Was Jesus born in Bedlam or Bethlehem. . . or both?
I don’t know about you, but my favorite decorations to put up around the house during Christmas are the figures from the cast of characters in Luke’s Christmas Gospel. Santa Claus and Rudolf are O.K., but it just wouldn’t be Christmas without at least one Mary and Joseph, and maybe a couple of shepherds and a few angels displayed around the house. And probably somewhere near that precious manger upon which lay that little, fragile ceramic baby with the bluest of eyes and the reddest of lips and a glow like no other, there should be a few cattle lowing.
But . . . there are two characters in the Lukan account that I have yet to see in any home at Christmas. How many of you have unwrapped, and placed on your coffee table, that precious figure of Caesar Augustus, this December? Have you sent out any cards with the likeness of Caesar on the front? I wonder . . . How many Quirinius ornaments do you have on your tree this year? Or do you have a Quirinius next to the Little Drummer Boy on your piano? Is the Governor of Syria a stand-up in your nativity set?
Probably not. Caesar and Quirinius are not representative of anything for which our hearts long. No, the only thing that the Emperor of Rome and the Governor of Syria could possibly symbolize, is the troubled parts of our lives and our absolute need for a Savior; they symbolize the bedlam of Bethlehem that night, the turmoil and the anxiety that so often makes life so difficult for all of us, as they did for the Holy Family on that first Christmas. It was their imperial decree that sent people scrambling for their hometowns, ready or not. . . pregnant or not.
In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
Not exactly a pleasant opening to an otherwise touching Gospel, is it?
It only serves to tell us right up front that we are dealing with an oppressed and occupied people. Nothing should surprise us about the bedlam of Bethlehem on that holy night. It is an old story, but it is a familiar story. Emperors and Governors take many forms as do their imperial decrees.
You don’t have to read the world headlines to find them. I’d be willing to bet that some of you have found certain types of royal decrees in the office where you work. I’d be willing to bet that those of you who are home from school for these holidays have found some imperialism in the classroom. Imperial decrees come in many ways. They come in the form of IRS audits and economic indicators. They come in the form of employment rejection letters, in final divorce papers, in knocks on the door in the middle of the night, in doctor’s offices and in biopsy reports.
Perhaps we should place the imposing figurines of Caesar and Quirinius tall on our mantles, if for no other reason, just to remind us that it is into REAL life, YOUR life and MY life, that Jesus came to be born.
God dealt with the likes of Caesar Augustus and Governor Quirinius and their decrees, but here’s the scandal: God didn’t call the chosen people to a revolt. God didn’t send down the heavenly host to fight a rebellion. Luke mentions nothing about what WE are supposed to do about the problems of life. The Christmas story is about Mary and Joseph trudging on toward Bethlehem. The scandal is that our God didn’t fight imperialism with imperialism. The scandal of Christmas is that our God believes that the best way to fight imperialism is with INTIMACY! As Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame is so fond of saying, It’s not logical, but it is often true.
God broke into the world of Caesar Augustus and Quirinius, the world of our problems, with a new definition of power, one centered in a totally dependent baby with no notoriety and nothing to commend him except his abject humanity! And if you don’t think that little baby in the manger carried a power of his own, just look at how King Herod acts, soon after he is made aware of the birth. As someone once wrote, For all of Herod’s enormous power, he knew there was somebody in diapers more powerful still.
No, we don’t need another Caesar or Quirinius or Herod. We need a
And, my dear friends in Christ, I would submit to you that before you look into the eyes of the adult Jesus, you would do well to take the time peer into the manger and to cradle the infant from heaven in your arms!
When the Angelic Choir made their entrance, onto the nativity stage before the shepherds, they didn’t announce a plan of salvation. They didn’t read the Ten Commandments or the Catechism or the 39 articles in the Book of Common Prayer. They didn’t recite the creed. No, they told them to go. Find the baby. He’s wrapped in strips of cloth and you can see him and hold him, so get up for God’s sake and GO!
