Dec 21, 2020
by Rev. Teresa K. Pecinovsky
Sermon given 12/20/2020 at Houston Mennonite Church
Setting the stage for today’s text.
We begin with a list of leaders. Luke’s listing of Herod the Great, Quirinius, and Caesar Augustus is problematic to historians because his timeline doesn’t align with the Roman dating of these political figures.
There are similar problems with the accuracy of the Roman census and the idea that people would be required to register in their ancestral home. That would have been a logistical nightmare, even back then.
Most commentators agree that Luke is a poor historian.
However, there is no need to panic.
Luke, like the other Gospel writers, has his own theological emphasis.
Why is he setting up the context with what we might today call ‘artistic license’?
Luke is taking political leaders and timelines out of their historical place for a specific purpose.
“The naming of Caesar Augustus and Quinirius does more
than provide a date; it creates the proper political and social
context for Jesus’ ministry. Throughout the gospel, Luke
articulates a tension between the manifest Roman political powers
and the hidden and almost ironic rule of Jesus.”
- Lewis Donelson, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary
We see this contrast of the Roman powers and Jesus in two big ways throughout the birth narrative.
First, Jesus is not born into wealth like Caesar, but in an odd and humble setting. Luke uses the theme of ordinary bread throughout Jesus’ birth narrative. Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem, a city whose name means “House of Bread.” Their firstborn child is placed in a manger, hardly the lap of luxury, but a place where animals are fed. Luke’s nod is evident here- God feeding the world through God’s son, the one who will call himself the ‘bread of life.’
Second, we see the contrast of Jesus and the Roman rulers in the scene change from a manger to a field with ordinary shepherds.
“[The shepherds] provide, as do Mary and Joseph, a
contrast to Caesar Augustus. They are in the field where they
protect their animals: they represent those who care for the
vulnerable. They may also remind us of other shepherds: Rebecca,
Rachel, Moses, and David. And we will remember them when Jesus, not
in Luke’s Gospel but in Matthew, Mark, and John, speaks of himself
as the shepherd of his people.”
- Amy-Jill Levine, Light of the World
Now, I had originally planned to center this sermon on the shepherds being marginalized and outcast members of society during Jesus’ day. I even sent a blub on this to the worship committee earlier this week.
Note to self: make sure to do your scholarly research BEFORE promising a certain theme, otherwise you might end up being very wrong and having to change your entire sermon.
I won’t go into all the details, but I found three different New Testament professors who reject the idea that shepherds were seen as unreliable social outcasts in first century Israel.
Furthermore, if we look at the text itself, it says that those who heard the shepherds were amazed at what they said, and not who said it. In other words, people did not think the shepherds were the stereotypical town drunks telling ridiculous stories of seeing heavenly beings. They were amazed by the content of what the shepherds told them.
But what was it that was so amazing?
The angels appear to shepherds.
I think it’s safe to assume that being visited by an angel, let alone a host of angels, was a completely terrifying experience, as each time the messengers begin with, “Do not be afraid.” These angels tell the shepherds that they bring Good News.
Now you HMC folx who have listened to Pastor Marty’s previous sermons might remember that euangelion, “Good News,” is a deeply political word. It was used to announce the victory of a war, or as part of a birth decree to promote the Roman myth that Caesar Augustus was a deity. Again, Luke is drawing on a Roman idea of power and contrasting it with Jesus’ birth.
The angels promise wondrous, joyous news, a seemingly ordinary birth for an extraordinary savior. The shepherds are told to go and see for themselves--a newborn babe is wrapped in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.
Luke tells us that 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.”
They quickly make their way into town and
and the baby,
just as the angels said.
And here is where we find ourselves on the cusp of, during the liturgical church calendar, five days before Christmas. We are winding our way toward the conclusion of Advent, of waiting, of hoping. Hope for a Jewish newborn baby, wrapped and lying in a manger.
“We forget the strangeness of this story because it is
- Cynthia Rigby, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary
The nativity story is well beloved within Christian settings; for some it brings a nostalgia of church Nativity plays, choir concerts and warm family gatherings.
Perhaps we are grieving that COVID-19 has prevented us from celebrating Christmas in these traditional ways, with family, friends, and community.
So many of us are weary of months of isolation, additional anxiety, and so much uncertainty. Our medical center is inundated with COVID cases, and the most vulnerable are very sick and dying.
So hear me when I say that our grief is valid and worth giving name and space.
AND. And, the story of Jesus’ birth is still very much for us today.
We would be wise in the year that is 2020 to note that the
teenage Mary gives birth far away from her home. Joseph has not
brought a carpenter’s cradle for his son. They are not welcomed by
familiar neighbors, but complete strangers, shepherds, in fact.
Cynthia Rigby explores this idea further: “Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and the shepherds do not travel with the anticipation that they will arrive to a familiar, homemade Christmas. They are headed to that which is uncomfortable and utterly new.”
“That which is uncomfortable and utterly new.”
The fact that Jesus, his parents, and even his first visitors are all displaced is part of the Good News for us today.
It is Good News for our siblings who live in the middle of poverty or homelessness.
It is Good News for migrants and refugees fleeing their homeland.
It is Good News for anyone who is estranged from their family of origin because of how they identify, who they love, or what boundaries they hold.
of the Nativity.
Mary and Joseph’s world have been turned upside down; they tell stories of wondrous dreams and angelic messengers.
Even now Mary’s prophetic Magnificat is being realized:
God is bringing down the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly.
God’s incarnation in Jesus reminds us that he is born as a baby, lowly, helpless, as all babies are, completely dependent on his parents, and particularly Mary, to feed and care for him.
He has not come to overthrow the Roman occupation or lead an army against the rulers of the day.
Instead, Jesus comes with flesh, blood, and water.
He is placed in a feeding trough,
and instead of feeding livestock he will be given to us,
bread for the world.
Unitarian minister and abolitionist John Sullivan Dwight wrote the English lyrics to the famous Christmas carol:
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.
Jesus is born, not as a Roman ruler, but a lowly savior. Like the shepherds we must be told, “Do not be afraid.” We must resist our fear, we must act to transform our weary world, to bring down systems of inequity, injustice, and our own indifference.
I want to invite you to dream about transforming our weary world with an excerpt from Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman’s 1985 book, The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations:
“The symbol of Christmas—what is it?
It is the rainbow arched over the roof of the sky when the clouds are heaving with foreboding.
It is the cry of life in the newborn babe when, forced from its mother’s nest, it claims its right to live.
It is the brooding Presence of the Eternal Spirit making crooked paths straight, rough places smooth, tired hearts refreshed, dead hopes stir with newness of life.
It is the promise of tomorrow at the close of every day, the movement of life in defiance of death,
and the assurance that love is sturdier than hate, that right is more confident than wrong, that good is more permanent than evil.”
Church, may it be so. In you, in me, and in us all.