Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]
1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “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, 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, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
We began our worship service by singing, “O, Come, O, Come, Emmanuel.” Emmanuel meaning, “God with us.” God is with us. That is what tonight is about. Proclaiming the promise that God is with us. Not distant or far off, but here. In this place. In our lives. With us.
My hope is that that alone can be enough good news for us all tonight. We all come here from different places. Some of us come here excited. You’ve just returned home or you have just celebrated Christmas. The presents are unwrapped, you’ve gathered around the Christmas tree with family as you exchanged gifts of love. Others of you have just come from work, tired and exhausted and you still have presents to wrap. Some of you may have just come from the hospital visiting a loved one or from the bank checking to see if there is enough to get you through the week. Wherever you are in life, may the promise of tonight that God is with us be enough to give you the courage to keep living and loving.
Tonight we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the revelation of God’s love for this world and for the people in it. That God would become incarnate, en-fleshed in this world, to be with us. Tonight, we heard Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth. It’s a familiar story. It’s the one with the angel coming to Mary to say, ““Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus…The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” It’s the one where no one would share their room with Mary and Joseph. It’s the one with the shepherds hearing that holy chorus in the sky and then going, quickly, to lay their eyes on this God-child lying in a manger.
It’s a familiar story. One that has been acted out by boys dressed in their father’s bathrobe as the shepherds. The girls as angels wearing wings made of tinfoil and halo’s made of tinsel. An honorary Joseph and Mary, and a Jesus cabbage patch doll. We know the story.
But it has recently dawned on me that something is missing from our Christmas pageants and our manger scenes. Or should I say, someone. Two people, in fact. Do you remember them? They were right at the beginning of Luke’s story. Emperor Augustus and Governor Quinirius.
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius. They’re in the story, but not our manger scenes. Why does Luke mention them and why do we forget them?
Luke mentions them because he’s a good story teller. He knows that a story is nothing without its context. Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius are big deals. They are the important people. The royals. The celebrities. The rich and famous. And do you know what the name Augustus means? It means the “One Who Is Divine.” Do you know the other nicknames for the Emperor? Lord. Prince of Peace. Son of God. Sound familiar?
The Emperor was called the Son of God, the bringer of peace. But the way he brought peace was through violence. Through power. Through control. Through keeping the people afraid.
And now Luke tells the story of an angel coming to Mary, an unwed teenager, and telling her that she is going to give birth to the son of God. There is too many “Sons of God” in the room. You’ve got the Emperor and you’ve got Jesus. What’s happening here? What’s Luke trying to say? Luke is confronting the powers that be. Luke is challenging “the man.”
You see there was this widely held belief back then. It said that if you were rich, God favored you. If you had power, God blessed you with it. It said that if God were to ever show up in the world it would be among the rich and famous and healthy and good looking. If God was going to be born, God would be born in the palace, with Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius. But Luke is saying, “No, this is a lie.” He paints the background of Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius, but then he draws our attention to a small family giving birth to a child in a run-down motel and says, “Here is where God is.”
And then the shepherds. They were the lowest of the low. Society’s outcasts. But they were the ones who first heard of the birthing of God among them. It is that choir of angels, those voices from heaven that say to the shepherds, “Look, to you, to you, is born the Savior of the World. The Lord. And the sign will be a child lying in…not a palace…but a manger.” The angels and the shepherds are drawn like a magnet not to the Emperor’s palace, but to the stable. And it is to say, “This is where God is!”
When God arrives in this world, God arrives as we least expect it.
It’s a promise that says God is with us. It says that God will not be held captive by the rich and powerful. God will not favor the rich and powerful. God does not love some and not others, but God has entered into the entirety of the world. So far that God would be born as a poor peasant. Not in a nice home, not in a perfect life, but God would be born in a cattle stall to a pair of frighten parents.
If God would go that far to be in this world, then there is nowhere where God won’t be. God will be found everywhere. Even in your life. God is with us. Not just with me. Not just with you. But with us.
And so I think we need to add to our manger scene. I think every nativity scene should have behind it, in the background, maybe on the window sill, a very, very small Emperor’s palace. And a very tiny Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius. Because then our manger scenes won’t just tell us that Christ is born, but it will remind us where Christ is born. Among the ordinary. Among the powerless. Among the forgotten and the simple. Among love and not fear.
Among us! You and me. The hope of Christmas, the light in the darkness is that if God is born into the ordinary, the everyday….then God is born into your life too.
I don’t know where you go after this. Perhaps you jump the car and head off to Grandma’s, maybe you go to a house that smells like Christmas and with a whole family to join you, or maybe you go home alone. Maybe you’re gearing up for a marathon Christmas tour from one relative’s home to another. Maybe the tension in your family will make the next 24-36 hours hard. Wherever it is, wherever you are going, I promise that Christ will be there. And I pray that you meet him. That you see him, feel him. God is with us. May that be enough to remind you how tremendously important you are and how deeply loved you are. And not just you, but all people. God is with us. May it be enough. May it be so. AMEN.