What Changes – and What Doesn’t
A Sermon by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Reading for this Service: Luke 2.1-20
The Christmas story in Luke’s gospel comes in two parts. The first part tells us what’s wrong with the world. The second part tells us how God longs for things to be. Studying the Christmas story can, I think, help us as we try to discern what changes because of Jesus, and what doesn’t.
The first part of the story begins, ‘In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.’ The Emperor is God. That’s what this opening sentence is telling us. The Emperor is known as the Son of God, the bringer of peace, the Lord, the saviour of the world – in fact, everything the angels later say about Jesus, the Romans were accustomed to saying about Augustus. After all, he’d brought to an end a generation of civil war in the Roman Empire. There was plenty to celebrate.
And what Augustus’ decree said is that everyone needed to be registered. No registration without taxation. This is about money. Having the Roman Empire ruling over you wasn’t a privilege you got for free: you had to pay for it. And Rome wasn’t terribly interested in the territories it invaded for their own sake: it was only interested in what it could get out of them. We get a hint of this when Luke tells us that this registration was ‘while Quirinius was governor of Syria’ – that’s to say, at this point in history Israel only figured on Augustus’ map as a subdivision of the province of Syria. Pretty small fry, in other words.
Taxation wasn’t just a means of raising money. It was also a way of humiliating subject peoples. It’s worth remembering that the people who later asked Jesus the question about taxes and later making the accusations against him were the chief priests who themselves also taxed the Jewish people and held together the whole system of taxation. So what Luke is saying in the opening words of the Christmas story is, ‘Look at what things had come to: Augustus was ordering the affairs of Israel just as God was supposed to do, and the leaders of Israel were following the instructions of Augustus in just the way that they should have been following the instructions of God.’
So the first thing wrong with the world is that it is in the grip of oppressive forces, and in this story the Emperor Augustus is the overwhelming force that not only takes away the people’s freedom but imposes himself as their new god. And into this story comes a descendant of David, to be born in the city of David. The most curious thing about the Christmas story in Luke is that Luke gives us five verses about a census, twelve verse about shepherds and angels, and only two verses about the birth itself.
And what we discover in those two verses about the birth itself is the second thing that is wrong with the world. This second thing is that it has no place for Jesus. As for many women in those days and even today, this was the most profound moment of her entire life, the moment when she gave birth to her first child. And what kind of hospitality did she get, in the city of her husband’s ancestors? Zilch. The child went in the animals’ feeding trough. Can you imagine how many health and safety checks that feeding trough would have failed? This is putting the most vulnerable person in Bethlehem in the most dangerous place in the whole town.
And what the story is saying, of course, is that God’s chosen people, the faithful of the time, just like the faithful today, weren’t ready, weren’t interested, weren’t looking for the coming of God. If you imagine the symbolism of the scene, this was a house in which the animals lived downstairs, providing the heat for the humans who lived upstairs. So the fact that Jesus was born downstairs, and laid in the animals’ feeding trough, is a vivid depiction of what the incarnation enacts: God came down from heaven and took earthly, fleshly form, while the people for whom he came were largely oblivious to what was going on. In St John’s words, ‘He was in the world, yet the world did not know him.’ In fact, he was in the house, and the people in the house didn’t know him.
So that sums up what was wrong with the world, and what’s wrong with the world today. The world is in the grip of oppressive forces; and meanwhile those who profess to open their lives to Jesus aren’t interested or paying attention when the moment of truth comes along.
Let’s look now at the second part of the story, the part about the shepherds and the angels. ‘Shepherd’ is of course a very familiar word in the Biblical vocabulary. It particularly reminds us of two Old Testament books. The first is Ezekiel, which denounces the leaders of Israel prior to the Exile as false shepherds, leading the flock of their people astray. The second is the Psalms, where we are told ‘The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.’ These two references make it clear that shepherds, far from being marginal people excluded from the dietary laws on which the Pharisees insisted and therefore ritually unclean, are instead at the heart of the symbolic world of the gospel. They epitomise everything that was wrong in Israel and everything that God wishes to set right. And of course David was a shepherd boy before he became king. And it is in the new David, the Christ child, that God will become once again the shepherd of his people.
But there’s one rather subtler aspect of the shepherds’ significance. Shepherds are people who keep sheep. Sheep were kept in ancient Israel not just for food and for wool but for sacrifice. Bethlehem’s just a few miles from Jerusalem. It’s not too fanciful to suppose these lambs were being reared for Temple sacrifices. Remember every household had to sacrifice a lamb in the Temple at Passover. That’s a lot of lambs. And yet Jesus isn’t born in the Temple. He’s the Lamb of God but he’s born with the animals, not with their slayers. So here again Jesus’ birth echoes the problem of Israel – the Temple sacrifice system that did not take away sin – while at the same time hinting at the solution – the Lamb of God, the new shepherd who was to be what the Temple always promised to be, the definitive place of encounter between God and his people.
The heart of the story lies in what the shepherds learn from the angels. The first thing they learn is that what’s happening is fundamentally about joy. The registration that took Joseph and Mary was about taxation, oppression, humiliation. But this is about joy. Then they learn that this is joy for all people. The story of the census began with all the world, the world that was under Caesar’s thumb: but this is good news of great joy for all people. In other words for everyone under oppression, hear the news of fabulous joy. The angels mention David again, for the third time in ten verses, just to make sure you don’t miss that this is about David who was himself a shepherd like these shepherds and became a king like Jesus. Then the shepherds learn that this child is to be Saviour, Messiah and Lord, bringing glory and peace – in other words he is to be all that Augustus claims to be and more. He’s bigger than Rome and he’s the fulfilment of the longings of Israel. All things earthly and heavenly. And then the surprise – he’s plonked in an animal feeding trough. In other words he’s already been subject to the oppression of Rome that has dragged his parents a hundred miles on foot back to Bethlehem and he’s already suffered rejection by his people and got tossed in the hay instead of being given a decent place to lay his head.
And then – pow! A whole army of angels appears in the heavens. The language we’re used to, ‘a multitude of the heavenly host,’ again obscures the significance of these words. Behind the angel appears a whole battalion of angels. The name Gabriel means ‘God is my warrior.’ This is military imagery. What this is telling the shepherds is, ‘Don’t worry, God can kick the Romans out of Palestine any time he likes – just look at the armies he’s got to call on. But he’s gathered these armies not for warfare but for worship, because this baby embodies everything he is about.’
And what happens when the angels leave is that the shepherds become angels. Angels are, after all, messengers. And the shepherds become messengers, amazing people with what they have to tell them and returning, glorifying God for all they had heard and seen. And as the story ends, with the shepherds glorifying God, we remember how Luke’s whole gospel ends, with the eleven disciples returning from Bethany with great joy and glorifying God. And we realise how this Christmas story is a microcosm of the whole gospel story, beginning with Rome’s oppression and Israel’s rejection, and ending with a new set of shepherds (the disciples) who themselves turn into angelic messengers (or apostles).
By the end of the story some things have changed, and some haven’t. What hasn’t changed is this: there’s still oppression in the world, and even the faithful still have little or no room for Jesus when he’s looking for a place to stay. But what has changed is this: God has entered the story, definitively, vulnerably, and permanently. God has the power to overturn the oppressor and confront the hard-hearted. But God chooses to be made known as a tiny baby, who needs and desires our loving and longing response. And the first people to learn of this coming are shepherds, whose work is sometimes ordinary, sometimes excluded, sometimes humiliating. And the good news of this coming turns those shepherds, as it turns us, into angels, who have seen the glory of God, have wonders to tell, and whose hearts are full of joy. That’s the good news of Christmas.