A decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.
He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.
The angel said to the shepherds in the field, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
There are two sides to Christmas, one where families gather to celebrate often with sumptuous feasting. And we give each other presents.
I heard a story recently of a man whose young neighbour had a significant birthday. He thought, what can I give her. He remembered that she had commented on a crystal statuette he had on his mantle. He wrapped the statuette in gold coloured cellophane and gave it to the young lady. She had tears of joy. She said, “you have one just like this”, he said “that is the one, it’s yours now”.
Maybe if Christmas for you is this gathering with family and friends, eating sumptuous food and giving family and friends gifts, lets aspire to giving gifts that bring tears of joy, gifts that communicate love.
Yet there is another side to Christmas. We are here perhaps because we want mum and dad to be happy. Or maybe we are here because we love the tradition of Christmas with the Carols and the lovely memories of childhood. I know that many of us are here because we sense the great importance of this other side of Christmas. We have a sense that the stories of this little baby are somehow more than just stories of all babies. Each child that is born brings joy and hope, we delight in watching the infant learning new things, making new sounds, gradually learning to walk and talk. Most mums of newborns know they can’t go shopping with some people stopping them to gaze with awe and joy at their baby. But the story of Jesus being born captures our imagination and tells us something more is happing.
Let’s try to capture something of the mystery of this other side of Christmas. We begin by reflecting on the Gospel story of Jesus’ birth. The emperor of the Roman Empire, Augustus made a decree. Everyone had to go to their hometowns so a census could be taken. The census was not so the Emperor would know where to build new schools or better hospitals, or which communities need a new aqueduct. No, the Roman empire existed mainly to fill the coffers of Rome with the taxes from their empire. So, Joseph had to go down to Bethlehem. He took his fiancé Mary with him, she was already very pregnant. Joseph and Mary were ordinary folk who had to do what ever they were told by the people in authority. They would not have had home isolation like the well to do in a pandemic, they would have been locked in quarantine, there would be no sitting on a super yacht assuming they could do as they pleased.
When they got to Bethlehem, they were not important enough for others to be moved out so that Mary could give birth in a comfortable room like Presidents and Prime Ministers are treated when they have Covid. No Mary and Joseph were sent out the back where there was a cave where the sheep and goats were kept in the cold winter’s nights. When you go to Bethlehem, as I did in 2013, you can go below the church to the cave they believe was the sight of Jesus’ birth. No doubt Joseph had to work hard to clear some of the goat and sheep droppings and dirty hay of the floor. He was probably bustled outside so the local midwife could deliver the baby. Ordinary folk with a birth more like those experienced by people in shanty towns and slums around the world.
Then the people who heard the news of the birth first where shepherds. Shepherds were regarded with some disdain by the religious elite. In the spring when it was the lambing season, they slept in the fields to help deliver any little lambs. As such they didn’t keep Sabbath one of the ten commandments, they were not accepted in the temple or the Synagogue most of the time. So not only were Mary and Joseph ordinary folk but the first visitors were very ordinary indeed. Luke doesn’t tell us anything about wise men arriving from the East with fancy presents. That is only in Matthew’s Gospel.
Luke wants us to hear more than anything, that at the core of the Christmas story is God’s love for the whole of humanity and even the earth itself. As one scholar put it.
Like the creation and restoration of all things, the birth, life, and death of Jesus Christ are expressions of a most extravagant divine love. A love that never fails. A love that seeks beyond every river and mountain until the lost sheep is found. A love that will suffer and sacrifice all things on behalf of the beloved, that lays down its life for its friend. The same love that brought us into being in the first place enters, in the village of Bethlehem in the person of Jesus Christ, into a new and more intimate relationship with us. God so loved the world that He sent his only begotten son, so that every person who puts his faith in him will be reconciled to God and brought to live with Him forever.
Luke’s Gospel also tells us the angels went to the shepherds and told them of the birth of a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. Now when we hear those words we associate them with Jesus and the Christian story. But the Roman emperors of the time used those same words for themselves. They saw themselves as the saviours who would bring peace for the world. They used the power of the Roman legions to make this happen. But the angels were declaring an upside down world was commencing, where the powerful will be brought down and the lowly will be lifted up. Luke is in effect telling us of something rebellious taking place where might would be replaced by love.
The singer Jackson Browne tries to convey this in his song, The Rebel Jesus. Brown admits to being a heathen and a pagan but with a great respect for the Rebel Jesus. Here is his poem:
All the streets are filled with laughter and light
And the music of the season
And the merchants’ windows are all bright
With the faces of the children
And the families hurrying to their homes
As the sky darkens and freezes
Will be gathering around their hearths and tables
Giving thanks for God’s graces
And the birth of the rebel Jesus
They call him by the “Prince Of Peace”
And they call him by “The Saviour”
And they pray to him upon the sea
And in every bold endeavour
And they fill his churches with their pride and gold
As their faith in him increases
But they’ve turned the nature that I worship in
From a temple to a robber’s den
In the words of the rebel Jesus
We guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if anyone of us should interfere
In the business of why there are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus
But pardon me if I have seemed
To take the tone of judgement
For I’ve no wish to come between
This day and your enjoyment
In a life of hardship and of earthly toil
There’s a need for anything that frees us
So I bid you pleasure and I bid you cheer
From a heathen and a pagan
On the side of the rebel Jesus
So, if the Good News of Christmas is the story of God’s extraordinary love that turns our world upside down. How do we then live in this upside-down world? How do we live the life of a rebel turning over tables in the temple, transforming the status quo? How do we show love that is willing to seeks beyond every river and mountain for the lost?
Let me tell now a short story to invite each one of us to truly enter into the Good News of the Birth of Jesus. This story lifts the bar very high but it helps us have a sense of living the Gospel of an extravagant living God.
My story comes form one of the members of our Church.
Her cousin Mervyn is an unimaginably good natured, soft spoken, generous individual, and no one would ever even dream that he would end up in a place like Grandpass in Sri Lanka. Grandpass is an urban suburb that falls below the official poverty line. It is a place with a mix of Muslim, Tamil and Sinhala communities, most of whom live in state housing and either with no means of income or doing labour intensive “poor-man’s” jobs, notorious for high levels of blue -collar crime. But Mervyn’s heart was large enough to get where his services were needed most. He was fluent in English, Sinhala and Tamil, the languages of Sri Lanka and could therefore converse so well with one and all in the area. He set up a health practise, just where no other would, and this place was not only treating the sick and the lame but also helping those in need whether it be with money, translations, help with day to day life, counselling etc. etc.
Mervyn has had his practice open, with of course special government approval through the disasters, curfews etc. etc. and even when the Corona Pandemic broke out, according to his sisters he never stopped working. He tended to all who came along, not thinking a bit about himself and would even wash and dress the wounds of people who could very well be carrying the virus.
He was one of a family of 12 and always saw to the welfare of all his siblings too. A couple of his sisters who are not very well off had their monthly groceries delivered to them by Mervyn. He did not take his share of the parents’ wealth either.
Even the days before he died, he was sick but to get himself checked was last in his mind and only when he said he was finding it a bit difficult to breath, his staff had forcibly rushed him to the hospital where he was found Covid positive and within hours he was dead. Mervyn was just 64.
The message that draws us to the stories of the birth of Jesus is a message of God’s extravagant love. Mervyn lived that love way beyond what most of us are capable. Yet the invitation this Christmas is to discover something of the rebel Jesus and to join him in turning the world upside down.