Isaiah 9: 1-6; Titus 2: 11-14; Luke 2: 1-14
There’s some irony in hearing this familiar gospel from Luke today of Mary and Joseph heading back to the place of origin for the census. The story we heard more than anything this week was about taxes. Congress passed a bill and it was signed into law. There’s debate, depending on who you listen to, as to who it benefits. I don’t know. But some 2000 years ago Mary and Joseph found themselves in this same familiar place. The calling of the census by Caesar Augustus was primarily about taxes. Like always it seems as if money drives everything no matter the point in history.
We do know one thing, though, that Mary and Joseph would not benefit from this taxation and nor would any other poor person of the day. It was to benefit the expansion of the kingdom that Caesar was creating in his own image. It was a time of peace that was rooted in oppression, fear, and constant instability for the community in which Luke writes this passage. Yet, despite all of it this couple were faithful to this earthly power just as Jesus would go onto say, give to Caesar what is Caesar. But they were faithful until they no longer could. They were faithful until it stood in the way of this newfound life in Christ that seemed harmless and yet a threat to powers of the day, when people, as history is turned on its head, no longer have to be defined by the political or even religious authorities of their day. In the midst of all the instability, Mary and Joseph return to the place of origin, as we all do to seek what they sought, to the stable, the manger, the garden, to once again find that union with the divine. In the midst of the instability of the day a Stable arises in their midst to bring lasting peace and freedom that can no longer be contained by the earthly powers.
This passage we hear this evening that stands so familiar to us of the birth of the Christ has great spiritual implications more than any other. As much as we have softened over time, it was a story of hope for Luke’s community that found themselves displaced and in constant turmoil from within and from the political and religious authorities. There was no space, no room, for another voice beyond Caesar and anyone that tried faced consequences. There was, as Luke tells us, no room in the Inn. The external pressures to conform and that contained them would no longer suffice for a God who was to take on flesh. Rather, Mary and Joseph leave the confines of the Inn and wander into the darkened night, where the community so often found itself, giving birth in a stable. This is the defining moment for Mary and Joseph as well who realize there’s no turning back at this point. They have been given a gift and this gift is going to guide them through some of the darkest moments of their lives. They will not be defined by Caesar and his cronies. They will no longer be contained by the political and religious authorities of their day. They, instead, will be led as refugees to unfamiliar land and space only to turn to the Christ as their guide. They return to the place of their own origin and give birth to a new way of life, wrapped not in the confines of the worldly desires but rather in mystery and the unknown, learning to trust and navigate the given gift.
But long before there was Israel who too found itself in similar situations. As much as things change over time they also remain the same. They find themselves again on the cusp of something new. They were a people that walked in darkness but now illumined by this light. Israel will learn in its own history, as in ours, that darkness becomes their greatest teacher. It’s often when they find themselves wandering, fleeing oppressors, facing the unknown and utter darkness, that grace begins to grow. They too will return to their own place of origin, to the heart of who they are, only to once again become attached and led to the darkness once more, to grown more deeply in faith and trust of this mystery that continues to call them forth. Like them, we don’t like to be “in the dark” on things. We want to know. We want that certainty in our lives. Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and even the Magi will encounter in the weeks ahead, learn to be sent forth to those very places in their own lives. As I said, great spiritual implications as to how they and we live our lives. Our we going to be defined by the confined Inn, cluttered lives we often lead. Will we simply be identified with our politics and even our religious beliefs. The radical simplicity of Christmas in a very complex world reminds us that in all our instability, war, poverty, unrest, and all the rest, we’re called to leave it behind, the “worldly desires” and allow the Stable to arise in our own hearts and souls to now be led not from on high and not from these external authorities but rather from within our very hearts and souls where the Christ, from the beginning and always, is being born.
This is what Christmas is about. Luke turns the story on its head. Salvation history will not be defined through the eyes of Caesar Augustus, Herod, or any other tyrant of their day, oppressing the people for their own political gain. Luke reminds us that we live from the inside out and from the bottom up. The journey now into the great darkness that has seen the great light is a painful one at that, but Mary and Joseph stand as witnesses to the power of the Stable in the midst of the instability of their own lives and ours as well. Deep within us we know something that goes beyond anything this world offers, all the clutter and noise that distracts us, creating anxiety and instability, turmoil in our lives. In that very place we’re called to leave it behind on this Christmas, leave the staleness and artificialness of the Inn that has defined to something real, wandering in the darkness of night, to a Stable that holds the eternal and the one who navigates Luke’s community to a new way of life and one for ourselves as well. We can be defined by the tyrants of our day, the corruption of money, political and religious leaders telling us who we are and what to do but Christmas demands more of us. Christmas demands us to learn to grown and trust the voice deep within, from a place of mystery and the great unknown, calling us to live our lives identified by the eternal place of origin, a Stable, in the midst of a often unstable world.