Texts: Isa 52.7-10; Heb 1.1-4; Jn 1.1-18; (Lk 2.1-20)
However, as we gather this Christmas morning, we know that when we wish each other “Merry Christmas,” we are wishing for so much more than just the nostalgia and the sentimentality and the sense of brotherhood among women and men everywhere. The Christmas about which we read in the Bible is not just a celebration of one baby’s birth or a season of warm thoughts and warm hearts; the Christmas about which the evangelists write is a brimming societal and political revolution.
Throughout the Empire, Caesar was hailed as Savior of the World, the son of a God. He kept the territories loyal and fended off foreign invaders through his military might; he enforced the glorious Pax Romana—the peace of Rome. Especially this year, as we prepare for a presidential election, we are keenly aware that we as humans can profess all the religious belief we want, but deep down, we all believe that if we only find the right Caesar, if we only create the right Empire, we have the power to make the world better. The founding fathers of our nation believed this as they endeavored to “establish a more perfect union,” Karl Marx believed it as he penned the Communist Manifesto; people cheered for it when Chairman Mao led the Glorious Revolution and again when the Berlin Wall fell. In the end, it’s all just trading one Caesar for another.
Frederick Buechner writes, “Where you feet take you, that is who you are.” Talking about the reign of God and the kingship of Christ are all well and good on Sundays, but on the other six days of the week, we place our trust in the Caesars of the world to protect us from terrorists, to balance the budget, to bring peace and prosperity to an uncertain world. We still desire war against those who attack us, we still shun those whom we fear, we still demand full payment of what we are owed, even when the debtor cannot repay the debt. With the crowds, we lift our voices: “Hail, Caesar, son of god, savior of the world!”
It is into this story that God inserts another. Another savior is born, the son of God born to a young woman in a stable on the outskirts of the Empire. Christmas asks us whether we place our faith in Augustus or Democracy or Capitalism or the US Military, or in this dirty infant son of an unwed mother born in the backwoods of nowhere. Which of these two—Caesar or Jesus—do we trust to save the world? Which do we really believe to be God’s son?
In Luke’s version of the story, the angels bring “good news” of Jesus’ birth to a group of men. This is the same word that would have been used to describe the message sent out by Caesar after a great military victory, or at the birth of a new Emperor. He would have sent messengers—“angels” in Greek—to provincial governors and high-ranking officials declaring this good news; but the good news in Luke’s story comes to shepherds, the lowest of the low, men sleeping out on the hills to guard their flocks from their thieving fellow shepherds. And yet, these men—these poor, brutish peasants—know where to put their faith. The Peace of Rome is what keeps them starving and scared and guarding their sheep armed with clubs and knives. The Peace of God proclaimed by the angel—that is something they are willing to abandon their sheep in the hills to see for themselves.
Christmas is God's manifesto written in flesh, God’s declaration that in order for us to hope to rise above the limitations of human sinfulness, we must pledge our ultimate allegiance to that which is already beyond it: the reign of God. Christmas is our profession of faith that God’s reign is better and higher than any of the Caesars of the world, safer than the oppressive security of the Pax Romana. Christmas is our defiant shout that the power and the security and the wealth of the Empire is no good here, not so long as any of God’s children suffer for them.
Christmas declares war on the status quo; but not war with spears and swords and guns. That is the kind of war that Caesar and NATO and the US military would wage. In fact, it does not wage war at all, but peace. Christmas wages peace against the powers of this world, peace against the violence and oppression inherent within our human ideologies, peace against all the things for which we would fight and die. Christmas wages peace on earth, and goodwill to humankind.
For these last four weeks we have been intentionally reminding ourselves to prepare for the coming of Christ. Christmas is God's promise that Christ is indeed coming, and that our preparation is not in vain. Until that time, our vocation—our God-given purpose and function—is to continue living as citizens-in-exile of the heavenly empire which has already planted but has not yet bloomed. These words from John today remind us that “the light came to what was his own and his own people did not accept him.” We gather in worship to celebrate the coming of God’s anointed savior, born in exile and swaddled in a feed trough, so that we might remember what the light looks like and recognize it when we see it.
At Christmas we remember the love of our families, the traditions passed through the years, and the joy of children receiving gifts. But Christmas should also remind us that no Caesar can save us—not Augustus, not any political party, not capitalism or communism or democracy, not money or job security or philanthropy or piety—our only savior is the one who comes from God to establish God’s reign in and among us.
This is the essence of Christmas: that while we stumble around in the darkness groping for the switch that will flick on the light and show us the way to safety, the light himself has come to dwell among us, taking our flesh and our frailty as his own. Nobody has seen God except God's only Son; and he reveals God to us. Far from mere sentimentality and nostalgia Christmas is the bold and daring promise in the darkest days of the year that Jesus is the Light of the World. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness does not, cannot, will not overcome it.