The story of the Nativity is one of those readings so well known, it makes preaching on it difficult. Kathleen and I were laughing today about something one of our commentators said. “Augustus would be thrilled to know that we still read about him 2000 years later. He just would not be too happy about being a footnote character in the story.” The statement got me thinking, though, just how strange our story tonight is. The events recorded by Luke took place at an interesting time in human history. Rome had just completed a period of civil war. Julius had been killed by his friends, and a number of men sought to ascend his throne. As with almost all attempts to seize power in those days, their efforts led to armies and battlefields. For twenty years, Rome was plunged into civil war, until an adopted son of Julius, finally won. That man’s name was Octavian.
Octavian was unique in Roman history. An entire generation of Romans had grown up at war. There was a temple to Janus that was opened only in time of wars. A generation of young adults in Rome had never known the doors of the temple to be closed! His final victory so encouraged Rome that the Senate declared him Lord and Savior of the world. Better still, because He was obviously so favored by the gods, he was renamed Augustus, which meant great. More surprisingly, the Senate dissolved itself and declared him emperor. The amazingly good news, a euongalion, was sent out to all the Empire. Why not? The lord and savior was finally on his throne. Peace ruled again.
Meanwhile, in a backwater province of the empire, one of those places no one really wanted to rule on behalf of the emperor -- kind of like Wisconsin in the movie Dogma -- God was intervening in history again. As is so often the case, though, God works in incredibly unexpected ways. Unlike the birth of Octavian in the cosmopolitan city of Rome, our Lord Jesus takes place amongst the animals of a Jewish family. We call it a barn, but our archaeology suggests that it was more a basement under the house where the animals were kept. The young mother, Mary, and Joseph, the righteous father, are the only two human beings present at this birth. It is hardly the setting one would expect for such a monumental birth.
While the political centers of the empire were receiving the good news, the euongalion, that Augustus had ascended the throne in Rome, who gets to hear the euongalion of God, that His Son has been born? Shepherds. No doubt the high priest and other priests thought they might get the special message from God that His Messiah had come. Perhaps even some of the Jewish aristocracy expected to be on the inside of such a special event. But shepherds? Shepherds were not well liked in Israel. To be sure, the people wanted the meat and milk and wool of their flocks, but people were distrustful of the shepherds. They worked all night. They were trespassers much like gypsies. You did not want to leave a wheelbarrow out if a shepherd was passing through your land at night. Some had a reputation of removing those objects left out. Shepherds were, let us say disqualified from serving on juries. Like gypsies, they could not be trusted. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the shepherds were considered ceremoniously unclean. They spent all their time among their herds. Guess what they were stepping in all the time! That’s right, they had chosen a career which made it impossible for them to go to worship. How could such people be trusted?
But what group gets the message that the Baby is born? The shepherds. What group gets to hear the songs of the angel choirs? The shepherds. Can you imagine? God is wasting great news and other worldly music on shepherds. Perhaps now you can understand why people who heard this story were truly amazed. The story itself is incredible, but the Jews would have found it simply unbelievable because of the chosen messengers. God would never trust His euongalion to a bunch of gypsies who never went to church. Would He?
I was reminded today of the surprising ways in which our Lord works. I had a number of pastoral conversations with those whom we serve that struggle with addiction. Though I was trying to get through tonight and on to Jan’s funeral, I found myself in a number of heartfelt conversations. One lady had been struggling with the idea that God hated her. All but one of her children are dead today. Like Rachel in our readings later this week, she was nearly unconsolable. Another conversation centered around marital infidelity and the pain and suffering that came with that. What had made it worse was that the family of the adulterer had, over the ensuing years, decided that their loved one had probably been forced to step out on her multiple times because of her. Another shared a story of abandonment. This individual had been placed in the foster system and bounced around from house to house for much of her life. Her story was a predictable one of abuse, of a lack of emotional investment on the parts of a few of the foster parents, and of her feeling that she cannot be loved for who she is.
These stories, and a couple others, got me thinking about you. No doubt a few of you are worried I am about to spill the beans on your secret sins, secrets doubts, and secret fears. I would never do that. I will say thank you for preparing me to deal with the pain and hurt of those whom we serve this week. Your stories prepared me well for theirs, and, if I was a good pastor to them, it was because of you. But in those thoughts of thankfulness, I was reminded of the purpose of those unexpected ways of God.
We do not spend a great deal of time pondering it, but the chasm that existed between us and our Lord was too vast to be crossed by our efforts. Men and women could keep the torah, but they could not circumsize their hearts. In the sacramental life of the Jews, that otherness of God was expressed by the veil between the Holy of Holies. In their worship of the Lord, only one person, one one day a year, could enter that veil. And that individual had to wear a rope tied around his waist and bells on his cloak to let the subordinates know that he was still alive. Our shepherds displayed that otherness when they were initially terrified by the angel of the Lord who told them the great news about the Baby. The same can be said of Mary and of her cousin Elizabeth. The same is true of everyone who encounters God. They are terrified of Him. They recognize His holiness, His righteousness, and His glory. They rightfully understand that they are not worthy.
That kind of otherness, brothers and sisters, is not the relationship that God wants of us. He wants us to see as He sees, to hear as He hears, to understand as He understands, and to love as He loves. What makes this nativity so surprising is the lengths to which our Lord would go to reach us. The gods of the Ancient Near East were understood to be just as unapproachable as our Lord. They were too powerful, too concerned with their own plans to be worried about mere humans. They would use us from time to time in furtherance of their plans, but no one held any illusions that they cared for the humans who worshipped them. The best anyone could hope for was to avoid their notice altogether. But our God gave all that up and condescended to become one of us. Best of all, He did not come as a king in a palace shielded from life’s trials and travails. Instead, He came as an infant. Like each one of us, He depended upon a mother and a father to care for Him. Like us, He faced the uncertainties of life. He will know the violence of war, the pain of death, and the hurt of rejection. His family will even be hounded into Egypt. They will even think Him nuts later in life. Have you ever wandered why God chose this way to save the world?
Brothers and sisters, we gather this holy night to remind ourselves of the surprising lengths to which God will go to reach each one of us. Because we cannot go to Him, He comes to us, wherever we are. And because He took our nature upon Himself, we can be assured that He knows us, all our fears, all our hurts, all our doubts, and all our pains. And despite all those that conspire to cause us to doubt ourselves or even hate ourselves, He still chooses to love each one of us. It is a love so profound that it will cause Himself to will Himself to stay on that cross three decades hence. It is for that reason the angels sing. It is for that reason the star burns. It is for that reason the wise men traverse a distance of some two years. It is for that reason that you and I are drawn here tonight! And, unless you think this story is finished, remember: the most surprising part of this narrative might be well be the fact that He call you and He called me to share His Gospel story with all those we meet. Our God is so surprising and so unpredictable that He can take us, with all our doubts and all our fears, and turn us each into a herald of His Gospel.