December 24, 2018 Sermon (Christmas Eve)

Christmas Eve Homily                                                                        
The Rev. Sean Weston                                                                                                           
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
December 24, 2018

He was both God and human. His arrival was called Good News, for he brought peace to the earth. He was called son of god, lord, and savior. It was said that his birth had been marked from the beginning of time, to fulfill the hope of generations. None would surpass his greatness.[1]

I am of course talking about Augustus, emperor of Rome during Jesus’ birth. It is with this Augustus that Luke’s story begins: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” The people of Israel lived under this Augustus, it was because of his decree that Joseph and Mary were making the grueling 70-mile trip to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born.

Augustus was a big deal. After violent power struggles, he put an end to a civil war in the empire, ushering in a time called Pax Romana (latin for Roman peace). Some said that he introduced a golden age, when “the supreme good in human history was fully realized.” He was considered the center of the world.

It was into Augustus’s world that a child named Jesus was born in a manger. A child also called Savior, Son of God, Lord; a child whose birth is also said to be Good News that brings “great joy” to the people. It was into that world– a world that already had peace and hope, that already had Good News, that already had God-in-human-form, fulfilling the hope of generations, marked from the beginning of time – that Jesus was born. It was into that world – a world which already had a lord and savior thank you, that Jesus was born. It is no accident that Luke uses the same words for Jesus that were used to describe this Augustus. Luke is making a powerful and dangerous statement. He is telling a different story.

For things were not exactly as they seemed. To look a little below the surface, to look beyond the official government pronouncements bringing Good News to the people is to find that the stories Augustus told were not what God had in mind. After all, the Pax Romana – the peace of Rome – came at a high cost: widespread poverty, extreme taxation; “law and order” imposed by deadly military violence. Things were okay in Rome as long as you didn’t challenge authority. But the security of those in Rome was protected at the cost of the very lives of those everywhere else, including in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth.

There are many important differences between us here tonight and the people of Israel around Jesus’ time. But one way in which we are quite similar is that we have all been told stories about the world in which we live. Augustus’s seductive stories are still told today, when those in power tell us that our nation can have peace and safety as long as we make others pay the price. It is a lie – an absolute lie – that we must strike others down in order to live great lives or be a great nation. And yet that lie is as common as the air we breathe.

But great lies bring a great price. We are surrounded by violence, hunger, and poverty – whether we choose to notice or not. Just last month the FBI released new statistics showing that hate crimes based on race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, and gender have risen nearly 20%.[2] National borders have become an excuse for separating children from families, warehousing human beings in death-dealing detention centers. Things are not always as they seem: As we gather today to celebrate the Light of the World, we are surrounded by a powerful darkness.

Looking out upon familiar and less familiar faces this evening, I wonder if things are exactly as they seem with you. I wonder what the holiday season has brought to your lives – the good and the not so good. I wonder what lurks beneath the surface as family gathers – or doesn’t gather. There is a lot of joy in the Christmas season. There is also a whole lot of stress and grief and wondering if things will get any better next year. I wonder what story you would tell about the past year. How has 2018 treated you, your friends and family? Is the story you tell to others the story you tell yourself? Do you believe the story you tell yourself?

2,000 years ago, surrounded by stories that weren’t exactly what they seemed, Luke told a different story. Faced with a peace that was no peace and talk of a Lord and Savior who was neither, he wrote of a baby born in a humble manger to a low-income teenage mother. The Son of God was not powerful in the way the world measures power; he was not the Roman emperor or a Judean king. Faced with Good News that was not very good, Luke wrote of news that was truly good, hope that was truly hope – not found in the military might of Rome, bending everyone to its will, requiring hard travel for a census. Hope brought to human hearts in a baby visited by shepherds, not in the halls of power. It was this hope for which the Augustuses of this world would have him killed.

Among all of this, I cannot prove to you that Jesus is worth your trust, I cannot prove that he is the Son of God, that he Emmanuel, God-with-us. I cannot prove that he lives among us today, that he calls to each of us and offers an life truer than any other, a place in his great work of making the world right. I cannot prove that he is with us when we seek to make this church, this community, this world, a place of goodness and peace, justice and mercy, grace and hope. I cannot prove that his kingdom is like a pearl worth selling all we have for. I cannot prove that Christ forgives us our sins and shortcomings or that one day he will destroy all evil in the world and in ourselves.

I cannot prove these things, but I can hope. We can hope, alongside the millions of Christians who for 2,000 year have chosen to tell not the story of the powerful, but the story Luke told tonight about hope being born in this child Jesus. If we cannot hold this hope on our own, we can find strength in one another. For we are surrounded tonight by the Communion of Saints in all places and times – those who are living and those who have died, those here and those around the globe –  as we sing and pray and gather together, telling a story of the world’s true Savior.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Much of the material here comes from The Roman Empire in Luke’s Narrative, by Kazuhiko Yamaaki-Ransom. Some material comes from the Jewish Annotated New Testament and the New Oxford Annotated Bible, Aug. 3rd ed.