Christmas sermon preached at our Carols by Candlelight on Sunday night, with major nods to this sermon by Tom Wright for some of the inspiration.
The two narratives of Jesus birth present radically different points of view. Apart from the birth of Jesus himself, there's scarcely a detail in common. Matthew tells the story from Josephs point of view, and brings in Herod and the Magi, Luke tells it through Mary's eyes and brings in the census and the shepherds.
Both gospel writers mention a king: for Luke it's Augustus Caesar, ruling from Rome, for Matthew it's Herod, the local tyrant. Let's start with Luke.
Imagine an empire which controls the known world. It runs a global financial system, which everyone has to buy into. It is at the heart of a war machine which takes credit for bringing peace to all men, but only brings peace through the threat of armed force. It styles itself as the saviour of the world, the bringer of good news, and the favour of this empire rests on those who will dance to its tune.
What are we describing? The world in 2008, or the world in year Zero? This is the empire run by the Caesars, and all of its imitators right down to the present day. It’s an empire which raises a finger, and whole groups of people are thrown into turmoil.
You see this clearly in Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus, which we heard a moment ago. Tom Wright puts it this way: Luke takes the trouble to tell us about the Roman emperor Augustus, and his desire to take a census of more or less the whole known world. This isn’t just background information, or local colour to spice up the story. Empires, censuses and taxes were hot topics in the Middle East in the first century. When we have a census, we just fill in a boring form and send it off. They’re going to tax us anyway. Every time they had a census there were riots and people got killed: censuses then raised the sharp and dangerous questions of who runs the world, how it’s run, who profits by it all, who gets crushed in the process, and, perhaps above all, when is it all going to change? And what should we be doing about it?
So this Caesar orders a census, and thousands of miles away a young couple are forced from their home to travel 100 miles on foot, resulting in the birth of a baby. Not just a baby, but a new king, announced by God’s messengers the angels. And Luke puts the question to us: which is the true king? Who is really in charge? Are you a subject of Caesar, playing by his rules: the rules of finance and war, and bureaucracy and control, or are you a subject of king Jesus and his rules?
Well, you may say, I didn’t expect to be told about empires and money and wars when I came to church tonight. I expected to hear lovely things that would make me feel good inside. But that’s the trouble with how we’ve treated Christmas these many years.
It’s time we gave Christmas its baubles back. This story is not an invitation to an escapist spirituality, which gets lost in dreamland and snow whilst the world goes to hell in a handbasket. This story is a story of a God who infiltrates the sad, unjust, corrupt, painful mess of the world to change it.
We are insulated from so much of the mess, though with the credit crunch that’s started to change for many of us. But something is deeply wrong. For example, it would cost just $40bn to provide clean drinking water for the hundreds of millions who currently lack it, yet somehow we can’t find that but we can find 20x that amount to bail out our banks and 15x that amount to fight a war over oil. At what stage did this maths begin to add up?
Just across the road in ASDA you can walk through the door and buy fruit, from South Africa. Just think where that’s come from. It has flown over the starving of Zimbabwe, the refugees of the Congo, the militia zones of Sudan, over the heads of millions of people who have no food, no clean water, no hope and no future, it has flown over their heads so that we can buy it. At what stage did this start to make sense? This is the world of Caesar, of the system which doesn't care for the little people, where money and power and celebrity talks and everyone else has to lump it. And God is born into this system, like a virus, to change it from the inside out.
King Caesar: the global system, the rule of power and money which we see starting to disintegrate on an almost daily basis. The world which makes us feel so small – an American crook steals $50bn over here, and thousands of people lose their jobs at MFI and Woolworths. A bunch of overpaid city types get the frights on the stock market, and our pensions vanish overnight. And we feel powerless. Yet Luke himself focuses on the powerless: Jesus born to a homeless couple in a stable, the angels coming to the shepherds: security guards on a nightshift, a pretty low status job. Here is where the action is. Here is a new king, with the poor and weak, the small, the normal people. God with us.
But there is an alternative to Caesar, and to Jesus, and Matthew introduces us to him. The third king is Herod: a more local, petty power than Caesar, but just as brutal. Herod murdered family members whom he thought to be a threat. Yet he surrounded his brutality with a religious veneer: building a great temple in Jerusalem and trying to pass himself off as a rightful Jewish King. (A temple, incidentally, that God was so unimpressed by that, despite it's size and quality, he had the Roman army knock it down within 70 years of its construction. He had a different kind of Temple in mind.)
Maybe it’s not the system that’s our problem, but something closer to home. I met someone the other day who is off work with depression because of bullying. Or its within our families, our streets, our community, where we feel vulnerable to those who throw their weight about. Some of them even use religion to support their power games. Those people we make an extra effort to keep happy, because we all know what happens when they get unhappy. Many people are afraid: afraid to be out on the streets after dark, afraid of their boss, afraid of the threat to them, or to their children.
The local tyrant. By the time we meet him in Matthew, we already know Herod is an imposter - Matthew sets out the genealogy of Jesus, which puts him in direct descent from King David. He gives Jesus the title 'Christ' - the Messiah, the promised king. And then the shock: "during the time of King Herod" (2:1) - who on earth is Herod? Jesus is clearly the rightful king, so what's this impostor doing on the throne in his place?
Which of the three kings do we want be ruled by? Which is the true king? Caesar: the system. Herod: the tyrant. Or Jesus. Not a king who rules by rules and forms and a faceless system, not one who rules by violence and threat. The true king is different.
what happens where Jesus is king?
- Wilberforce: fought for decades to abolish slave trade
- St. Peters: built a chicken shed into a church hall, now full to bursting with groups for all ages. It seems quite fitting that an animal shed should be a centre of hope for a community, just as it was once, and still is, the centre of hope for the whole world.
- Street Pastors; over 2000 people now, aged 18 to 80, on the streets on Friday and Saturday night, looking after the drunk and the depressed and the lost and the lonely.
Can I say to you, we need you. If God has blessed you with life, health,
and prosperity, then we need you.
There is so much to do, there is so much that still needs to change. Christmas is not the time when we escape from all this, it’s the time when we see that God himself has put his shoulder to the wheel of world history, and we say ‘yes’ to Christ, our king and 'no' to these impostors and pretenders. Jesus doesn’t want your vote in a phone poll, he doesn’t want you to buy his merchandise and branded items, he wants you and me to get up and work alongside him in the new world that God wants to build. The shepherds left their work, the wise men left their homes, Mary and Joseph took the risk of saying ‘yes’ to God’s call. Because there is a new king.
This is the surprising news of Christmas: you have a choice. You can live by the old rules, under the old ruler, or you can live a new life under a new king, a life under God’s favour, a life worth living.