Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:2-14
We began this glorious night by singing one of my favorites, “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” It’s a great hymn with great theology about just how much love this baby in the manger is bringing to our broken world. And, at the same time, that song makes a pretty big assumption about how our hearts are faring on this holy night. The carol begins, “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant….”
If you fall into that category, more power to you. But I think it’s a pretty safe bet that many of us aren’t feeling so joyful and triumphant tonight, no matter how hard we try for Christmas. Read or watch the news, and you’ll see children starving in Yemen, and families burned out of their homes in California, and leaders failing to govern in Washington. In our own lives, maybe we’re struggling to keep relationships alive or watching them end. Maybe you’ve lost someone in the past year, so this is the first Christmas with that piece of your heart gone missing. Just the other day, I spoke with an incredibly strong woman who is watching both her husband and her daughter fight cancer in this “holiday” season. Sometimes, even on Christmas Eve, peace is hard to come by.
And yet, the words from God we heard tonight, the love letters from the King who cares for us more than we can imagine – those words say that, “to us, a child is born,” one who is named “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). The angels themselves declare that to us is born “in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” And that news makes the army of angels proclaim, “Peace on earth among those whom God favors!” (Luke 2:11,14)
But what kind of peace does this Savior and Lord really bring us?
Well, Luke’s Christmas story begins by telling us what kind of peace the tiny King won’t be bringing us. The story sets his birth in the context of another king’s rule, the Roman Emperor Augustus. Augustus is the kind of king who rules by force and decree. In fact, in the strength of his 38-year reign, this emperor brought peace to the Roman world – peace, in sense of the absence of armed conflict. Now, that’s a blessing. That absence of conflict, and the prosperity that grew from it, caused the Roman world to hail Augustus with a couple of titles we’d recognize but wouldn’t apply to him: He was known as “savior” and “lord.” Those were common titles for this immensely powerful ruler who could snap his semi-divine fingers and command millions of people to carry out his every wish.
That’s the context of our story tonight. The savior and lord Caesar Augustus has issued a decree that “all the [Roman] world should be registered” (Luke 2:1) so that the emperor could tax, and conscript, and otherwise dominate the provinces and peoples enjoying his peace. And among the people following his order are Joseph and Mary, making the difficult journey in the last days of her pregnancy to go ... where Caesar told them to go.
It’s no accident that our Christmas story comes in contrast to this kind of saving lordship – lordship as the world defines it. I think God was saying something very specific: that the truly divine King would come in the least likely way possible – not as emperor but as a vulnerable newborn, born out of wedlock to parents whose relationship was on the rocks, born on the road with no place to stay, born into a people subject to powerlessness and poverty, lying in a feedbox not filled with golden, glowing straw like we see in the paintings but coated with animal spit. Later Christian writers would see Caesar as the anti-Christ. But from the start, God saw Christ as the anti-Caesar.
But why would God choose that path? In a world where people follow leaders who enforce peace through mandates and decrees and the movement of armies, why would God choose to come to us, and save us, as a baby in a dirty feedbox?
I think it comes down to the same mystery that leaves us struggling sometimes with the reality of our own suffering. Especially at Christmastime, we might be forgiven for wishing for a heavenly thunderbolt to deal with the issues that beset us. We might find ourselves praying for a Christmas miracle, and I believe with all my heart that miracles do come. But the thing is, they often don’t follow the timelines we’d specify or look the way we’d order up on our own.
To me, the miracle of Christmas is this: That despite everything – despite centuries of people ignoring God’s call, despite fickle hearts that commit when the going is easy but quickly fall away, despite knowing that those being saved would turn against their Savior – despite every way we humans fail, God chose to take flesh, and inhabit our lives, and walk alongside normal, broken people. And it wasn’t just divine tourism. God came into our lives to offer us the hope of living in a redeemed world, in a new creation, forever, with the direct experience of human suffering now part of God’s own heart. We receive the gift of eternal life from the King who reigns through service, the King who rules by giving himself away. Jesus Christ reigns as Savior and Lord by investing his heart in yours.
So, the miracle of Christmas is not that God will fix all our problems, because if God did, then we would be pets, not divine children and heirs of eternal life. God could have made that choice, I suppose. God could have chosen to play Caesar, invading a broken world with instant salvation. God could have looked at the mess we make of things, and blown the whistle, and said, “You know, this free-will thing was an interesting experiment, but now it’s time for y’all to get in line. Love me, or else.”
That would have been peace, Roman style – the peace of authoritarianism, the peace of empire. But instead, the miracle of Christmas is that the sovereign of all creation chose another way to save us – not the path of insistence but the path of investment. God said, “This mess is worth my personal attention. These broken people are my own children. The only thing that will change their lives is love, and love can’t be coerced. Love must be given, like an ever-flowing stream. And love must be returned for the broken heart to heal.”
And, of course, the miracle doesn’t stop there, at the level of abstraction. The real miracle of the incarnation, the real miracle of Christmas, is not just that God came as a particular human but that God still comes to a particular human – you. To God, you are worth lying in a filthy feedbox. You are worth healing. You are worth dying for. You are worth the investment of love that changes a life, because your changed life changes the world the Lord came to save.
I’ve seen it in a million ways, and so have you. I’ve seen couples make the choice to resurrect a dying relationship. I’ve seen parents make the choice to welcome lost children with God’s open arms. I’ve seen brilliant people commit themselves to public service. I’ve seen wealthy people commit themselves to ensuring that the lives of those without a voice are built up. I’ve seen people in this church offer their gifts of hospitality or music or leadership or whatever, to serve the people they’ve grown to love. I’ve seen people here give dearly of time and talent and treasure to educate children in a small town in Haiti. I’ve seen more than 100 St. Andrew’s members serve and talk with people at the Free Store, just this Saturday, listening to others’ pain, and offering it to God, and providing a warm coat as a sacrament of grace.
And, as I said, I know of a woman who is watching both her husband and her daughter fight cancer but whose heart looks outward still. She could certainly be forgiven for not “feelin’ it” this holiday season – maybe even for polite and proper bitterness at the distance of God’s love. Instead, she told me that, for years, she lived nearby another family that’s now going through their own grief about untimely endings, a Christmas without a mother and a wife. And so, this woman with the outward heart said, “I made some cookies. At least I could do that. I made some cookies, and I brought them over.” And Love came down at Christmas.
Because love doesn’t happen at a distance. Love comes in filthy feedboxes. Love blossoms in broken hearts. Love heals us to heal God’s world. That’s the miracle of Christmas.