“The Courage To Move Beyond Our Expectations

December 24, 2018 (Christmas Eve)

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Isaiah 9:2-7

Luke 2:1-20

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

2:1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:1-14, (15-20), NRSV)

Let us pray: Who are we, Lord God, that you should come to us?  Who are we? Yet we read that you visited your people and redeemed them through your Son. As we prepare to celebrate his birth, help our hearts leap for joy at the sound of your word, and move us by your Holy Spirit to believe in the audacious promise that is so far beyond our expectations. We ask this through him whose coming is certain, whose day draws near, your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

How many times have you heard this story that we just read from this gospel in Luke?  How many times have you heard this story about the shepherds in the field watching over their flocks at night, when suddenly in a starlit sky there comes the angel and the heavenly host proclaiming good news to all of humanity.  This good news is enough to get the shepherds to go and to follow the directions of the angels in search for the Savior.  How many times have you heard this story that when the shepherds arrive, they find Mary and Joseph and a baby lying in the straw surrounded by the silent and tranquil animals in the barn?

How many times have you heard this story?  Better yet, how many times have you seen it portrayed on greeting cards, or in pictures – this wonderful, warm, loving image?

Christmas is like that for us.  All warm and wonderful.  Memories and images that we treasure and hold dear, that we seek to recreate every Christmas.  Images and memories that transport us back to childhood.  We are so familiar with this story that we overlook that it carries a powerful punch. Let me explain.

It is a real challenge for us to hear the powerful message of this story, when we have so many other memories, images and traditions that help to gloss it over.  This story is a powerful counter-cultural message.  It begins with the Old Testament prophet Isaiah as he speaks directly to political power of his day, in the 8th century before Christ.  Amid talk of governments, warfare, and the economy, Isaiah locates his particular political situation: Assyria, was the reigning superpower, and they have invaded Israel.  The New International Version describes how the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali have been “humbled,” which is a sanitized way of saying “wiped out.” They have become occupied territories.[1]

Sound familiar?  Sure, the names and places have changed … well, kind of.  But war and violence in the Middle East remain constant especially between Israelis and Palestinians.  Throw in terrorism, gun violence and mass shootings, not to mention deep ideological divisions right here at home, and it’s the familiar messy world of politics all these many centuries later.

But Isaiah’s prophetic message is not just to rail against the Assyrians, instead he is sending out a message of hope and assurance to God’s people that the chaos won’t last forever.  Isaiah proclaims that God is Sovereign and God will intervene. God is determined to reign: “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this!”[2]

Isaiah’s prophetic promise is that God will establish God’s Kingdom here on earth and it is a direct and not so subtle challenge to Assyria’s superpower status.   It is easy sitting here tonight in the glory of this event to let that slip by…but we can’t because this prophetic message has as much play today as it did in the 8th Century before Christ.  Which causes me to wonder, do we have the ears to hear this?  It is striking to comprehend that Isaiah is saying that God will not be limited by any nation’s agenda … including our own?

Do we have the courage to believe it?

At a Christmas Eve candlelight service?[3] 

When many of us would rather, stay in our lane, shut up and dribble, stick to sports, stick to accounting, stick to whatever it is you do, just don’t bring up politics.  Here it is on this holy night rearing its ugly head into our beautiful Christmas Eve service, which is supposed to be a political free zone, “the pulpit is no place for politics” and “just preach the bible!”

When we really don’t want our religion and our politics to mix — then we get a loaded text like this!

Biblical scholar at Princeton Dale Bruner, explains, that “Every Old Testament text has its partial ‘fillment’ in its immediate historical context. …” Meaning, that a prophetic Old Testament text has to have some measure of coming true to be reliable.  The ‘fillment’ of Isaiah 9 occurred in the 8th century at the end of the Babylonian exile.   After Assyria destroyed the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, the political landscape changed again for God’s people under King Hezekiah when, “The yoke of their burden, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor” were destroyed. Under Hezekiah’s reign, freedom, joy, and peace prevailed. Well, for a time, at least.[4] 

          Enter the birth of Jesus, according to the Gospel of Luke, his very political message is that the true son of God, the Divine Son is not Augustus, but Jesus.  The real power in the world is not Augustus in Rome but Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem.  The fulfillment of God’s sovereignty was established not through military force this time, but through vulnerability and love.  Imagine: God reigning in power through the weakest of creatures, a human being, “the only mammal on earth that cannot care for [itself] upon birth.”[5] No wonder it was not obvious to all.

There is an independent film that was released in 2003, titled the Whale Rider.   It is about a remote indigenous tribe, the Maroi’s.   It tells the story of a small New Zealand coastal village, inhabited by the Maori.  They were direct descendants of Paikea, the Whale Rider.  It was their custom in every generation for the last 1,000 years, to select a male heir born to the Chief to succeed him and lead the tribe.  The movie tells the story how this once proud tribe has fallen on hard times and they have become a floundering people waiting for their new chief to be born.  There ancient custom is upset when the child selected to be the next chief dies at birth.  The twist of the movie is that the Chief was blessed with twins and while the male child died in childbirth his sister lives.  The rest of the story is the long and slow realization that the tribe has their new leader who has been endowed with powers from on high only they can’t realize it.  And the reason they don’t know it is because it is a little girl.  She is not what they expected.  It is only when they become desperate and actually see a sign of her power and her special calling do, they finally look to her to lead them.[6]

So here we are another Christmas Eve, when we hear this familiar story and we have let this story lose its power in our desire to recreate the wonder of Christmas Eve’s of our past.

And year after year God persists in giving us what we need, a Savior, not what we want, a mighty warrior.   God continues to respond to our desire for strength by showing us the power of weakness, God continues to respond to our yearning for power by showing us the wealth of poverty, God continues to respond to our aching for achievement showing us the power of loss and lowliness.  And still we want some metaphorical bigger-than-life Messiah, leading a mighty army, God once again sends us a pregnant teenager on a donkey.  Not exactly what we are looking for or even what we hope for.

This time of year, isn’t always easy.  For some, it’s as much a time of grief and stress as it is joy and jubilation.  That’s why we can try to remember that the gift of Christmas isn’t in its splendor but its subversion.  The King of Kings, Emmanuel— God with Us — is a baby born in a barn and announced to shepherds. This isn’t the kind of King who requires gleaming palaces and spectacular decor to feel at home but is willing to enter the gritty brokenness of real life.[7]

So, the question is — are we ready to receive the Jesus who is not what we expect? Are we prepared to make room in our hearts and in our lives for the surprising and unexpected good news that God has sent to us?

Like the angel said, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”[8]

Let us pray:

[1] Reverend Heidi Husted Armstrong, Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20), Mixing faith and politics, Presbyterian Outlook, December 18, 2006.

[2] Isaiah 9:7

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid (Verity Jones).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Reverend Dr. Robin J. Steinke, A Different Kind of Hope, President of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN December 19, 2018.

[8] The Reverend Delmer Chilton, Adjusting to reality, Christmas Eve/Christmas Day, Isaiah 62:6-12, Psalm 97, Titus 3:4-7 and Luke 2:1-20.