Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20 [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 Savior, 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 favors!” 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.
Over the past few weeks, many of us have been wrapping presents, lighting trees, hanging mistletoe, wearing reds and greens, and singing favorite carols. With all this going on, it seems obvious that we are moving closer and closer to Christmas, but for many, not all, Christmas seems to have drifted away from the core narrative. The heart of the story really is the Christ child in the manger, the Virgin Mary, Joseph, Shepherds, the Maggi, and a Star. The “child in the manger” may at times, appear to be in competition for our attention, with “modern holiday traditions.”
Christmas greetings have become merely “Happy Holidays,” when we know what really want to say is, “Merry Christmas.” Christmas sweatshirts and Bumper stickers advertise, “Jesus is the reason for the season,” but at the same time, Nativity scenes are no longer considered acceptable in public places. Malls are filled with consumers purchasing gifts, hustling and bustling, but at the same time, in a widely distributed video, an impromptu choir of people raised quite a few eyebrows, when they broke into Handel’s Messiah “Hallelujah Chorus” in the middle of a mall food court. It is Christmas and in addition to the glitter, the lights, and the wrapping paper, we can still have room in the human heart for the joy and peace and goodwill for all; there is still room for the story of Christ Jesus.
The most important message in the story of the Nativity of Our Lord is truly Good News for all, and not just for some! The Good News of God in Christ is that the Creator of all, entered history not as an aloof ruler wielding an agenda of power. Christ came to us humbly and meekly and lived as one of us, yet he was fully able to inaugurate peace for all. Through God’s presence as a little child, God brought the promise of peace on earth to us, at a time when human power and human dignity were at odds with each other.
In the Nativity story, another character often is overlooked, yet he played a major role in the event. The Roman Emperor Augustus, was known throughout the empire as “the venerable,” “the majestic,” and “the esteemed one.” He had no ego problems. Rome, the epicenter of the world at that time, was located far from the village of Bethlehem where the Christ child would be born, yet the empire’s influence extended to all regions. From this august city, a decree would go out to all the world that would attempt to place a numeric value on humanity.
The birth of the Christ child happened in the spotlight of the Emperor’s worldwide census. This event was no small undertaking because it involved everyone; no one was excluded. Everyone was required to travel long journeys to their village of origin, and for some, this was a multi-day journey. For Joseph and Mary, the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem was 80 miles, a mere hour and a half trip for us today, but easily a four day trek for them, and they made it pregnant, and in arid, desolate countryside. All this burden and travel for a census, a census that was not merely to levy taxes or to calculate the need for social service or to determine political representation. This census’ purpose was to determine the value of the Empire, to establish the Emperor Augustus’ extent of power and influence, which was essentially about human value.
Imagine for a moment that God’s creation, which God declared good from the beginning, being reduced to a power system’s possession. The notion of peace, justice, right relationships was being diminished to a mere number, but this is nothing new for human kind. Our attention has been drawn from peace, justice and right relationships throughout the centuries. Our value was infinitely declared by God from the beginning, we are all of immeasurable worth to God, so much, that God dwelt among us in Christ.
Out of these circumstances, a poor, humble, solitary baby, emerged that would be of more value than the Emperor could imagine. The angel messenger declared this Good News, not to the power wielders in Rome, not the elite and powerful, but to humble shepherds in the field. The angels declared, “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 Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
In the midst of an era when human value was diminishing, God stepped in bringing salvation and declaring, “I value you all; I favor you all. I value you so much, that I will be with you as a baby, as a child, as one of you.” God proclaimed, I will enter your struggles, I will walk with you, I will enter a world, even when it believes that there is no room for me, even when I have no place to lay my head on this particular night. The God who created all, entered time and space humble and poor, to declare that we are of more worth than we can imagine. God turned upside down the human notions of power, inequality and injustice, and humbly declared, “I am with you.”
This decree is good news for people of all tribes, all races, all creeds and all walks of life. God is with us and God is for us. At Christmas, we have wonderful traditions that draw our attention in the Christmas season: lights, wreaths, trees, children laughing, toys, shopping, meals, eggnog, and beautifully wrapped presents. Remember that the greatest gift of all is the Infant Jesus, born of a Virgin, surrounded by shepherds. In the face of that tiny child, we witness the love of God who enters our lives declaring peace, justice and equality for all. God decrees the loving value of creation and God desires our focus and attention. The child we celebrate this night, came into this world in a manger, a feed trough for there was no room for him in the Inn that night. This is the same Jesus Christ who stands ready to break into our lives each day with peace, joy, and grace, and out of the greatest love ever known, humbly declares to us, “You are the greatest gifts of all because I know that there is still room today for God’s grace in the human heart.”