A very political Christmas to you all - A non lectionary sermon based on Luke 2: 1-2-
Well may I be the first to wish you A Very Political Christmas
. Yes you heard me right. I wished you A Very Political Christmas. Sure I know that some of you are thinking that this time I have lost it and gone too far.
But I repeat I wish you a Very Political Christmas. Not in the party political sense I would add for whilst political parties are perfectly legitimate as means to work for the implementation of cherished goals, they inevitably disappoint even the most committed loyalist. For they are very human organisations and all fall short at times so that to render any political party as above criticism would quite clearly be an act of idolatry.
No when I wish you a Very Political Christmas I am thinking in terms of power and how it is exercised. However you might date the birth of Jesus and to be honest estimates very widely, he was clearly born into a world dominated by the Roman Empire and the figure of Caesar Augustus. Luke’s community for whom he writes several decades later is also dominated by that Empire and by this time Jesus followers are experiencing difficult times with the Empire. So it is worth pointing out that Luke in his account of the birth of Jesus does not hold his punches when it comes to challenging and offending Rome. We see this in the Census story which suggests an empire moving people around like pieces on a chessboard.
And yet in so doing they unwittingly prepare the ground for the decidedly non imperial Jesus. Luke like Matthew sets the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem which has powerful connotations given that it is the town from which Israel’s greatest king David came. Hearers of the gospel would at once be jumping to the conclusion that just as David had seen off external threats so to might this new born King of whom Luke tells. But Luke goes further. We often miss the offence when he uses terms such as Lord or Saviour to describe the new born child. But these were the terms which were now being used of Rome’s emperor. Yes Luke is setting up Jesus as being truly that which Rome claimed its emperors to be. He is affirming that the new kid on the block or more accurately in the manger is the true Lord and true saviour. It is as shocking as if in Nazi Germany one other than Hitler was declared as Fuhrer. The very stuff of sedition - for if Jesus is Lord and saviour then the vacancy is filled and it is to him rather than flawed rulers in time and place that we owe our loyalty and allegiance.
And that is why Jesus continues to be dangerous to the powers. Give him our allegiance and our vision of life and the world begin to change. Caesar Augustus had ended the civil wars of Rome by victory over rivals. At the point of the sword he had brought the pax Romana to the world. This was the peace that came through force and the threat of shock and awe, of retribution. Now comes Jesus with the message of peace for that world but this is not peace from the sword but through the power of love. On Palm Sunday they come into ultimate conflict when through different gates Jesus and Pontius Pilate enter Jerusalem through different gates - Pilate with all the might of Rome and Jesus armed only with seemingly powerless love. And down through the pages of history these two visions have been in timeless conflict. Aye there’s politics in this!
And we see it also in the characters who fill the story. Sometimes we are tempted to expect god to work through the powerful but Luke’s nativity bypasses any equivalent of the lord Mayor’s banquet. It is instead a story of God at work amongst the marginalised. The Holy Family are incredibly ordinary in many ways. What may be seen as abnormal is the situation into which they are thrust with the possibility of shame in an honour culture which took such things seriously. Indeed there would be those who might argue from an Old Testament understanding that Mary should be stoned to death - shocking situation for a girl who would have been 13 years old at most. The first visitors to the manger would be shepherds whose standing socially was not of the highest order - outsiders with no place in the cultic worship of Israel. And what of where Jesus was born? Tradition often imagines an innkeeper sending Mary and Joseph away - a strange story given Joseph’s ancestry and Mary have relatives but a short distance away.
And this before we consider the tradition of hospitality that is so important in the Middle East. Perhaps here our problem is linguistic. The Greek word translated as Inn is kataluma. It appears elsewhere in Luke’s gospel to refer to the room in which the last supper is celebrated whilst a different Greek word is used by Luke in the parable of the Good Samaritan to refer to a commercial inn. Most probably what we see is the generosity of the have only so much’s who having no room in the guest room invite the Holy Family into the family room which would have had a manger for the animals kept at night on a ,lower level. Indeed what we see here is not the thieving of the wealthy priestly call which years later earns the rage of an adult Jesus but the generosity of the humble. And in this is a contrast. Jesus is welcomed by the lowly whilst he is ignored by the equivalent of the Great and Good to whom we sometimes refer. For what we see in the Luke’s nativity is God working not so much in the centres of power as in the margins.
And by the time Jesus begins his ministry Luke will have him speaking of good news for the poor. Christmas reminds us that Jesus occupies the margins. If we want to put Jesus at the centre of our lives then it is to the margins that we will have to travel. That is why Giles Fraser the until recently Dean of St Paul’s suggested that if Jesus was born today it might well be in an Occupation camp. In a week we shall celebrate his birth. We shall rejoice in the good news of Immanuel - God with us! In him Divinity has entered our world. Divine love has invaded our very being. And the world can never be the same again. His coming gives us direction, hope and meaning. His coming invites us into a new way of living. Now our loyalty is to him. Caesar in ancient on modern forms stands under his judgement.
So today rejoice! Embrace a political Christmas. For we put our whole beings in the hands of the one who is love for all times and for all peoples and who graciously invites us to make that journey of discovery and love with him that we might be transformed and be agents of the gospel of transformation.
So I say it again. A Very Political Christmas to you all!