Sermon on Luke 2:1-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
You may have heard that there is a new Star Wars movie. I haven’t seen it yet, but apparently, it’s pretty good. Most reviewers are excited that this new version is more like the original trilogy that came out in the 1970s than the prequels that were released about a decade ago. That’s a good thing, because the prequels were pretty bad. Perhaps nothing illustrates how poorly the prequels compared to the original movies better than the differences in the iconic opening crawls that gave the backstory for each trilogy. On one hand is the crawl for the 1977 Star Wars: “It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.” Now that’s how you begin a space opera; you definitely want to find out what happens in that movie. On the other hand is the crawl for The Phantom Menace, which came out in 1999: “Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.” Taxation of trade routes? Really? That sounds less like a thrilling sci-fi movie and more like C-SPAN.
There is a level at which the beginning of Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus sounds a little like the opening crawl from The Phantom Menace. Luke unfolds the Christmas story in an unusual and frankly banal way. We would expect the evangelist to begin by focusing on the joys and trials of the Christ child and his family. But instead of tugging at our heartstrings, Luke begins his account of the birth of Jesus by talking about politics. Specifically, he reminds us that Augustus is the emperor of Rome and Quirinius is the governor of Syria. On one hand, the evangelist is just providing context; he is affirming that the incarnation is an event that can be considered part of the historical record. On the other hand, the reminder about who is in charge is deeply significant for our understanding of this story, because this story announces the arrival of a new king. When the shepherds hear the angel announce,“behold, I bring you good news of a great joy,” the word 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. In other words, Luke describes the birth of Jesus with a word that usually indicated a fundamental change in the political reality of the world.
Yet, as Luke reminds us at the beginning of this passage, the political situation in the world doesn’t change much after that angelic announcement. Augustus is still the emperor and Quirinius remains the governor. The shepherds return to their hardscrabble existence in the Judean wilderness, and the Holy Family ekes out a modest living in the Galilee. God’s chosen people remain under the thumb of an oppressive regime, and tyrants persist in forcing their will on the weak. By reminding us who the political leaders are at the time of Jesus’ birth, Luke creates a stark juxtaposition: he announces the arrival of a new order even as the old order continues to flourish.
And yet, that’s not where Luke ends the story. After the shepherds depart and everything apparently returns to normal, Luke interrupts the flow of the narrative and turns our attention to the mother of Jesus: “But Mary,” he interjects, “kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” Mary seems to know implicitly that these glorious things are fleeting, and yet she resolves to hold them in her heart. This may not seem like much, but remember that Mary endures trials that no mother should ever have to endure. She is forced to watch the rejection and crucifixion of the child she gave birth to in that lowly stable. In the midst of this soul piercing grief, Mary continues to be animated by the joy of the incarnation, she continues to “ponder these things in her heart.” This statement is deeply and quietly subversive. This statement is where the second chapter of Luke’s gospel moves from charming folktale to a story that has the power to change the world. Because in this statement Mary affirms that the agents of sin and death; disease, war, pestilence, oppression, famine, murder, intolerance, violence; that none of these has any power over us. Mary locates a persistent and enduring joy, an inextinguishable light that cannot be overcome by any darkness. By doing so, she demonstrates that the true Christian vocation is embodied in our ability to find joy in every circumstance of our lives. This joy does not deny the reality of evil in the world; this joy we claim tonight insists that evil has no power over us because it has been defeated through the death and resurrection of the child who was born to Mary.
Howard Thurman was the Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University and a mentor to countless religious leaders, including Martin Luther King. During his time at the Chapel, a time of great unrest and upheaval, he meditated on the things Mary pondered in her heart: “When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, then the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among the people, to make music in the heart.” The ultimate “work of Christmas,” the one that transcends all our other responsibilities, is to make music in our hearts: to celebrate the salvation God has created in the midst of the earth and to claim the joy of the incarnation at all times and in all places.