Taking Stock of Christmas
Gospel: Luke 2:1-20
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. All went to their own towns to be registered. 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. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 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.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.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: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
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.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Luke continues to place Jesus “in history,” in the reign of Emperor Augustus. That was a long reign, so the time is made clear; “while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” To argue over the historical accuracy from the point of view of our current standards is to miss the main points Luke is making. Firstly, it happened. And secondly—look how it happened.
A census was always unpopular. It was used to ascertain the tax base and to count the number of possible soldiers. Israel was particularly allergic to the idea of a census. (cf Exodus 30, 1 Chron 21)
Some interesting current Jewish thinking on this concludes that
God only sends His blessing to something hidden, not to something counted or weighed... We are told there that when King Agripa wanted to count the Jewish people, he counted the kidneys of the Paschal lambs and multiplied by more than ten, since at least ten people ate every sacrifice.
Indeed ... most ancient and modern people even up to the twentieth century were afraid to count people or cattle or fruits lest it attract the evil eye and cause death. Even in the 19th century, Africans, Arabs, Canadian Indians, Russians and Englishmen were opposed to censuses and did everything they could to avoid them.
So what we have here, is Augustus, ruler of the whole world, ordering a census. This census is used by God to shift Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.
Bethlehem translates as the House of Bread. Luke makes sure to tell us that Joseph is descended from the House of David. David will always had a descendent on the throne says 2 Chron 7:18. (Also implied in Jeremiah 17:25) To say descended from the House of David immediately after speaking of Augustus, already inserts political colours into the story. Luke emphasises his by saying house and family.
So the pretender to Ruler of the World, who has already proclaimed peace on earth, is used by God to enable Jesus, which translates as Saviour, to be born in the birthplace of the great king of Israel.
This would most likely remain opaque to the uninitiated reader, but would be very clear, and be carefully taught, to members of the church. They would also note that whilst Augustus seeks to increase his riches and tyranny and is taking, God is giving the gift of salvation. They would reflect on what Luke 1 has already said:
...you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob [aka Israel] for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end....
The birth story is already a repitition of Luke's message about Jesus. To make sure we do not mistake what is happening, we are told again! God sends messengers [angels] to alert people to the birth.
‘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 Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
A visitation from God was to be feared, but the angel makes it clear that this is good news, contrary to what was all too likely, if the emissaries of Caesar arrived at the sheep fold in the middle of the night! The identity of the child is made even clearer: this is the Messiah! David is mentioned again.
It is made clear that Jesus is a political figure at the very beginning. The birth of Jesus is never simply a sweet story about a saviour who makes us feel good, but who does not challenge us to change the world. All three tellings imply political changes, especially in an environment where politics and religion shaded into each other with unclear boundaries.
Jesus is given for “all the people,” not merely the privileged. This is driven home by the location of the birth. There is no stable in Luke, but the child is placed in a manger. It speaks of poverty, and perhaps it hints of a place of feeding in the House of Bread. The people who hear the news are shepherds. It is common knowledge that shepherds were outcasts, and unclean.
To be clear, unclean had little to do with dirt. It was more about the keeping of the Law, or not. Shepherds could not do this because of their occupation. They were people who, ironically, we might now want to say were “outside the fold.”
Their reputation was probably “enhanced” by being herders. Richard Beck has a fascinating article about the tendency of herding communities to be more violent than cropping communities. (He relates it to the social situation in the USA, although I think I see similarities here in Australia.) His main point is that Jesus, the one who brings peace, appears to those who are among the most violent.
Why am I going into all this? Well, during this Advent season we are exposed to many portrayals of the shepherds in Luke 2 as they keep watch over their flocks at night. And these images often look like Hallmark cards. It's sweet and idyllic. Peaceable.
Well, there was a reason these guys were up at night watching their flocks. They are examples of a herding culture. The point being, these shepherds were pretty tough, even violent, men. They aren't into sheep because they are sweet looking props for our Nativity sets. When you see those sheep you should see dollar signs...
The point in all this is that these shepherds were likely rough and violent men. They had to be. So it's a bit shocking and strange to find the angels appearing to these men, of all people. Thugs might be standing around in our Nativity sets. That scene around the manger might be a bit more scandalous than we had ever imagined....
... The angels proclaim to these violent men a message of "peace on earth." And, upon hearing this message, the shepherds leave their flocks and go searching for the baby! Can you now see how shocking that behavior is? This is something you don't do in a herding culture. (Beck)
No wonder “all who heard [the story] were amazed at what the shepherds told them!”
It was almost an expectation that great figures should have God involved in their birth; even a God as a parent. This was a common place in the myths of Olympus, for example.
We also understand how the myth of humble beginnings fills a need for us. The “log cabin origins” of American presidents and other political hopefuls are a case in point. In Australia, former Prime Minister John Howard’s father was a humble suburban petrol station owner, according to the myth. In fact, the family story is not so simple, but that does not matter. We seem to need the myth.
Luke takes all these expectations and subverts them to his own purpose. Jesus is born in less than a log cabin, surrounded by doubtful company, yet is the Saviour of his people. In future, the locals will look at Jesus and say, “What would you expect? Laid in a manger, after all. That family. Riff raff.”
But Luke’s readers will see God’s saving actions reaching to the least and the worst. They will see “the powerful being brought down, and the lowly lifted up.” (1:52)
So when the Christmas carols sound saccharine around us, we should remember the words:
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight. (Phillips Brookes)
And perhaps learn some new carols.
Not the powerful, not the privileged,
not the famous in the land,
but the no-ones and the needy
were the first to hold God’s hand.
Not a well-established family
with an heirloom christening shawl,
but a homeless, wandering couple
parented the Lord of All.
God, determined to be different
from the standards we think best,
in his choice of friends and family,
let’s forgotten folk be blessed.
Not obsessed by our achievements,
worldly wealth or family tree,
may we, in and with God’s chosen,
find our fondest pedigree. John L. Bell Innkeepers and Light Sleepers, Wild Goose Publications
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!