The Politics of Christmas

A sermon for Christmas Morning, Year A

This morning I want to talk to you about politics. Before you brace yourself for some harangue about Republicans and Democrats, let me clarify. I want to talk about how political readings like those we hear this morning actually must have sounded to the original audience, both the Jews of the Isaiah’s time and those to whom the Gospel and epistle lessons are addressed.

The people of Israel in Isaiah’s reading were in exile. They were longing for God to restore their homeland and their capital city, Jerusalem. They were in captivity by yet another empire, which seems to have been their status more often than not. In this morning’s reading, God is giving them hope, the promise of restoration and home. How must have this have sounded to a people who were being held captive? To their captors, no doubt this reading would have sounded threatening. God was going to act and restore them to their homeland.

Then, in these all-too familiar words from the gospel reading, our minds and imaginations are most often drawn to the angels appearing to certain poor shepherds, but the first few verses tell a story that isn’t really the stuff of greeting cards. Under the compulsion of the Emperor, Jesus’ parents are forced to move, even though Mary is quite pregnant. They are reporting as part of a census, a counting and taxing of the subjects of Caesar Augustus.

But our story tells us that the king of the world was being born, one whose kingdom would overthrow Caesar’s. In the face of empire, a child is born. In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth and the coming of the magi, we get a greater sense of the reaction of those in power to the birth of this promised child. When foreign kings appear on his doorstep, looking for the promised king, Herod the Great is so threatened that he sends out hit-squads to destroy any threat to his empire.

God is acting. God is breaking into our world. God is establishing a new kind of empire, in the form of a tiny defenseless, poor baby. This king is not born in a palace, but in a cattle stall. This emperor, if you will, is not driven by greed or the lust for power, but instead gives up power, gives away wealth, reaches to the least of these who would otherwise have been thrown under the cart wheels of Empire.

Yes, we love the stories of angels and shepherds and wisemen. We love to imagine Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus in a softly lit tableau. But let us not forget to consider just how important, how revolutionary this birth was and still is. God put on flesh and dwelt among us, calling us to a different kind of kingdom, a radical kind of empire. This is our destiny. This is the gift of Christmas. Amen.

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