An old Dutch woman remembered the dark days of Christmas 1944 as Holland awaited redemption. “Each night, we secretly huddled around the wireless,” she said, “eagerly hoping to receive some coded message that meant, ‘Invasion Begun.’ We scanned the skies, looking for Allied planes. People walked along the dikes, hoping for ships on the horizon. We prayed. People in Holland were starving. The Jews were already gone. Could we endure another year of Nazi occupation?”
What is it like to be a people captive, awaiting deliverance, dependent on someone, something to come from the outside to save them? Captivity, comes in different forms. This is how AA puts it, “We are powerless to help ourselves. We had to reach out to a higher power.” If you’ve never had debts you couldn’t pay, a cancer that wouldn’t heal, a marriage that couldn’t be fixed, a problem that defies solution, you won’t understand this sermon.
“Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth, peace to those of good will.” That was the song the angels sang when Jesus was born. The words of the angels are almost an exact quote from the decrees of Augustus Caesar, one of the greatest rulers the world has ever known. When Augustus became emperor in 27 BC, he had himself declared one of the gods. He erected a huge statue in the Roman forum, eleven times bigger than a normal man. At one point, through the Roman army, Augustus controlled every inch of the Western world.
Do we see what is happening in the gospel account of Jesus’ birth? “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth, peace…” This was the decree of the angelic messengers at Jesus’ birth. They are announcing a new king, a new emperor, one greater even than Augustus. The story of Christmas and the Incarnation is politically charged. It is the story, not simply of a baby born to Mary and Joseph, but of a new king. Neither Augustus nor all of his army will be able to stop the progress of this infant “king” and his people. The invasion has begun.
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus” (Lk 2:1). Caesar calls the shots. What hope is there for Jews languishing under the heavy heel of the empire? Nobodies named Mary and Joseph search in vain for a warm place to spend a cold night. There’s no room at the inn. When is there ever room for the poor? Caesar calls it “the end of welfare as we know it.” People on the bottom, unwed moms like Mary, know Bethlehem as no place to spend a dark night. Bethlehem – an occupied town, full of refugees, caught, powerless, and what then? Then, a flutter of wings. Songs flung into the silence. Light. A virgin delivers. A child cries out in the night. Passionate, risky intrusion. There is traffic between God and humanity and tonight, it’s one way. God with us, Emmanuel. The invasion has begun…
How odd of the great, almighty God to invade our world as a baby. Do you recall Brett Hart’s short story, “The Luck of Roaring Camp”? In a tough, lawless mining camp somewhere in the west, in the late 1880s a miner discovers a little baby who has been abandoned by his parents. The baby is brought back into camp. These are a group of rough and tumble miners who have, of all things, a baby. As soon as the baby is brought into camp, the transformation begins. One by one, each of the miners becomes a different person. There are clothes to be made, meals to be prepared, washing and tending to be done, all for the little foundling of Roaring Camp. Not only are the individual miners transformed, but the whole camp as well. Swearing and cursing, fighting and feuding, once typical of Roaring Camp, now cease. Each man tries to be on his best behavior because of the baby. Take this as a parable of the “invasion” that happens among us at Christmas.
Max Weber, the German sociologist, noted that Christianity is not “world-fleeing” but is “world-rejecting.” It refuses to take the world for granted, but seeks to change the world. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16), “the world did not know him” (Jn 1:10). Not that Jesus denies the world, but that Jesus contests the world as it is presently constructed. He stood outside the humdrum rituals and arrangements of this world in order to offer a new world. How does the Bible end the story? A new heaven and a new earth!
The Book of Acts says, When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:30)
I was asked after a lecture, “Do you really think that people must be saved by Jesus Christ or they have no hope?” I expected that she wanted me to say something that seemed more “inclusive” or “pluralistic” than she had heard.
“Well,” I replied, “years ago I might have been willing to consider other possibilities for our redemption. I would have to say, especially after living in an affluent Wichita neighborhood, that without Jesus Christ – his grace, forgiveness, and power – you are damned. No, I can’t really imagine any other way that people like us could be saved except for a God who is willing to suffer for us, with us, to bleed, even to die. People like us couldn’t be saved by any less of a God than that.”