Rev. Dr. Dawn Darwin Weaks
First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Odessa TX
The story of Christmas is really two stories, happening at the same time.
The first story perhaps seems quite familiar.
A young, pregnant woman and her fiancé, both devoted Jewish people, travel to the husband’s hometown. While they are there, she goes into labor. Money talks, but they didn’t have any, so there was no room for them in anybody’s guest room. They had the baby in an area where animals stayed. The mama laid her baby in a manger, a feeding trough! The couple named the baby Jesus, a common name. It all seemed very ordinary.
But ….when the baby was born, an angel appeared to some shepherds out working in the fields. Now being a shepherd was a seriously low-status job. You wouldn’t expect these guys to be the chosen audience for a divine announcement. And the angel said, “Good news for all people! Your Savior is born today, Christ the Lord!” Then a whole army of angels filled the sky and sang, “Glory to God! And on earth, peace!”
That’s the first story. It’s the story we came here tonight to hear! But there’s another story.
All of this happened, you may have heard, when Quirinius was governor of Syria, and when Caesar Augustus was emperor of Rome.
Why does that matter? We skip over these things usually: on to the good parts! But hold on…
Caesar Augustus was the emperor of Rome when Jesus was born. Caesar was only one of his titles. He was also called King, Lord, and, get this: Savior of the world. He was worshiped as a god. “Augustus” means “revered” or “to be worshipped.” He was the ruler of the known world, and now he was expanding his control to include Judea, including the small town of Bethlehem, where the baby Jesus was born.
Quirinius was put in place as governor just before Rome took over direct rule of Judea. His first job was to make Judeans register for a census so they could be more completely ruled by Rome. Now registering for a census was against Jewish law, so in making them do this, Rome was humiliating them on purpose. Mary and Joseph still work within this new system and obey it, but that doesn’t mean they liked it. This is the big picture story the rest of the world was seeing when Jesus is born.
But way below the radar of Caesar, right under Caesar’s nose, Jesus, Son of God, get this, Savior and Lord, is born. God is authoring another story! An old priest once told me all we need to get the message of Christmas is to get a new set of glasses to help us look in a new way. Put on our Christmas glasses. Do you see what I see?
The Roman army is met by an army of God’s angels. The army of Caesar is supposed to make everyone afraid so they will cow-tow to do the will of Rome. Compare that with the message of the heavenly army announcing Jesus’ birth to the shepherds: Do not be afraid!
Caesar’s decree went out: that all the world should be counted under his control.
He wanted to show his power so he declared they should all come to him and pay their taxes.
God’s decree went out at the same time: that all the world should count, in God’s reign.
God wanted to save us so God came to us, as a poor child in a manger, to pay whatever loving us cost.
Writer Anne Lamott tells this story about her first day of sobriety. After years of drunkenness, she grudgingly went to her first AA meeting with a friend. She knew these people were not like her. As she walked in, she smelled something putrid and realized the man who had walked in before her was covered in his own filth. She waited for someone to boot him out. “Get on with it! He’s not well enough to be here!” she thought to herself. But instead she watched as two men gently came alongside him, and said, “Buddy, seems like you need some help here. Let’s get you cleaned up.” And they ushered him off to do just that. She was stunned. She says that’s when her sobriety started: realizing you don’t have to get it together to get help. Help can come to you just as you are.
This is the Good News! That God came to us, to save us, and paid all costs. We simply receive the gift. God redeems us, at God’s initiative. This is the message of Christmas.
Just as Rome tightened its screws, God came in Jesus to save us; to be the alternative king, the authentic ruler. Jesus is subverting the Roman empire, and any empire that dares to claim its lordship over me and you, not to mention all the earth. He is setting us free!
There is only one Savior, and it is not Caesar, nor any other earthly tyrant!
We sing of this in the most sweet sounding lullaby imaginable. Unless you were really listening, no one could guess how subversive it really is:
“Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lays down his sweet head. . .the little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.”
Do you see what Luke’s gospel proclaims? God comes to you! God counts you, God saves you, God does whatever it takes to love you, God is the highest power in your life.
So which story do you choose for your loyalty, the story of Caesar? Or the story of Jesus?
Not long ago there was a wedding two blocks from here at the Noel Heritage Plaza. It was a beautiful, young couple. They both came from well-to-do families. He had graduated from West Point, she from Tech. They could have had a wedding anywhere, including the prestigious West Point chapel. They could have spent tens of thousands of dollars on the finest of everything for a cadre of important guests. They could’ve gone the Caesar way. But this young couple said they wanted their wedding to reflect their faith in Jesus. So there they stood on their wedding day, in a little park in downtown Odessa, exchanging their vows in front of family. And when the ceremony was complete, they began their reception. For their guests, they had invited dozens of local homeless men and women, who feasted on wedding food and cake. What a party!
Do you see what I see?
There’s Caesar’s story- it’s the one where everything stays the same. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer- the first stay first and the last stay last. And nobody thinks of the shepherds or listens to the angels. Or, there’s Jesus’ story, the one that begins tonight, the one where God comes as a poor baby born to lower-income parents and the whole sky breaks into song and everything changes, because everyone counts.
Our church touched the lives of hundreds of people this year, through Meals on Wheels, at the Crisis Center, through our early childhood program partners at First 5, through serving food and tutoring to our kids at La Promesa housing project, through Welcome Table worship and Bible studies throughout the city, through caring for the homeless, through children visiting nursing homes and youth rebuilding houses, and so much more.
We do all of this because we have chosen our story.
It is the Jesus story, the one that says that the true God comes to us and makes everyone count. Our God is found in mangers and proclaimed to shepherds. We choose again tonight to say this is our story.
Now only one story lasts. And it is not Caesar’s story.
Today, if he is remembered at all, most people remember Caesar because at some point during his reign, in a rundown section of one of the more obscure imperial provinces, a child was born. (2)
Born to you this night is the Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.
THIS is our story. THIS is our song . . .
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay!