Unfailing Light

December 24, 2019

Christmas Eve

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Isaiah 9:2–7

Luke 2:1–14

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!”

Let us pray: O Holy One, heavenly angels spoke to earthly shepherds and eternity entered time in the child of Bethlehem. Through the telling of the Christmas story, let our temporal lives be caught up in the eternal in that same child, that we might join shepherds and all the heavenly host in praising the coming of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.

It has been almost 21 years now and I remember it like it was yesterday.  It was our first Advent and Christmas Eve as parents to be. The waiting for yet unknown Baby Caine to be born. When we first found out that we were going to have a baby, the reading of this story was very different that year and every year since.  Thinking about the wonder of parenthood, the fear, the excitement, the terror of not knowing what to do and Monnie and I were in our early thirties so we were seasoned adults, well as seasoned as one can be. As a seasoned adult I was a long way from my teenage years, as Mary was.

The world was so much different back then…that Advent and Christmas Eve 21 years ago.   No one had heard of the Denver suburb of Columbine, the High School where 12 students and teachers where murdered by their classmates.  The twin towers of the World Trade Center were standing tall and proud, beacons of capitalism and power because September 11, 2001 had not yet become a day of infamy. Where terrorists turned highjacked commercial airliners into weapons of mass destruction and murdered nearly 3000 people and changed our way of life. I remember thinking two weeks after our first child was born as I watched on CNN the horror of Columbine, what kind of world have we brought our child into? It was a dark world that day. 

I wonder if Mary and Joseph wondered what they had done bringing a child into the world?  It was a dark world back then as well.

Tonight, we read Luke’s version on the birth of Jesus.  It is a messier and much less poetic version of the birth of Jesus than say the Gospel of John with its soaring language and poetic verse. Luke is a dose of reality. It’s full of the mundane, the ordinary. For example, Luke tells us, there is a census that requires people to return to their own hometown. The census is related to one of the messiest aspects of human life, taxes. The census “a register of persons liable to taxation.”  Rome wanted a census because they wanted to tax and conscript people.”  So, the roads and the streets of the cities and towns of Palestine are crowded. And here among the teaming masses is Mary, a young, pregnant woman who isn’t married yet. With her is Joseph, the man who shows incredible understanding and faith, given the circumstances. Luke says he stays by her.  It’s complicated and it is messy, but Joseph is all in.[1]   

They make their way to Joseph’s ancestral home in Bethlehem and Mary gives birth and must lay her child in a manger among animals. It was typical in that time in humble homes to gather the animals inside for protection from robbers and to provide warmth to those who lived in the house.  It was a messy place.  If you have ever been in a barn or stable where animals are kept you know the smell, and it’s not just of sweet, fresh cut hay.  This on top of the messiness of giving birth. 

It was a dark world back then as well, underlying Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus was his existential wrestling with the power of Roman Empire and how they controlled the people of Israel with great force and fear.

It was a dark world back then as well unless you were a leader in the Roman Empire, then it was all good.  It was the golden age of Caesar Augustus, filled with increasingly oppressive and brutal imperial power.  The Roman legions besieged Jerusalem, burned the temple, and decimated the population, faithful Jewish groups throughout the empire wondered how they would survive in a Roman Empire that wanted to tax them even more and crush their spirits into submission.   First-century hearers would notice the political implications inherent in this acknowledgement of the governor of Syria and the ruler of the Empire.  The census, itself a penetrating symbol of Roman power, serves as a reminder of the subordination required of Israel as a conquered people.  More than an imposed inconvenience, the census signifies the alien rule compromising fidelity to Yahweh.  Joseph and Mary, along with the others who traveled that season were not participants in an inflated economy on a shopping spree. The census accounted for the people’s wealth not for the spending power of their credit limits, but the taxing of persons and property. This return to home bears the weight of tax season, not Black Friday. But Luke the historian is no less Luke the theologian.

We hear the Nativity story differently as parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles and godparents.  But births happen by the thousands every day, and each one is special, each one is miraculous, and each probably causes a mother or father to wonder about the miracle that has just taken place in their lives.

What does it mean to raise a child in a world that, according the National Academy of Science, that because of global warming, polar ice caps are melting, costal lands will be flooded, and hurricanes, storms and draughts will be more frequent and much more severe?  What does it mean to raise a child in a world where violence, war, fear and false narratives rule the day?  Where our political leaders care more about keeping their office than making the nation a better place. Where churches are not safe for children because clergy are truly wolves in parading as sheep? It is a dark world.

It was a dark world.  And that is the point.  Luke is making a strong claim that in spite of  the Roman oppression that was affecting the people of that time, despite the false sense of peace that was being promoted by the government, because Luke knew that the real bringer of peace was now present, a living and breathing baby boy.  The light of the world, the light for the world, the light that darkness will not overcome.

This gives me hope. It gives me hope for children, babies born in what seems like a dark world.  It gives me hope for all of us.  Despite what is happening in the world. No matter how dark it might seem. We have light. We have a choice now we can choose to give into the darkness, or we can follow the light. The light that gives hope, the light that never fades, the light that shines bright even in the darkest of nights.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…

All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Did you hear that?  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 

Christ’s light is always shining in every corner and crevice, in every heart and soul. God towards the light and trust in the God who came to us this night, a babe in a manger.  Amen.

[1] KC Ptomey