Christmas Day: The King has Come
Christmas Day: The King has Come
Titus 2:11-15 & St. Luke 2:1-14
by William Klock
The Gospel this morning tells the familiar Christmas Story: Joseph and Mary, Bethlehem, an inn and a manger, angels and shepherds. And yet if St. Luke saw our creche, I wonder what he would make of it. And I wonder what he would make of the way we’ve come to tell the story and to preach it. A friend this week shared a sermon he’d heard. It was a whole sermon about the innkeeper. (I saw, myself, someone else I know preached a whole sermon last week on the innkeeper’s son.) I never meant to start an argument; I just casually commented that there is no innkeeper in Luke’s account (let alone an innkeeper’s son). It started a discussion about various—I’m not sure what to call them other than—Christmas urban legends. Fictional historical information about mangers or swaddling, shepherds and stables that somehow end up the focal point of sermons. I got piled on by a couple of women who accused me of not believing the Bible, despite none of this being in the Bible. Sometimes we really just need to get back to the text of Scripture. We need to ask what was important to Luke in telling this story? And then we need to focus our attention on that.
So, first, the setting. Caesar Augustus had decreed a census. The lord of the world, the lord who had brought the Pax Romana, wanted to know just how many people he ruled—and to ensure they knew it was he who ruled them. This would have stuck in the craw of every devout Jew. They belonged to the Lord. They no more belonged to Caesar than they had once belonged to Pharaoh. And so they waited in hopeful expectation of a deliverer: a prophet like Elijah, who would call down fire from heaven on their enemies; a prophet like Moses, who would lead them into freedom; a king like David, who would crush their enemies. A king like David. That’s the first key to Luke’s story here. That Mary and Joseph were headed to Bethlehem, the city of David, on the orders of Caesar Augustus, that’s a hint to his readers of who Jesus is and what he’s eventually going to do.
And so, off to Bethlehem. And our popular telling has Joseph and Mary arriving in Bethlehem at a First Century Holiday Inn with no vacancy. The innkeeper graciously—or perhaps ungraciously—points them to the barn. In solitude, except for the animals, Mary gives birth to a baby who—at least according to one of our most popular carols—does not cry and places him in a manger.
Now, how much of that is actually in Luke’s story and how does it square with what he does tell us? Well, there was no inn—not in the sense we think of an inn. There’s a Greek word for such a place and Luke uses it elsewhere—the Good Samaritan takes his charge to that kind of inn. But here Luke uses a word that more commonly means a guest room. (It’s the same word translated “upper room”, where Jesus shared his last Passover with the disciples.) Travellers like Joseph and Mary stayed with relatives when going to their hometown. Because of the census many members of the extended family would have taken advantage of family hospitality and this house would have been bursting at the seams with cousins and aunts and uncles. Important members of the family—a grandfather and grandmother, maybe—would have been given the guest room. And so Mary and Joseph wound up spending the night in the lower part of the house where the animals were stabled at night. And they were certainly not alone. A proper nativity set should have a few dozen figurines representing all those extended family members. And all the women would have been gathered around Mary as she gave birth, because that’s what happened before hospitals and maternity wards. The feeding trough, while highlighting the humbleness of Jesus in his Incarnation, is only mentioned by Luke because it is the sign by which the shepherds will find the family. And those shepherds would have arrived at a house full of people and bursting with excitement over a newborn baby. The whole neighbourhood would have been abuzz with the news. If Joseph’s family was anything like Mary’s, that excitement would have been all the greater in light of the knowledge of who this baby was.
