A sermon preached by Gregory Stevens on Sunday, 31 December 2018 at the First Baptist Church of Palo Alto. Text: Luke 2:25-40
It breaks my heart when our culture celebrates Christmas. They have made our holiday into a consumer market for capitalist exploitation. Gifts, shopping, more gifts, feasting, shopping, gifts…buy buy buy your way to happiness! Shop till you drop!
Oddly enough the sorrow and pain I feel for our country and my own families addiction to consumer Christmas, is fitting with the actual Christian holiday we find ourselves in during those months. As I’ve been exploring with our youth, Advent makes up the four Sunday’s leading up to Christmas as a yearning and desire for something more. As the days get shorter, and colder and we cuddle around our fires hoping for the Sun to brighten our days once again with warmth and blossoming-life; we also might see how our world too is drowning in injustice and the need for transformation is dire. Through Advent we hope and long for the Christ to redeem our cold dreary situation.
Christmas Day itself is on the 25th and the twelve days of Christmas are then celebrated. That’s why we have all our decorations up, it’s still very much Christmas, the 7th day! Once the shop-till-you-drop mayhem ends on Christmas Day, our Christian calendar observation of the Christmas season begins, and my sorrow suddenly fades.
The despised sheepherders were camping under the stars. They had set night watches over their sheep. Suddenly, God’s angel stood among them and God’s glory blazed around them. They were terrified. The angel said, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah,[a] the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,[b] praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”[c]
Peace to all men and women on earth who please him.
For the first century listener the story of a divine baby, chosen by god to save the world, would be one they already knew, but this time, with this divine baby, there was a subversive Christmas twist. Rather than being an imperial baby of power and might, “Peace through force” Pax Romana, it was with a baby born to poor Jewish teenage refugees in the middle of a cold night in the ghetto of Bethlehem.
“Divine Augusts Caesar, son of god, imperator of land and sea, the benefactor and savior of the whole world” is the shorthand of what’s inscribed throughout the cities of the Roman world.
In their Imperial theology, Caesar Augustus was not only Savior of Rome, but Savior of all Humanity. He was not merely a human leader of great proportion but a divine leader, whose family line was drawn all the way back to Zeus himself. Caesar Augusts was Son of God, God from God, Lord of Lords, Redeemer, and Savior of the World.
The great contrast here is between the birthday of Caesar the Augustus and Jesus the Christ, both are claiming the gospel of salvation and the recreation of the world.
Christmas would make no sense out of context. Context is key. And Jesus’ context was the Roman imperial occupation of Nazareth. “The major event in his village’s life was the day the Romans came. As he grew up toward Luke’s coming-of-age at twelve, he could not have heard, again and again and again, about the day of the Romans—who had escaped and who had not, who had lived and who had died. The Romans were not some distant mythological beings; they were soldiers who had devastated Nazareth’s backyard around the time of his birth” (Borg and Crossan).
This brings us to our scripture reading today, where we must understand the context to reveal the greater meaning. It is important to remember that these stories are not historical facts and were never meant that way, these stories are parables that reveal greater truths through contextual narrative framings.
We can argue all day about the legitimacy of the virgin birth but it would be useless. For the virgin birth isn’t about the factual science begin the idea, rather Roman culture often elevated imperial leaders by telling stories of their divine conception. Interestingly enough in those stories a male god usually forcefully assaults a woman to conceive a royal child – The most important one from that matrix is the conception of Octavian, whose parents were Atia and Octavius and who would one day be the emperor of Rome and the god Augustus (Borg) – in our narrative Mary is asked for her consent by an angel of God, and is not said to have sex with any being but to conceive of the child miraculously. In context: “Christianity described the divine and virginal conception of Jesus precisely to exalt it over all those other ones— and especially over that of Caesar Augustus” (Borg and Crossan).
In the scripture today we have two verses from the Hebrew Bible proclaimed over Jesus as a young boy. This story might make little sense to us modern day readers but for the first century Christians this was about locating Jesus in his Jewishness, he is emerging out of a long prophetic religious tradition. In this way, Jesus is much like Caesar who claims his own Greekness through his familial lineage with the Gods.
This is also a literary device to draw on the histories of past, pulling them into the present and embodying their proclamation. Jesus says, “I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it” – in this way the early Biblical authors were crafting a story that would set Jesus up in the lineage of the God of Israel to continue the stories of Exodus and liberation from old into the present. Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, is like a new Moses, the new redeemer and liberator of God’s people.
For Caesar, and the kings and presidents of today, peace comes through force and violence. Peace comes by conquering, colonizing, and assimilating. For Jesus, peace comes through non-violence, forgiveness, and justice. Peace through violence or peace through justice. This is the Christmas invitation, will be hail the baby Jesus as our upside-down King who seeks peace through justice or will we hail the divine baby Caesar who seeks peace through violent destruction?
We celebrate Christmas each year to remind ourselves, through rituals and songs, that as Christians we chose Jesus’ procession over Caesars, we chose peace of violence and hope over despair. Advent is a time to be reminded of the darkness of these days and the longing for our Exodus, Christmas is our celebration of that Exodus’ story beginning anew in the person of Jesus. The purpose of Advent and Christmas is the bring the past into the present, to transform our world with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Merry Christmas! Let’s get to work.
Marcus Borg, John Crossan, The First Christmas: What the gospels really teach about Jesus’ birth.