ISAIAH 62:6-12, LUKE 1:1-20
How many times have we heard these words from Luke proclaiming the birth of Jesus? Do we notice each time that the Emperor and the Governor invoked in the first sentence never appear again? Are they only there to set the time frame or is there more to their appearance here?
John Dominic Crossan is a biblical scholar who has spent his life studying the life of Jesus in his specific historical context. Jesus was born during the reign of the Emperor Augustus. He grew up to preach against the empire and to offer an alternative to it.
Crossan contrasts the empire of Rome to the Kingdom of God preached by Jesus. The empire boasts of peace, the famous Pax Romana, through victory. This is a peace that is created by the violence of conquest and maintained through armed might.
The problem is that it doesn’t last, as we can plainly see from looking at history then and since then. Empires can’t last because the violence of their creation always inspires more violence, especially the violence of revolt.
At the time Jesus lived almost all the agricultural land in Palestine was owned by three families. A country of family farmers had become a country of sharecroppers. The three families lived in Jerusalem, and for them, the best use of the crops was for export to Rome. This often meant that the families in villages like Nazareth did not have enough to eat.
Crossan says that Jesus offers us a different kind of peace, peace that comes through justice. In the Kingdom of God, everyone has enough, no one is exploited for profit, competition is replaced by cooperation and everyone has a fair chance to succeed. Everyone helps care for those who cannot care for themselves.
This is the contrast used by Isaiah in tonight’s reading when he says, “The Lord has sworn by his right hand and by his mighty arm: I will not again give your grain to be food for your enemies, and foreigners shall not drink the wine for which you have labored. . .”
So Luke invokes the names of the foreign rulers, but tells a story of a teen aged mother from the farming village of Nazareth, who is bearing a child after a long journey. And then he turns to the shepherds in the field, who have even less status than Mary. They do not have to register because they are literally of no account. And it is to them that the angels appear – not to the powers that be, but to the lowest of the lowly.
The angels begin with “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 Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
And they end “being joined by a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,’” and peace on earth.
In another passage from Isaiah, the one we hear so often sung in the Messiah, the child is called the Prince of Peace. “His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice . . .”
Surely you will have noticed some similarities between the time of Jesus and our own. When Isaiah exclaims, “The people who live in darkness have seen a great light.” We can feel the need for that light too.
As in the time of the first Isaiah, as in the time of second Isaiah, like the shepherds, like people in all the ages since, we need a great light. We need to hear the words of Jesus proclaiming the message of peace through justice, a new and better way to live our lives and order our social and political life.
As we mourn for the children and adults gunned down in Newtown, let us not forget the children of Syria growing up in the middle of a civil war. As we watch our Congress deadlocked once again, let us not forget the people of Somalia who have been murdered by their own government. As we see our own culture becoming more violent, more unable to carry on civil discourse, let us not forget the many young people across the globe who are coming of age in this interconnected world and are quick to work together to solve problems and to reach out to those in need.
The birth of the baby Jesus every year expresses the return of the light into a darkened world. It’s a new chance to start again and to become more mindful of the light that is already shining in our world.
Tonight, let this church in this place be the manger where new light enters the world. Let us embrace the child born in our midst. We have, each and every one of us, come from far and wide to be here together to greet him, as families always gather to welcome their new babies.
Let us gather the Christ child into our arms and hearts tonight and then go forth to encourage our families, our neighbors, and our communities to welcome him too. AMEN