Readings: Isaiah 9:1-6; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14
The Christmas story begins with an empire.
It begins with Caesar Augustus—
which is not a name, but a quasi-religious title
that was taken by Octavian,
the dictator who defeated two former allies
to become the sole ruler of Rome’s empire,
while maintaining a veneer of the old democracy.
It begins with an empire that secures peace—
the famed pax Romana—
through the conquest and control of peoples.
It begins with that empire’s power over “all the world,”
exercised by bureaucratic functionaries
like Quirinius, the governor of Syria,
and manifested in the tax census,
carried out to catalogue and extract
the wealth latent in the empire’s conquered lands.
The outward contours of empire
have changed since the ancient world,
but the reality should be familiar to us all.
It is the aspiration to world-dominance
through bluff and bluster
and sheer, raw power.
We see it today in the superpowers
that jockey with each other
for military and economic hegemony.
We see it in corporations that seek to play the tune
to which the governments of the world dance.
We see it in our own nation’s recently released
National Security Strategy, which assures us that,
“America’s values and influence,
underwritten by American power,
make the world more free, secure, and prosperous.”
In fact, from the time of Octavian-called-Augustus
to that of Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Donald Trump,
the promise of peace through dominance
has so pervaded our world,
that many have come to assume
that empire simply is the human story.
The long history of imperial power
is a perhaps-regrettable-but-nevertheless-inevitable tale
with which we must make our peace
if we wish to be free, secure, and prosperous.
But on this night the story of empire
is interrupted by a child.
In the middle of the tale of Octavian’s power
the voice of God sounds forth
in the cries of a newborn child.
In a world ruled by wealth and power
an angel appears to poor shepherds
with good news of great joy.
In a land conquered and subjugated
by the armies of Caesar Augustus
an army of angels sings out,
“Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace.”
Just as a child might interrupt
a boring story told by adults
about the latest political scandal
or a long-term workplace rivalry
or a long-held family grudge
with its own fantastic tale
of dragons and magic and adventure,
so too the Christ child comes to interrupt
the tedious-yet-deadly story of worldly power
with a fantastic tale of glory and peace and joy.
Only this tale is no fantasy;
it is the very truth of God.
It is the eruption into the story of empire
of the truth that can lift the yoke of oppression
and smash the rod of the taskmaster,
the truth that consumes
every boot that tramped in battle
and every cloak rolled in blood.
In the cry of the Christ child
we hear the voice of every person
crushed beneath the yoke of power,
but we hear also the cry of the one called
Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.
We hear the cry of one whose dominion
is vast and forever peaceful.
And yet, the story of empire goes on.
Burdens are still laid
on the shoulders of the poor
and boots still tramp in battle.
The coming of Christ
has not brought that story to an end.
But even as the story of empire
continues its predictable narrative arc,
the voice of God in the cry of the Christ child,
in the proclamation of the angel,
in the song of the heavenly army,
interrupts that story
and begins to tell a new tale
in which we who are followers of Jesus
all play a part.
For the saving grace of God
has appeared among us in the person of Jesus:
in his humble birth,
in his faithful ministry,
in his willingness to die for the truth,
in his defeat of death and rising to new life.
This grace has appeared, not rescuing us out of this world,
but “training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires
and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age.”
In Jesus, the interruptive grace of God
creates a new people who live a new story
as they await the final coming of Jesus,
when the story of empire will end,
and the world will know
the freedom of God’s servants,
the security of God’s love,
and the prosperity of God’s generosity.
But until that day, we wait in hope,
and tell with our lives the new story
begun by Christ in the days of Caesar Augustus,
when Quirinius was governor of Syria
and Mary and Joseph made the long journey
to the city of David.
Through God’s grace,
that story continues to be written in us,
when we remember those who suffer
and make their sorrows our own,
when we speak out to defend the defenseless
and to hold those in power accountable,
when we gather week by week
to tell the story of Jesus,
and eat and drink his body and blood:
he who was peace in the midst of conflict,
who was hope in the midst of despair,
who was light in the midst of darkness,
who was undying life in the midst of death.
Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace, hope, light and life
to those on whom God’s favor rest.