Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 25, 2022
Luke 2:1-14 (15-20) Commentary
Here we are, Christmas on a Sunday. Merry Christmas!
This year, I’m especially appreciating the way that Luke subtly weaves together various postures and social positions in his birth narrative. As Luke Timothy Johnson aptly puts it, “Luke’s manner is to show how God’s fidelity is worked out in human events when appearances seem to deny his presence or power.”
We start with Emperor Augustus wielding his power, trying to add to his cache of wealth, calling for a census of his subjects for taxation purposes. Implied in the way Luke describes it is the belief that Augustus’s kingdom is all that matters—it is “all the world” after all. In this one sentence, we are reminded that Jesus is born into an occupied land, part of a mistreated people group, among a number of world powers who believe that they are the ultimate. Could a real threat to these powers come from a manger in Bethlehem?
Even though Mary is very pregnant, she and Joseph are making the trek to Bethlehem as part of the census. They are shrouded in scandal: unmarried and pregnant. Choosing to follow the instructions from God that the angel gave him, Joseph has kept to the engagement but decided to not marry Mary until after the baby is born. This is easily a complication to their social and religious acceptability… could it have something to do with not finding any room in the inn? Last week we considered Joseph’s intent to do the “righteous thing” by dissolving the betrothal between Mary and himself. Would other people think the “righteous thing” to do would be to avoid association with Mary as well?
Jesus ends up being born in impoverished conditions. Someone has allowed them in, at least offering their stable. This was likely in another part of the home, among the animals, below the living quarters. Was the family who let them in doing them a kindness or a snuff? Luke does not tell us.
Jesus is born and God is incarnate; then he is laid in a food trough for donkeys. Everything has changed, and yet, nothing has changed. Unassuming does not seem like the correct word, nor does covert. Instead, should we think of this as a picture of the power of meekness? That it is not measured in the moment, but its influence and impact steadily grows over a lifetime of trust, steadfast patience, and endurance? So many of the circumstances that Jesus is born into will accompany him his entire life: he will be implicated in scandals for associating with the wrong people, he will never be rich, he will be hounded and in the shadow of the empire, he will rely on the hospitality of others to have a place to lay down and sleep. The circumstances of his birth provide the tenor of his life.
I like to think that the angels make it a habit of bursting into spontaneous praise for Jesus as he went about his life and ministry, but that it was only at his birth that they decided to let us humans see. The angelic chorus mirror the shepherds out doing their job: both are being themselves, fulfilling their callings.
But then, lowly shepherds are made the first human drawn to Jesus the Christ: they are the first to be drawn to his presence but they will surely not be the last. Even at his death, the Father and Spirit were drawing people to Jesus… remember the Roman who said, “Surely this man was the Son of God?” Though later in his life, it is his own miracles and teachings that draw people to him, here as a baby, it is the angels who play a role. And, considering that the Magi were led by a star, the heavenly hosts will continue to play that role for toddler Jesus as well. Nature and the angels worship God, no matter if humanity has caught on or not.
If you choose to include verses 15 to 20, then you get to include Mary’s posture. I appreciate how these early stories about the young Mary can help us connect to the older Mary that influences Jesus’ ministry. When we remember that the young Mary said yes to God, that she sung a prophetic song about the power of the meek one coming into the world who would upend everything, and when we think about her here in the manger scene, we are given the portrait of a thoughtful, invested servant of God who will stay close to Jesus through his death.
Verse 19 says that Mary “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Mary keeps building her understanding with each of her supernatural experiences. She continues to meditate on the wondrous ways of God. Her response to being caught up in the providence of God is sit in silence, stillness, and solitude.
Her overwhelm, though small and quiet, is just as powerful as the dramatic display of the heavenly hosts that overcame the shepherds. It is a lovely counterpart. Whereas the shepherds go and keep actively praising and revelling in their experience, Mary stays and sits in silent wonder. Both are natural responses to the glory of God, and both can be ways of glorifying God. Both can be expressions of knowing Christ’s peace.
Truly, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!”
Justo González points out that this is the only place that the titles “Saviour,” “Messiah,” and “Lord” are used all together. Newborn Jesus, unassuming, swaddled and lying in a manger, he is the anointed one, the one who will upend every power structure in the world, the one who is God!
In an article in Southwest Review, Roger Gilbert reflected on being in a crowd with hundreds of people watching a partial solar eclipse. At the moment that the moon became “superimposed” on the sun, “the entire crowd spontaneously burst into applause.” He then reflects:
“Whom or what were we applauding? We tend to imagine when we applaud at a live performance that the applause is ‘for’ the performers, that its purpose is to communicate our approval to them. But this applause suggested that, in some cases at least, communication is a secondary motive, that applause is first and foremost a way of responding to the elation of a moment.”
When the angels burst into praise, I tend to think that their praise for God was like the crowd applauding the magnificence of the solar eclipse: elation to be a witness to something so beautiful as God’s salvific work.
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