Our Gospeler Luke begins his nativity story with these words, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” You can imagine the outcry that went up when each family received their official notice in the mail. “What sort of harebrained scheme is this?” they asked each other as they gathered in the market place or at the local watering hole or with their neighbors as their kids played together. They groused and complained and raised their fists and cursed. And they knew exactly how they would respond. Each of them would check in with the local officials if they could do so, and if not, they’d make the journey to wherever they were told to go.
Because, like it or not, most of them were second class citizens in that world. A few lucky ones—with the right name or pedigree—could somehow avoid registering, or they could send an underling on their behalf. Those ones would be part of that upper echelon who knew people who knew people. The ones who had connections to Quirinius and his ilk. But most of them—and certainly the large majority of the Israelites—would need to just pack a bag and head out to their original hometowns. They didn’t have any say in the matter. They would follow orders, and keep their heads down, since that was infinitely better than the alternative.
So, Luke tells us, Joseph and Mary headed out on their journey from Nazareth where they grew up to the city of David called Bethlehem, because Joseph “was descended from the house and family of David.” And almost as an aside, Luke adds that Mary was expecting her first child. As subjugated people living in occupied territory, there wasn’t anything else they could do. There wouldn’t be a religious exemption form they could fill out, or some sort of free pass for being in your third trimester. You just needed to do what the powerful people told you to do. That’s simply how it worked because the powerful ones were in control.
A friend commented recently that our era is best defined as a “selfie culture.” We seek to have the best for ourselves, and to create social media images that others will be envious of. We tend to make decisions based solely on our own desires, and we put our own individual rights above all other considerations. We cherish the ability to live the lives we choose without intervention from outside forces. Imagine, if you will, our government informing us that we’d need to physically register in the towns we were born in. Talk about overreach! We’d be taking to the inter-webs to express in no uncertain terms why this was not only unbelievably foolish, but that we also had no intention of following through on that edict.
Now imagine a country run by a dictator doing the same thing. The internet would likely be shut down or highly censored in that place. Dissidents would be jailed. The well-connected would find ways to avoid this registration—and the accompanying tax—while the poor would head out on the road without any recourse. All to make the powerful feel more powerful, because that’s what this is really all about. The Emperor want to flex his muscles to boast his ego.
But God it seems has little desire to appease the powerful, choosing instead to raise up the lowly. To visit the poor and forgotten. To join with the refugees seeking shelter, and to let them know that while others seem to have forgotten them—or have come to resent and despise them—that they are indeed chosen by God.
How else do we explain the Nativity of our Lord? While the majority of us are among the well educated, the wealthy, and the privileged—especially when compared to the totality of the world’s population—God doesn’t become enamored with all of that. If God did, then our story tonight would be taking place in the palace of the Emperor or in the courts of Quirinius instead of a backwater town on the far edge of the Empire among a people conquered by an invading army. If this story were unfolding tonight, that babe wouldn’t be born in a hospital in Boston, or New York, or Washington DC. “Jesus” would likely be born in a bario in Mexico City, or a rural town in Guatemala. When we add in to that equation that Mary and Joseph likely lived below the poverty line, and would be facing rejection from their family and friends since Mary got pregnant before her wedding, it’s clear that God isn’t concerned with all the things our culture obsesses over, isn’t it? God eschews power choosing instead humility.
Theologian Robert Redman writes, “The favor of God—the grace of God—comes not to those who think they’ve earned it by birth or education or success in the world. The grace of God sneaks into our world under the radar of our religious expectations.” We expect to receive God’s blessings when we do it all right, when we have it all together and say the right prayers, and when we achieve success in the eyes of our world. And yet, God’s favor doesn’t come to us just because we think we’ve earned it. That grace sneaks in while we’re not paying attention and makes its way to the ones disenfranchised by our world. The ones often on the receiving end of harsh policies that force them to negotiate unfamiliar terrain, or send them on the road, or to seek out temporary housing in sketchy neighborhoods. People that the religious elite might write off as beyond God’s favor. Ones whose life stories might make us turn up our noses or make harsh judgments. God’s favor rests with the ones who least expect it.
But rather than turning this into an “us” vs. “them” proposition, rather than falling into old patterns that establish who’s favored by God and who’s not, Luke tells us the startling and scandalous truth. It comes in the words of that angel who descends to the shepherds working the graveyard shift on a cold, dark night. “Do not be afraid,” the angel declares to those terrified shepherds. “For see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.” Good news of great joy for all people. All people. Not just those whose lives are the envy of others, or the ones who appear to have it all together based on the photos they post, or the ones with degrees from the right schools. All people, no matter if you live at the seat of power in Rome, or in some small forgotten town. And to make sure we don’t miss this, God chose of all the available places to be born in a barn rather than in a palace. God chose the simple over the extravagant. God showed solidarity with the least to show that no one is outside of God’s glorious favor.
As Brother James Koester of the Society of St. John the Evangelist so puts it, “If you are looking to find where Jesus will be born tonight, do not stretch your hand out to the shiny, bright, and new. Look to those ordinary, ignored, forgotten, and hidden parts of your life, and the world, and there you will find him. Then, like the shepherds, kneel before him and know him to be Emmanuel, God with us.” May we always hold the beauty and joy of God’s grace in our own lives especially when things are less than perfect. May we know in our very being that God accepts us as we are in all our imperfection, and asks that we make space inside our own hearts to welcome the newborn babe. And may we hold on to the hope of that peace as we navigate these days of uncertainty trusting in God’s goodness for all humanity. May it be so. Merry Christmas!
Photo by Wokandapix on Pixabay.