Hope in Christ (Christmas Eve, 2020)
Luke 2: 1-7
Hope in Christ
So we arrive at another Christmas Eve, and hear the familiar tales once again. A census has been called. All must return to the cities of their family, and so Joseph and nine months pregnant Mary had to Bethlehem, the city of David, Joseph’s ancestor to be registered by Rome. While they are there, Mary gives birth to the savior of the world, wraps him in cloth and lies him in a manger, for there is no room at the inn. We know the story. And there are some that will spend a lot of time trying to prove or disprove that it happened in exactly this way or exactly that way. To me that misses the point of why this story is being told to us in the first place. Luke tells this story in order to prepare us for the rest of the Gospel. He wants us to realize things that will be important later on. Luke isn’t so much telling us the definitive way that Jesus was born, but rather telling us the definitive story of who this Jesus is, and what makes him important.
But there are little elements within it that make it difficult for us to really be able to comprehend everything that was going on, because we just don’t encounter the same kind of things that would’ve been encountered by the first people who were receiving this gospel message. That’s what I want to dig into today, and look at the elements of the story that really help us to understand the way in which Jesus is being presented here by Luke, and what that could mean for who Luke is saying Jesus is, as well as for our understanding of Jesus’s life, ministry, death, and resurrection.
The first thing to note here is that they are calling a census. Now that might not mean anything to you, after all most of us if not all of us probably just got done filling out the census for the US Government. A census, every 10 years. This was just the census here; and so this just seems like a normal element of life to us. And it probably was a normal element of life to the Romans. The Romans conducted the census for a very similar reason to the United States government: they wanted to be able to tax their territory properly. And in order to do that they needed to know who was there, so they hold a census every once in a while.
However, as we see here, when Rome was conducting a census, that involved censusing the population of Israel. And that makes a big difference, Biblically speaking. God has commanded the Israelites shall not take a census of their people. This is something that is from the Exodus story. They take a census of the people in the midst of the Exodus, and then after it’s all done God tells the people not to ever take another census of themselves.
However that’s not the last census that is conducted of the people of Israel in Scripture. There is one more census recorded, that is the census of king David himself. David, at one point early in his time, asked his government to conduct a census of all of the people in his kingdom, probably for a very similar idea to the Romans. And the response is that God sends a plague, God sends a petulance across the country. There are a crazy amount of people dying throughout the land. This is when David sees the angel of the Lord on top of the mountain in Jerusalem, with his sword outstretched against the city. Saying that God himself was attacking the city because of the census. And David pleads for mercy, and he does ultimately receive mercy. And that’s the last time we see all of Israel counted in a census until Rome is doing it in Luke chapter 2. So one thing that we see here is that Rome is being established as a power, as something able to get Israel to do what they know they should not do, and as something that is acting against God's express commands.
Next, we see that Joseph is following along, but he hast to go to Bethlehem to be registered because he is a descendent of David. So this establishes Joseph and his family as being descendants of David, as being royal. Now, there are obviously a lot of people in Bethlehem who are descendants of David, and they’re not all going to be the king here in the story, but since we are hearing about this specific one we can assume as were going through that for this particular person it matters, this particular person being Joseph or the child that we soon see. One of them is going to be placed up as king. Furthermore, we know from other Scriptures that the Messiah, the future king, was to be born in Bethlehem, we find that out in Matthew when Herod asks the religious leaders where the Messiah will be born, and they say “in Bethlehem.” This establishes Joseph and his son as the opposite of the emperor in Rome. The emperor of Rome was this powerful, overbearing figure, who was the king of the world, who was acting in opposition to God‘s commands. Meanwhile Joseph and Jesus are servants, they are the lowest, the least of these, and they are doing what God prophesied: in this case being born in Bethlehem. So we see these two very different conflicting ideas.
And this birth is setting at odds the Empire and this small family. We see the conflict being set up between the Empire and this Jesus in the words the angels say just shortly after I finished reading: I bring to you good news of great joy, for to you was born this day, in the city of David, a Savior who is the Messiah, the Lord. Now Savior and Lord were titles that the Emperor himself used for himself. And certainly Cesar would have no talk of any king or Lord or anything else that would be over and above what he commanded. And yet here we see the angels declaring this child born in a manger would be the savior, the Lord; would be greater than Cesar. A confrontation.
We see the potential conflict being set up in what happens with when Jesus is presented at the temple. So a Jewish boy would’ve been presented at the temple at eight days old to be circumcised, and Mary and Joseph do this the way they are supposed to. We see them go to the temple, and when they get to the temple there is Simeon and a prophetess named Anna who meet them there, and declare things about this child. And it’s not necessarily great. Simeon says, to God, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” And he goes on to say that “a sword will pierce your own soul too.” A child who will be salvation for all the people, a revelation to the Gentiles, to the people of Rome, and a sword will pierce Mary soul. So we see the confrontation being set up.
And of course that confrontation ultimately does come about. We see in the Gospel of Matthew Herod’s killing of the innocent. In order to try and get this baby, Herod kills every child two years and younger in the city of Bethlehem. We can see this confrontation happening within Luke as well. We see Jesus‘s ministry, where the Pharisees and the religious leaders are at odds with Jesus. Jesus has a lot of moments where he is turning everything that the world knows on its head, moments where Jesus says things like, “you have heard it said...but I say unto you.” His ministry is challenging to the powers that be. And that ultimately leads up to his Passion, the story ahead of Easter Sunday, when Jesus faces off with the religious leadership, who arrest him and turn him over to Rome. Where he’s tried before Herod, and then tried before Rome, who ultimately crucifies him. Kills him. We see this confrontation between the emperor and the Messiah. And ultimately Jesus will win that as he is resurrected on Easter morning; not even death can hold him, there is nothing the Empire can do to keep this man down; he is the new Lord, the new Savior, and the Empire is powerless.
This is who Jesus is. And for me, this is why I follow him. This is it. Jesus is the antithesis to the oppressor, he is God’s answer to the pain and suffering. He will lift up the lowly and bring down the powerful. Here in Spring Hill, we have been celebrating what Jesus brings: the hope, the peace, the joy, and the love that God promises in this child born in Bethlehem, who is wrapped in swaddling cloths. That’s who this child is.
Jesus offers these things in such an ordinary way, a down to earth way, a way I can relate to. God is bringing this about through ordinary people: a Carpenter a young girl in an ordinary town, in a manger, in a stable because there’s no room where they should be sleeping. This isn’t the elites, this isn’t the grandiose noble Kingly birth that I just don’t relate to. I look upon things like the British royal family with amazement, sure, but I don’t relate to them. But Jesus I relate to.
And as I’m following Jesus, I am trusting that he can relate to me. That he knows my pain, he knows my suffering. That’s not something we always expect from our leadership. There’s many who would say that our leaders don’t necessarily know our lives. But what the story shows is that Jesus came as the lowliest, he came as the servant, so that he would experience all of our lives. That’s why I follow him and his teachings: God knows all of this, and God cares about people like me, people like you, even in the midst of his godliness he cares about all of us and knows what it’s like to live our lives; the temptations, the pain, the suffering, and the small little joys. God knows it all. And he reached out to me, he’s reaching out to you. Take that hand. I invite you to come back and join us in following this Jesus. We’re gonna be hearing about Jesus from some friends of mine over the next couple weeks, and then I'll be back. And we’re going to be learning about Jesus together. That is the greatest thing I can think of. Want to join me? Amen.