But the angel said to them…., “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10, 11-12)
Life seems so ordinary sometimes. The alarm sounds. We shuffle or stagger to the first cup of coffee. Shower. Dress. Herd kids. Work. Home. Dinner. Herd Kids. Bed. Repeat.
Every now and again a day stands out as extraordinary. You get married. Somebody throws you a surprise party. The pregnancy test is positive. But for the most part we cannot imagine what we would say if a police officer asked us, “Where were you on November 23 at 2:30 p.m.?”
Now you might think that if God shows up it would be a day to remember. But as Luke describes it, Jesus’ birth is anything but extraordinary. Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem with a flood of visitors. Nothing distinguished them from all the other travelers that night, at least not to the eye of Bethlehem residents.
Joseph and Mary wandered about. All the hotels were full. An enterprising local made a few bucks on them by putting them up in an outbuilding. Mary gave birth and bundled up her baby boy in whatever rags were available, but as best as we can tell nobody noticed. Lots of poor women give birth every day. There are too many raggedy urchins to number and they all look alike to world-weary eyes.
The Son of God arrived on an ordinary day, in an ordinary place, in a perfectly ordinary way.
How different things would have been had the Emperor come to town.
His self-given name already tells you loads about him. Augustus. The August One. The stately, imposing, illustrious, grand, and exalted one.
Row upon row of trumpets and drums would herald his arrival. People would line the streets putting on a face of joyful adulation that masked a heart filled with abject terror. An advance team of courtiers and soldiers would locate the nicest homes in town and kick those Bethlehem residents out to make room for Augustus and his entourage.
Augustus and Jesus both bring peace. But the kind of peace that they each bring is so different that to use the same word to describe it is misleading. Augustus imposes civil order upon an empire. Jesus injects transforming love into the whole creation.
Augustus enforces order from a distance. He keeps the trains running on time and prevents people from stealing from and thrashing one another, at least for the most part. He accomplishes this standing above and apart from his people. He surrounds himself with comforts and luxuries that his own people can scarcely imagine.
Augustus does not eliminate violence and fear. He channels it to maintain his own power and to secure his own status. The Pax Romana that Augustus inaugurates is all about externals: organization and efficiency, profitability, law and order.
And yet, there is no true peace of mind and tranquility of heart. On the contrary, Rome’s peace requires a spiritual uneasiness in its subjects. Augustus takes advantage of his subject’s dread of violence. They walk the line lest they become the victims of imprisonment, torture, or execution. Augustus achieves an external orderliness by perpetuating inner fear and insecurity.
Jesus reigns from the inside out. He knows that our hearts are rent by fear and sorrow, oppressed by loneliness and regret. God seems distant. Strangers feel threatening. Sometimes we just don’t feel comfortable in our own skin.
Augustus accepts this status quo. He uses armies and police forces to keep us from each other’s throats. Jesus comes to change our inner life so that our external world will follow. He imparts love and tranquility so that our relationships with each other will begin to embody the love God imparts to us.
The Son of God has come to dwell in our midst, in the shabby, messy manger of our life. He takes up residence in our dysfunctional families and our quarrelsome friendships. In our most boneheaded decisions and most embarrassing temper tantrums. In our weary indifference and our overwhelmed busyness.
Jesus has not come to straighten us out or to judge us, nor has he come to just keep us company. His very presence begins to change the deep logic of everything. In Jesus, God has come near. He takes up residence in our soul and his presence has a dramatic effect on our heart.
When we follow Jesus, love displaces fear and regret and resentment bit by bit. Jesus does not stand at a distance and change laws, inaugurate social programs, or improve our schools. He does not feed the poor, shelter the homeless, or tend to the mentally ill and handicapped by decree. Jesus changes us by loving us, and then we do these things because of who he has made us.
Jesus makes our hearts into a new creation so that we can transform the world according his vision of peace. It can seem so ordinary. You give a harried mother your place in the grocery line. That kid that annoys everybody seems to you like he could use a friend, so you sit with him at lunch. We step into the voting booth thinking of the greater good instead of our own personal interest. The thought crosses our mind that the mentally ill and mentally handicapped are a fragile, vulnerable gift, not a threatening nuisance.
These are small, seemingly insignificant things. But multiplied by thousands, and millions, and billions, they make for a transformed universe.
God reigns in his son Jesus Christ. He reigns with the vulnerable love of a tiny infant and a crucified Messiah. Jesus did not come to erect a worldly empire. He came to embrace his beloved and, through our very ordinary hands and feet, to bring heaven’s peace to earth’s troubled hearts and weary souls.
This sermon was preached on Christmas Eve at Christ Church in St. Joseph, Louisiana and St. Mark’s Cathedral, Shreveport.