everything always stays the same and enter into a new way of being.
Christmas is often a time for nostalgia. We bring ancient decorations out of storage, sing songs that we have sung year after year, and return to traditions that have been part of our lives for as long as we can remember. It is a time that we remember Scrooge before his transformation, when we dream of Christmases “just like the ones we used to know.” Christmas, however, is about more than mere remembrance; it is about recognizing the way in which the good news of the Incarnation is, in fact, news. This has been a year of incredible turmoil. From the rumblings of war in Europe to the specter of terrorism in the Middle East to the proliferation of violence on the streets of this country, this year has been a potent reminder that our world is often dominated by oppression and fear. We might be tempted to despair, to assume that bad news like this is simply the way of the world. Tonight, however, we are called to remember the “good news” of Christ’s birth and embrace the new way of being that God has inaugurated in the arrival of this holy child. On Christmas, we are called to focus not on the way things have always been, but on the way things can be when we live our lives shaped by the Incarnation. Christmas calls us to hear and be transformed by the good news that God entered this broken world and is making all things new.