So, what are the kinds of things people usually talk about on Christmas Eve – preachers included? Chestnuts roasting on an open fire … the love of family and friends … gifts we can’t wait to unwrap … the gifts of ourselves that we offer to the Baby King. So Christmas Eve probably seems like an odd time for me to talk about sin. That’s especially true about Christmas Eve in an Episcopal church, I think. We don’t do a lot of fire and brimstone here – which sometimes makes people think the Episcopal Church doesn’t care about sin. Plus – hey, Christmas is supposed to be a time to eat, and drink, and be merry, right? So it may surprise you to hear me say that Christmas is actually all about sin.
It might also surprise you to hear me say that, despite the weeks (and months) we’ve been living through the pre-Christmas shopping season, and even despite the Church’s season of preparation we call Advent, Christmas is not a conclusion. And, even though we just heard the Gospel account of a baby’s birth, Christmas isn’t really the beginning of the story, either. Christmas is a chapter in a much bigger story, the story of God redeeming creation and saving humanity – including each one of us. And all the way through, just like it is in all good stories, the action is compelling because of the villains. Those villains are death and sin. And tonight, on Christmas, it’s God’s conquest of sin that takes center stage.
So, what do I mean by that? I am not saying that the true meaning of Christmas is that you’re a bad, sinful person. Absolutely not. Instead, I mean that Christmas is all about God healing the things that separate us from God and each other – healing the divisions of sin. In Christmas, and in Easter, God is doing nothing less than defeating the powers of sin and death in order to heal our deepest wounds – the wounds that separate us from our heavenly parent who loves us more than we can imagine, and the wounds that separate us from other people who show us the face of Christ up close. And because God is too good a writer to allow a predictable storyline, God chooses to conquer sin and death in the way we’d least expect – from the inside out, from the bottom up.
This Christmas story is one we know too well. In fact, we know it so well that we may not really even hear it on a night like this. That Gospel reading tonight is just crazy – a story of contrasts, a story of top-down giving way to bottom-up. It begins not with God but with Caesar. The Emperor Augustus is asserting his authority, a royal reign that had brought the Pax Romana, peace through an iron fist. Official inscriptions in conquered Roman lands hailed Augustus as “god” and “savior of the world.” The date of Augustus’ birth was honored as “the beginning of the good news … for the world.”1 This Roman version of “peace” involved counting and collecting and conscripting. At the point we pick up the story, the empire had decreed a census in order to strengthen tax receipts and bring more bodies into the Roman army.
So that’s the top-down action in this story we know too well. Then the story shifts to bottom-up. An unwed mother and her yet-to-be husband are traveling to the man’s hometown to be part of the census. But they weren’t going to just any small town; they were going to Bethlehem, the place from which Israel’s prophets said God’s true king would come. Mary and Joseph both knew they were part of something much bigger than themselves. Angels had visited them both and told them this baby “will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and … of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33). So, though Mary would be giving birth to God’s true king, the couple found no place to stay because the little town was filled with everyone else caught up in the empire’s order. So, when her time came, they camped in a barn or a cave and put the screaming baby in the animals’ feed trough.
Then, the scene shifts to the fields, and a divine messenger appears, scaring the living daylights out of some unsuspecting shepherds. The angel tells the shepherds this baby’s birth is precisely the thing it looks least like. Augustus may have proclaimed a census, but the sovereign of the universe proclaims the coming of the real king. Augustus may have stationed his armies across the empire, but the sovereign of the universe deploys the heavenly host, the army of God. It turns out peace on earth comes not from the Pax Romana after all, but from this tiny baby lying in the slop. God decides to confront the powers of sin and death by entering directly into the life of people oppressed by the powers of sin and death. Christmas is God saving us from the bottom up.
Now, even if we understand that this is what Christmas is all about, we’re still tempted to keep this story at arm’s length. That temptation is precisely why God chose to live the story this crazy way. You can’t keep God at arm’s length when God insists on crashing your party, showing up in the most unlikely places and hanging out with the most unlikely people – then and now. Prostitutes and tax collectors; priests and politicians. Shepherds and fishermen and other small-business owners. People who struggle to pay their bills, and people who live like royalty. People who endure the slander of bigotry, and people who do the slandering when they think God’s not listening. This unpredictable God chose to “move into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message) and take up residence among everyone living there, regardless of where they fall on the continuum of sinfulness. Because, you know, we’re all there, on the continuum of sinfulness. Despite all the times we shine with the light of God’s love, there’s not a one of us here tonight who isn’t also separating himself or herself, one way or another, from God and the people around us.
So God comes into this broken world, and into our broken lives, as Jesus – a name that means “he saves.” And to do his saving work, he steps directly into the muck and mire of embodied life. Anyone who’s witnessed a baby being born might wonder why the sovereign of the universe would choose that way to make an entrance – not to mention choosing a dirty barn for a delivery suite and a feed trough for an incubator. And still, despite the powerless setting, the generals of the heavenly army appear before the baffled shepherds and affirm that this baby is actually their commander-in-chief, who is taking up the last mission anyone would have expected – a personal mission to step into human life and serve as the true Lord, the true emperor, who longs to save us from all that holds us hostage. Every pomposity that puffs us up, every hardness that hinders our hearts, every smallness that shrinks our souls – God has come in person to save us from our sin by entering directly into it. This king will live as part of an oppressed community. This king will flee from a government that wants him dead and live as a refugee in a foreign land. This king will find himself homeless and unemployed. This king will speak against the religious and civil authorities trying to silence him. This king will lead a demonstration in the streets that becomes the way of the Cross. And this king will die at the hands of those he’s come to save.
Any force that seeks to drive us apart from each other, from other children of God whoever and wherever they are – that force stands opposed to this newborn king. Any force that perpetrates division and creates categories of “us” and “them” stands opposed to this newborn king. Any force that whispers in our ears that we can set our own course and do as we please stands opposed to this newborn king.
And the tragedy is, we each choose those forces from time to time. In our own settings and in our own ways, we each choose to hold ourselves back from our neighbors. We each choose to judge those who disagree with us. We each choose to follow our own path when we know full well that God is directing us differently. We each choose to be our own Caesar, the emperor of our own small worlds.
And God’s response on this night, as it was in the beginning and ever shall be, is to speak the Word we least expect: I love you anyway. I love you anyway. To you is born this day a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. His name is Jesus, and he comes into our world and into our hearts with this mission: to save us from the time of trial, to deliver us from evil, and to bring peace and goodwill among all those he loves.
Whatever sin, whatever separation, entombs your heart, let this tiny king break it open and set you free. Then come to the manger, and come to the Cross, and come to this table to receive the God who comes to love you – in the flesh. In fact, come and receive the God who loves you in your flesh, and let your broken heart beat new.
1. Fitzmeyer, Joseph A. The Gospel According to Luke (I-IX). The Anchor Bible, volume 28. New York: Doubleday, 1970. 394.