I lead a little weekly Bible Study on Zoom and yesterday we had the story of the birth of Jesus from Luke Chapter 2. The Christmas story is a good one in which to ponder how we read Scripture since it is so familiar to us. After nearly a half century of studying Scripture for preaching I am still finding discoveries in texts that I thought were “settled.” The Christmas story is one such text.
Last summer (2019) before the pandemic, I filled in as guest preacher for my pastor daughter during her maternity leave for her second child. I preached 12 Sunday’s in a row, and the appointed lessons were from Luke’s Gospel with a few from The Acts of the Apostles. So, it was all Luke all the time. Ironically, my new grandson was named Luke. (These sermons can be found under Sermons in the menu bar above.)
I had no other responsibilities in the church except to preach. Someone else did the pastoral care, and I attended no meetings. It was the first time in my life I could immerse myself in the text for the coming week with no distractions. Not that I think that is a good model for a preacher, since it is precisely those “distractions” that provide the context to which the text must speak.
But this time was a wonderful luxury, and something graceful happened. I started to hear Luke in a new way. I really began to hear his voice, in both Luke and Acts, as a consistent voice with a particular point of view.
I was at the same time reading Howard Thurman’s “Jesus and the Disinherited” which he wrote in 1949 (the year I was born) but remains fresh and insightful, and has much to say about our current important racial reckoning as our nation faces the chronic unhealed wound of racial bigotry.
I understood as I have never understood before how Luke is the Evangelist of the disinherited. In Luke’s Gospel it is to the last, the least and the lost that God chooses to visit and redeem, and to carry out God’s work and way.
And so, when we read those familiar words of Luke 2 yesterday I was struck by how political the Christmas story is. We start with a census ordered by the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus, the most powerful man in the world. Joseph and Mary, expecting her first child, are forced to travel, and she gives birth in the stable where the animals are kept, because their hosts are too crowded to extend hospitality in the house.
These are all poor people. They have no titles, no power, no privilege, and yet it is to them that God’s angel comes. And when the child is born it is to shepherds, the lowest caste, that the angel choir comes to announce the birth. And this birth of God’s chosen one takes place in the “little town of Bethlehem” and not in Jerusalem among the official religious elite. And the angel gives the newborn titles “Savior” and “Lord” that are the titles that belong to Caesar.
Luke’s juxtaposition of who is powerful and who is powerless is a profound challenge to the vanities and claims of empire, then as now. That we haven’t read the Christmas story this way is our loss. St Paul certainly understood this topsy-turvy truth of the Gospel when he wrote: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.”—1 Corinthians 1: 27-28.
That the church and the Gospel have too often been used to uphold the brutal arrangements of the powerful is to our shame.
May 2021 find us transformed in heart and mind to live out this radical Good News that God comes among us quietly in the everyday small graces of life, and that much of what the world values is not what God values. I wish you and yours a Merry Christmas.
Here’s a hymn for Christmas Eve I wrote years ago:
He came to earth that winter night
to share our human frame.
A choir of angels took to flight
to glorify his name.
Some shepherds in a field nearby
were summoned to his birth,
And heard the angels raise the cry
of peace upon the earth.
They went to where the babe did lay,
and found a manger bare.
Some sheep and oxen in the hay,
and Mary, Joseph, there.
O mysteries no eye has seen,
no human ear has heard,
That God should come to such a scene,
and we should call him Lord.
The world’s vast empires rise and fall,
great Caesar lost his claim,
But Mary’s babe is all in all,
and Jesus is his name.
© 2001 Richard L. Floyd
Suggested tune: “Winchester Old”