And the shepherds. There couldn’t have been a more fitting group of men to come and worship the Messiah at his birth. Somehow we got the idea that the shepherds were social outcasts—maybe from later rabbinic literature—but when we read the Bible we see that shepherds have an overwhelmingly positive position in the Old Testament. The Patriarchs were noble shepherds. David himself was a shepherd before he was King. The Lord, particularly in the Psalms, is repeatedly addressed as the good and loving shepherd who watches over the flock of Israel. The prophets repeatedly speak of the Lord sending a shepherd to rescue Israel from her trouble. Through Ezekiel the Lord promised, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God…And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd” (Ezekiel 34:15, 23). As St. John writes of Jesus as the word made flesh to announce that God has come to his people, Luke associates the newborn Jesus with the long tradition of faithful shepherds, of shepherd kings, and of the Lord as shepherd and it’s appropriate. Jesus is worshipped for the first time by his own, the Shepherd King worshipped by shepherds.
Heavenly messengers appeared to the shepherds and sent them into town, not unlike young David summoned to his anointing. By all accounts Mary and Joseph knew who the baby was, but imagine their surprise when a group of shepherds comes to town looking for him. Again, I doubt the shepherds had any trouble finding him. People would have been talking about a newborn baby no matter who he was. But image Mary and Joseph’s surprise when they’re told, “Angels came to us in the field and told us that the Messiah has come!” The shepherds knew. Like everyone in Israel, they knew the messianic hopes of the nation and they could recognise in the angels’ announcement the messianic language of the prophets. So Luke highlights Jesus identity for us. Right at the moment when Caesar, the most powerful man in the world, was flexing his muscles and everyone in Israel was grudgingly on the move to obey, the real King was born. Everything, from the timing to the place to the message of the angels to the visit by the shepherds hails Jesus as the fulfilment of God’s promises to his people. Here is the King, born of David’s line, born in David’s city…even like David, associated with shepherds. And yet different at the same time. His humble birth to humble parents and a visit by humble shepherds just as mighty Caesar flexes his muscles. God’s kingdom is at hand, the kingdom that will displace Caesar’s kingdom, but here Luke reminds us: It’s not going to happen the way most people thought.
And then we have to ask ourselves: What does it mean? What are we to do in light of the coming of this humble King? To answer that we have St. Paul’s words to Titus. I’ll read them again.
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you. (Titus 2:11-15)
Martin Luther is famously to have said, “Jesus is coming, plant a tree!”—or something roughly like that, at any rate. The point is that since God’s new creation has been inaugurated by Jesus, Christians ought to live their lives in light of the knowledge that we are already part of that new creation. St. Paul makes the same point in our Epistle.
This is the Epistle appointed for the Epiphany in the Eastern churches. Verse 11 says that the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation and verse 13 speaks of our blessed hope, which is the appearing of our great God and Saviour Jesus the Messiah. In both cases the Greek word used is literally “epiphany”. Jesus’ first advent has brought salvation as Luke has told us in the Gospel. Now we wait in hopeful expectation of Jesus’ second advent when he will complete what he has inaugurated. Jesus, in other words, is King and has begun to set the world to rights already. The rider on the white horse, the gospel proceeding from his mouth like a sword, and with his church with him, he’s riding out into the world, the light charging into the darkness. And the good news is doing its work. The life of the Spirit is infiltrating the world through the lives and actions and proclamation of Jesus’ people. In the Church we catch a glimpse of what the world set to rights will one day look like. Paul contrasts the ungodliness and worldly lusts of the old age that is passing away and exhorts us to live as people who have a sure and certain hope of the age to come: live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives. It’s not always easy to do that, but Paul reminds us of the great cost at which we have been saved. The Messiah himself gave his own life to redeem us from lawlessness and to purify for himself a people zealous for good works. Brothers and Sisters, the greatest motivation to committing ourselves to the King and his Kingdom is to reflect on just what it cost him and on his great love for us revealed in his humiliation. For our sake and out of love, he humbled himself and took on our flesh and then he allowed that flesh to be nailed to the cross. New Creation has come and to live in light of that truth, to live in light of the love it reveals, to live in hope of its future consummation, that is to be a truly Christmas people.
Let’s pray: O God, you make us glad by the yearly remembrance of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.