Let All Creation Praise Emmanuel
Tonight is a night of proclamation!
The gospel writer informs us and the angelic chorus echoes something has changed. Through the birth of a child, the prophecy made by Isaiah, the dream Isaiah saw, has become a reality.
The kingdom of G-d is now bigger, wider, more inclusive than ever before. The kingdom of G-d became wider and more inclusive through the most particular of means. One womb. One Jew. We like to say we cannot put G-d into a box, but that is exactly what happened when G-d chose Mary’s womb and Jesus’ flesh.
The proclamation made on this night signals the arrival of a new order for the world. A liberator has arrived, taking up residence in a manger and trading the fabrics reserved for royalty for bands of cloth, promising to bring peace and joy to all of the world. This infant liberator’s arrival was announced by an angelic chorus, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you - wonderful, joyous news for all people.”
Don’t be afraid!
Up until this moment, peace in first-century Palestine, and going back through the history of the region was ensured by the sword and rulers utilizing fear to maintain their power. Fear of the other kept the people in line.
“Follow me, only I can protect you from them.”
If fear of the other did not work, there was always fear of the one wielding power.
“I have armies and loyal generals. Follow me or you will be struck down.”
The angels proclaimed a new ordering for the world. An order which promised to be different from the ordering of the world by fear. Fear based peace is not wonderful or joyous. Fear-based peace is anything but Good News. Fear-based peace is just that, fear.
The gospel writer opens by naming the fearful - “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.” A census mind you, to determine the tax to be paid. Occupying the middle east (then and now) is an expensive endeavor and Emperor Augustus needs to know how much this occupation will cost him so he can pass the expense onto those the empire is occupying.
If you choose not to comply with the emperor, to pay the taxes and live peacefully while having the Roman army marching through your streets, you would meet the power of the Roman sword. Even hundreds of miles away from Rome.
G-d does something unexpected in a time when the darkness of fear ruled the day. The writer ends with the Good News found in the manger. The darkness of fear had consumed the world but now, it is being consumed by the light of the in-breaking of G-d’s grace and justice. This holy moment is pregnant with the joyous lift of Christ and is signaling a new time has come. A proclamation for the world - those maintaining power through fear and violence have limited time before them.
Now is a time of divine action. G-d has been on the move throughout the history of creation, present with creation through G-d’s Spirit, and speaking to creation through the prophets. But tonight, G-d is on the move in a “one-donkey town” through the birth of a child born to parents with meager means. There are no royal decrees delivered or celebratory shouts from the empire. This time of divine action is inaugurated by a “quiet” birth. Quiet, not in the sense that birthing a child is a silent act, rather quiet in the lack of celebratory fanfare.
Even without the fanfare being experienced around the world tonight, this moment of G-d entering the world in the form of a child was/is a pivotal moment in the story of all creation. And this is just the opening act. Tonight’s act of divine action is the turning point to all of history and will ultimately lead us to a cross and empty grave.
The announcement of what took place signals how this change in order and time is different from other changes in political or religious power. The only parade is the journey made by Mary and Joesph from Nazareth to Bethlehem. There are no ceremonies. No white smoke from a chapel chimney signaling to the world what has happened. Until this moment, we are told of less than five people who knew what was going on: Mary, Joesph, Zachariah, and Elizabeth. None of whom held positions of power or anything remotely close.
When the Christ child was born, no notifications were sent to Rome or Jerusalem, the political and religious capitals of the region. Instead, an angelic-proclamation was made to a group of people who lacked money, power, and access to the religious life of their community. A group of people whom it seems had forgotten or given up on the promise made to Israel by G-d becoming a reality. A promise first made to them.
Shepherds were the original recipients of the promise made by G-d to Israel. Through Abraham, a shepherd, G-d promised to bless the entire world. Moses, who led the Israelites to freedom by the power of G-d was a shepherd. David, to whom and through whom G-d promised a kingdom without end was a shepherd.
After the child’s mother and adoptive father, this is to whom G-d chose to reveal the incarnation. The social location of the incarnation is the great reversal of humanity. G-d bypassed Rome. G-d bypassed Jerusalem. G-d bypassed every seat of power. In true form to the G-d we read about in the Hebrew Bible, G-d chose to make this grand proclamation to people the promise had first been given. The One who would change the world first revealed this good news to those originally promised to be the bearers of this promise.
We may prefer those who have forgotten the promise the tis to come to stay quiet, staying where they are on the margins. We may prefer those living on the margins to remain inconspicuous, out of sight as to not draw attention to the darkness they… we are living in. But that is where G-d chooses to go.
Nadia Bolz-Weber, pastor and author, wrote, “God did not enter the world of our nostalgic, silent-night, snow-blanketed, peace-on-earth, suspended reality of Christmas. God slipped into the vulnerability of skin and entered our violent and disturbing world.”
The wonderful and joyous news announced by the angels was/is for all people. All people regardless of forgotten covenants. All people regardless of how dark the curse of sin has become. All of creation can praise this moment: the people of Rome, the people of Jerusalem, and the people living in the fields. The wonderful and joyous news was announced to the people living in the darkness created by the shadows of those sitting in seats of power maintained by fear. The wonderful and joyous news was announced to the people living in the darkness created by the shadow sin had/has created.
The reality of what happened in Emmanuel trading the clothing of royalty for bands of cloth and laying in the manger is found in those who had forgotten or ignored the promise made by G-d. The good news changes the reality for all people, and invites all of creation to enter into the grace of G-d regardless of what the powerful say. Regardless of what the darkness of sin says.
The unremarkable yet particular manner in which this story begins matches the unremarkable yet particular way the story ends. Jesus dies just as he entered the world, naked and anonymous with a sign ever bit as incongruous as the message delivered to the unskilled holders of the original covenant: King of the Jews. The same power herding Israel to be counted to pay the check for their occupation put Jesus to death with the seal of Caesar on the tomb.
Three days later the unremarkable becomes overwhelming and even more particular when the tomb is empty. Jesus ascends to the Father where the carols of joy continue and Mary’s song is realized fully.
It is a leap of faith, it is on us who insist on gathering around a table breaking bread and sharing wine week after week to live as though Christ is King. Living as though this babe in the manger really did create a new ordering of the world. The shepherds look meek, and they are, but we do not look to them on nights like tonight because of their meekness. We look to them because we believe the One born to Mary is now what the carols we sing and the sign above his cross name him to be: the King all of creation can praise.