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May You be the apple of my eye

Australian Country Landscape

Christmas Day, Dec 25 2011
Gospel: Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

 

We shall not cease from our exploring
and the end of our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
Where the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always-
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
T. S. Eliot.

“Why is this night different from all other nights?” It is the question of the Passover.
“Why is this child different from all other children?” could be the question of Christmas.

The beauty of birth
There were four delightful little children at church on Sunday. They were passed around, carried and fussed over by the older children, the women, and even some of the men.

They are precocious, precious, and full of potential. Nelson is rapidly learning English. “This is the body of Christ, broken for you,” I told him. “Yes,” he said. “Thank you very much!” His solemnly sincere Indian-Australian pronouncement melted every heart gathered round the table.

Riley wobbled out the front to visit Grandpa at the piano, but was distracted into a wider ranging safari, and had to be rescued by Grandma as he began to assess the data projector. Callum helped light the Advent candles in a miraculous intersection of wobbling tapers and wicks, and Aman, the youngest, tugged every maternal heartstring available as the young girls, and the grandmas, took their turn to carry her around.

They hold all our hopes for the future. They dissolve the pain of the present for a few moments of joy. It is no wonder that we fall in love with the story of the Christ child, and that nativity scenes and pageants are swaddled with sentiment. The children channel our hope and fear. We hope for joy and magic and wonder, despite the stable. And we know, with Matthew, that pain and panic are never far away.

The Answer
So why is this child different from all other children? If we can’t answer this question, we are at the mercy of the department stores and the marketing managers. The nativity scene will inevitably descend into trite excess, and finally, be forgotten.

I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. (10,11)

This is why the child is special. It doesn’t matter if there was actually an inn and a stable. It is irrelevant that Luke got his dates wrong as he tried to construct a history. And fascinating titbits about why the baby was wrapped in swaddling bands (Wisdom 4:7) are simply trivia... unless there is good news of great joy. Otherwise, the story will become an an historical footnote to a failed religion.

The Rant
If we do not remember the story; if we cannot answer the question “Why was this child different from all other children,” then we are like the hangers of lights, and the buyers of booze. We have some notion of holidays, and family, but no real understanding why we’re doing it.

I mourn the misery I see in my suburb. It sits and breaks out the booze a trolley width from the doors of the shopping centre. Our suburb is used as a byword for the lost, and the undesirable.

It’s not just us. My wife’s church is in an expensive desirable suburb. The mothers at the up market dance group which uses the facilities, have been telling the Deacon they do not know the Christmas story. It’s not that they’re adding camels and sheep to Luke and Matthew; they don’t know about the baby Jesus at all!

If a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord is not good news of great joy for all the people today, Christmas is empty; one more flotsam of a society adrift.

I saw a group of eight and ten year olds, not far removed in age from our Nelson and Callum, and the others. They were having a savage fight at our local railway station. They raged through the crowd getting off a train, hurling ballast stones at each other with no regard for anyone. They were like a pack of wild dogs so angry at each other, that they were ignoring the sheep. But we sheep knew the blood lust could turn on us at any moment.

We say he came to bring peace. We say we have good news. We claim to be a foundation, the ballast for society, salt... If we can’t get over the baby, and say why this child is different from all other children, we have nothing to say.

The answer to our question is given by the messengers from God; the angels. The child is different because he is a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

Saviour
Saviour was “a title in frequent use in the contemporary Greco-Roman world” of Luke. It was used of “gods, philosophers, physicians, statesmen, kings and emperors... Julius Caesar was called ‘god manifest and common savior of human life’” The word was often linked to the “Roman salus and the awaited return of the Golden Age.”

Fitzmyer (The Gospel According to Luke 1-1X pp204) goes on to remind us that the word also has an Old Testament background. It has to do with the deliverance of God’s people.

Having God announce that such a Saviour was being born in the city of David, the great King, would touch off a rush of associations for his readers. Luke does not name this city by accident. It is as deliberate as a presidential candidate invoking the name Lincoln or Washington.

But Luke is not mentioning the Lincoln of his day; that would be Augustus. Instead, he recalls David, who predates Rome, and he makes Rome a pretender of peace and salvation. Augustus, despite all his power, is made a bit player who calls a census that means that Mary and Joseph end up in the right place for the Saviour, Messiah and Lord to be born. Augustus helps God restore the line of David to the throne of God’s chosen people.

Messiah
Some of our Christmas visitors this Sunday may not be aware that Messiah and Christ are the same word in different languages. They may also believe that Christ is his name, not his title.

At its root, Messiah means one anointed to be an agent of Yahweh, and was usually applied to the Kings of Israel; Samuel anointed Saul, for example, and later, David. Later again a “messianic expectation” developed;  a hope and yearning that God would send someone of David’s ilk to restore Israel and remove the hardship and injustice in which people lived.

Augustus is again challenged by this title. People did not call him a Christos, as far as I know, but he was the one who was bringing peace. His boast was that the doors to the temple of Janus were closed three times in his reign.  The doors of this temple were only closed when there was peace across the entire empire. Augustus’ achievement of three times, was unprecedented.

Whatever cynicism we may have about Augustus, and how just and peace-full the “peace” actually was, that achievement should not be belittled. In my lifetime, the reigning empire seems always to have been at war. There has been no peace. (To US friends who feel I am taking unwarranted high ground here, I can only say that if we had more resources in Australia, I am sure we would have been camp followers in more of your wars.)

Luke tramples on Augustus’ peace.

Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!

God is in the highest heaven, which rather dampens the divine claims of the emperors on earth. Apparently, he favoured shepherds as the recipients of Good News. There is a savage satire here; the great news is announced to shepherds, who were among the least of society. Everything, including Augustus’ status, is challenged and turned upside down.

Not the powerful, not the privileged,
not the famous of the land
but the no-ones and the needy
were the first to hold God’s hand... (John Bell TIS 288)

Lord
The sense of insult and satire continues in the use of the term Lord by Luke. We can read Borg and Crossan on Paul’s use of the word.

...in that Roman world, the title “Lord” could be used as a sign of respect for any significant superior—for a master by a slave, for a teacher by a student. On the other [hand], there is only one “the Lord” and that is the Roman emperor. And, therefore, to say that “our Lord” is “the Lord” is what the Romans called majestas, or high treason. (The First Paul, pp109)

That treason is magnified by the fact that the Jews used the word Lord to mean Yahweh; God.

---

The Christmas child is the one who offers to turn the world upside down. He is the one who offers Augustus release  from the burden of carrying the world, if he would only see it. His birth is the beginning of a gospel that shows a whole new way of being human.

At the heart of the reasons we love the little children is their innocence. They are what we were, and what we have lost. They are the innocence for which we seek; a symbol of freedom from the rock throwing savagery we all fear.

We shall not cease from our exploring
and the end of our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate

This child Jesus, brings us back to the apple tree, to innocence and knowledge.

Through the unknown, remembered gate
Where the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always-
A condition of complete simplicity

He is Saviour, Messiah, and Lord
and costs  not less than everything
else he is nothing.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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