When my oldest daughter was born, my son was already five years old. He had been given all the attention that parents give to their first born, FOR FIVE YEARS. But now there was to be an intrusion into that space, a baby sister that wasn’t there before. Every parent, I think, worries about that time when they bring home a new baby and there is an older sibling in the house. Well, my son just stood back and watched. All the excitement centered around this new little beautiful girl that had taken over the spare bedroom.
Finally, as he was about to leave the room, I looked over at him and said, Would you like to hold the baby? He shook his head yes, and I sat him down and placed his new sister in his arms. He held her as if she were more precious than Gold. If there were any thoughts of jealousy, they weren’t apparent to me. The difference, you see, was in the holding of the baby. We need to hold the infant this Christmas.
When you actually embrace the infant certain things happen. You can’t help but be transformed. It will mean something different for each of us. For me it will mean, in part, moving away from my sophisticated comfort zones, to an uncomplicated faith that simply says, God loved me so much that he dared to be just like me in every way. Perhaps it will mean letting go of judgmentalism, since a baby sees all in the same light. Perhaps it will mean letting go of a want or desire that has possessed you beyond measure, since a baby’s only want is for nourishment and love. Perhaps it will mean letting go of a power and control. Have you ever noticed how hard God works at becoming human, and how we sometimes work so hard to become gods?
But if we hold the Christ Child close to our hearts, how easy it will be to let go of such futile attempts to control our destiny. For the only power a baby has is the power of Love. Christmas means that we and God no longer need pass in the night as strangers.
Somone once wrote these lyrics to a song for a children’s Christmas play:
When God becomes a baby, will he still be the King of heaven?
When God becomes a baby, will he cry when he is hungry?
Must he learn how to read and write in school, and learn that children can be cruel. . . when God becomes a baby?”
And, of course, the answer is a resounding YES to all of the above. That’s the magic of Christmas. That’s why the Angel can shout unequivocally, I bring you good news of a great joy that will come to all people.
Maybe if you truly hold the baby Jesus this Christmas season, you’ll meet him for the first time as he really is. So many people I know see God as some kind of a divine supreme imperialist, but Christmas is here that we might see God as one who is supremely divine precisely because God has proven to be supremely human in Jesus.
Let’s face it, we will come out on a cold night this Christmas Eve because we know that we need a Savior who can come into whatever Bedlam exists in the towns of our lives and bring peace, the peace that passes understanding, the peace that only that baby can bring, if we would only cradle him in our arms on that night.
I’d like to close with this story:
Once, long ago, the Sun and the Moon, and the Wind and the Sea were discussing what God is like. And the Sun said, I know what God is like. God is very large, and round, and shines brightly and is very hot to the touch.
And the Moon said, Oh no, I know what God is like. God is pure, and silvery and aloof from mortal things. God walks out only when everything else is wrapped in darkness.
And the Wind said, No, no, no. . . No one ever sees God, but God sees all things. God races around the world and roars, and pushes things around.
And the Sea said, Oh, no! I know what God is like. He is omnipotent. When God storms, people cower and hide. When God sends waves of power, people are swept away.
As they were talking, they caught sight of a stranger, a large silver star.
Friend, they said, tell us what you think God is like.
The Star replied, I cannot tell you what God is like, but I can show you.
Where? cried the four.
See where I am pointing, said the star.
And the Sun, the Moon, the Wind, and the Sea looked, and they saw a little baby in a manger.
He was born today, said the Star.
The Sun sniffed, God would never bow so low.
The Moon closed her eyes, He would not even look on flesh and blood, much less become part if it.
The Wind whispered, He would not show himself to human eyes.
And the Sea raged, He would not lie like that, defenseless before mere humans.
The Star then opened her eyes wide. If God’s majesty and mystery and power were ruler of God’s love, what would happen to us? I ask you, what would happen to all of us?
The Sun and the Moon, and the Wind and the Sea looked at each other, and they nodded, Yes, whatever would become of us?
For a while they just sat and thought. The Sun spoke first,
God will need my bright light and warmth.
The Moon added, And my gentle light to guide him when it is night.
The Wind chimed in, And my fresh air to breathe.
And the Sea said, And my water to carry him from town to town.
And they all hugged each other and said, Let us just hold him in our hearts tonight, and then, in the morning, let us tell all the stars and trees and birds and hills that God has come to save us!
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