The Emperor Augustus is the original tech bro. He is collecting everyone’s information for the census in order to monetize the social network. He is a CEO who amasses billions in revenue from everyday people, while the people struggle to get by. In that sense our story of today’s economy isn’t that different from ancient times, even if the technology has changed. Today we often feel powerless in a world in which the very wealthy get wealthier, meanwhile basic services go underfunded. In that sense the Christmas story is our story. Yes it’s a story that first played out long ago, but it plays out again anew, including today.
Historic stories of exploitation are nothing new. However the Christmas story is subversive, an insight I gleaned from a Christmas blog post with the Salt Project. Despite Augustus’ desire for total control of his subjects, God’s love prevails. Despite challenging circumstances, Mary gives birth to Jesus safely. Mother and child are healthy. Jesus is born in Bethlehem without a fixed address. Jesus is counted among the undocumented, the unhoused, those without full rights which makes us think about others like him.
I think about the man I met who sleeps outside in the church neighbourhood. He explained to me this week having a compact stove that boils water and charges his phone. I invited him to church for warmth and food and let him know about a new overnight shelter at a downtown church, knowing he and others deserve better.
I am reminded about Pr. Munter Isaac, pastor at the Lutheran church in Bethlehem. The church’s Nativity scene presents baby Jesus amidst a pile of rubble. Pr. Isaac’s Christmas message has become, “If Jesus was born today, he’d be born under the rubble of Gaza.” The message of the precarity of life hits home with this image of God who draws near to those who are suffering. God who is not aloof, but comes closer to those in need.
The Christmas story is more than just an empathetic God. This is the same God who creates something out of nothing. God sends the angels who flaunt the seeming control of Emperor Augustus. The angels proclaim “Do not be afraid.” “Do not be afraid,” because the birth of this baby is “good news and great joy for all the people.” Jesus is the good news.
A helpless child is the one who will upset the grand ambitions of an emperor. And the angels proclaim this good news first to the shepherds, who themselves are outsiders. They live and work outside and on the fringes of society. They barely show up on the radar of emperor tracking people. Shepherds can move and travel places without detection. And the angels declare these outsiders as the ones who God favours.
The Christmas gospel is good news for us too. The Christmas story is a reminder that whatever we think is all encompassing, all powerful, that these powers too will subside. Eventually wars end. Eventually tech bros’ influence fades. People catch on they aren’t saviours and they aren’t invincible. God always plays the long game. And in the most unlikely of ways, sending a helpless baby who will transform power and death into hope and possibility.
In this sense the birth of Christ is the in-breaking of the love of God. Even in the least likely of circumstances, love finds a way in. It’s important for us to hear this message of love at a time many of us are running low on hope. It’s been a rough few years between global pandemic, global unrest, rising fascism, and challenges to support basic needs like housing, food, and healthcare including here in Canada.
This past week I had a chance to talk with Boston about the tiredness many of us are feeling. Together we host a podcast at CFUV called “Let’s Talk Faith & Justice.” On this week’s episode we offered a year in review and looking ahead at the year to come. There were a few moments in our conversation where Boston didn’t respond quickly. He kind of stared at me in silence, which when you’re recording in an audio format, silence is challenging. He was exhausted from a week of final exams and projects for law school and a seminary class. He mentioned beforehand that he had given all he had to give. And so I did what any co-host would do, which is jump in and say something until he had a chance to catch his breath. I suspect many of us empathize with Boston’s sense of exhaustion and hope he’s getting rest spending time with family. For many of us there is the busyness of work, family, school, shopping for presents, and preparing meals. Christmas is joyful and can be a busy time.
For others Christmas is very quiet. I remember running into Ed, the chaplain at Luther Court, next door. He asked whether we would be offering communion at tomorrow’s Christmas Day worship at 11 AM. It was a realization that while some of us are running off to family gatherings other people find Christmas quiet and lonely. There is less programming offered at care homes for example as more staff are on vacation.
And yet in the midst of this we hear the Christmas gospel proclaimed to us. Together with the shepherds we are told by the angels, “Do not be afraid.” Not because these problems aren’t real, but because God is doing a new thing with Jesus. The Christmas gospel is revealing the cracks in the structures of power. There is a realization that through God all things are possible. That the good news of Christmas is for those who are tired and weary. It’s for those of us who don’t have it all together. It’s for those who are struggling whether with sickness and health, finances, a sense of purpose or hope. The subversive gospel reminds us that the tech CEO’s, the Emperor Augustus’ don’t win in the end. Empires come to an end. Rulers fall. God’s love prevails.
I invite you this Christmas to take away one thing with you from tonight. Whether it is something you heard in the music, in the prayers, the readings, the angel’s message of “Do not be afraid,” or the radical act of gathering together in worship. Know that what you bring this Christmas is enough. The angels have gone ahead to meet us in a weary world, proclaiming Jesus is the source of love for the world, which is for each one of us. Amen.