Sunday, December 25, 2011

Joy to the World!

In their book, What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Birth, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan write these words: 

What would you think of a book that started with the opener, ‘I am going to discuss Mahatma Gandhi as a Hindu saint, but I’ll skip all that distracting stuff about British imperial India.’? Or another with, ‘I am going to describe Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a Christian saint, but I’ll get right to his biography and skip all that stuff about racism in America as background baggage’?

The questions are meant to be rhetorical ones and perhaps even a little bit sarcastic. But the point being made is a very serious one: you cannot understand the birth of Jesus detached from its first-century Roman imperial context.  You cannot understand anything apart from context, including this birth. And yet one of the very real challenges of preaching the Christmas story is that the preacher can assume that nearly everyone in the pews has heard this story from the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel, and almost as certain that most have heard it in ways utterly disconnected from all that “distracting” stuff about imperial Rome. When we skip all that other stuff as “baggage” we are in danger of losing the real meaning of Christmas…

Jesus’ birth took place “…in those days when a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered…” Whatever the historicity of that census may or may not have been, the point is that this is what dictators do: they issue edicts so that they keep an eye on people so they won’t get out of line!

There are signs of Rome’s imperial power everywhere in the Gospel accounts, if you know what you are looking for. Even as we celebrate Jesus’ birth, we do so at the foot of the cross: the Roman equivalent of the guillotine or the electric chair. 

One of the most misunderstood and misquoted of all the sayings of Jesus is the one about rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what belongs to God. If you read that pithy response within context, then you realize that Jesus is asking his followers to discern where their allegiance really does lie. Who is Lord of your life? How much of you belongs to Caesar and how much of you belongs to God? Jesus’ comment is rhetorical (and perhaps even a little sarcastic) because it’s so clear that the answer he is hoping for is most definitely not that Caesar gets everything during the week and God gets an hour or so if we have that left in us on Sunday mornings!

I am aware that birthday parties are not necessarily the time for heady history lessons. Even so, birthday parties are occasions for telling stories. I love those cards you get when you turn forty or fifty that remind you of what was happening in the year you were born and who was President and how much it cost for a gallon of gas or a new home. Context matters. It tells us something about who we are, and what shaped us if we lived through the Great Depression or were born the year John Kennedy was assassinated or if are old enough to remember the days before the internet. Context matters, in our lives and in the life of the One whose birth we celebrate at Christmas. And to skip over those parts is to miss so much of what matters.

What matters is that Jesus’ wasn’t born at the center of imperial power. He isn’t born in Rome and sent to the best private schools. He comes into this world as a vulnerable baby, born to a poor, teenage mother who (at least at the time of his birth) is living in a temporary homeless shelter. He will grow up to see the world from that angle.  He’s born in occupied Palestine where the political leader, Herod, (at least according to Matthew’s telling of the story) is so frightened by his birth that he has countless children “disappeared” in an unsuccessful effort to destroy Jesus. His first visitors will be shepherds, who represent the lowest socio-economic strata of society. The scholars may well argue about the historicity of these parts of the story. But just because they may not have happened doesn't mean they aren't true.

The theological point of the Incarnation is that God is with us—that God is no longer confined to the heavens or to our houses of worship, but has come into the world—into the streets. Everything about the particular circumstances of Jesus birth reminds us that, as Mother Theresa put it, you will see the face of Jesus most clearly among the poor and vulnerable. 

Even though Jesus is born into a violent and occupied land, he refused to perpetuate the cycle of violence. His Kingdom is not of this world. But that doesn’t mean that it is only spiritual, or something that we see only after we die. It means that he refuses to lead a violent coup that then becomes what it hates, only to require another violent coup and then another... 

He comes among us as Prince of Peace, and calls upon us to be peacemakers so that the Kingdom might come on earth as it is in heaven. Truly this birth is joy to the world, in every time and place. Merry Christmas!

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