“Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”
The current blockbuster movie series “The Hunger Games” is set in the fictional nation of Panem, in a dystopian future. Panem is made up of the Capitol and twelve outlying districts, and the Capitol rules the districts with brutal force. Each of the districts suffers under varying degrees of poverty, while the Capitol has an endless abundance. The heroes in the story come from District 12, which is the poorest backwater of them all. One of the things that works really well about the movies is the stark visual juxtaposition between the bright colors and almost cartoonish excess of the Capitol, and the dull gray of the almost crushing poverty in the districts.
If the gospel of Luke were to be set to film, a similar visual technique would work well for the beginning of chapter 2, which is what we heard a few minutes ago. Luke really wants us to notice that the Christmas story, which takes place in the ancient equivalent of District 12, is set against the backdrop of absolute Roman power, the ancient equivalent of the Capitol. A decree goes out from the emperor that sends the impoverished masses scurrying to get back to their ancestral home towns for a census. The powerlessness of the holy family, who can’t even secure a decent place to stay, is cast against the limitless power of Augustus, who only needs to speak a word to make it all happen.
We all know the story, and its power lies largely in its familiar retelling, so I’ll just offer two thoughts tonight about what Luke’s version drives home.
One, the Christmas story reminds us that God is known most fully in the forgotten, broken, and impoverished places in our world, and in our own hearts. Luke’s telling reminds us that if we aren’t looking for Jesus in the lives of people who continue to run for their lives in the war-torn places all around the globe, if we aren’t looking for Jesus in the streets of New York–in those who protest the persistence of racism in America, and those who grieve the death of two police who committed their lives to serving—if we aren’t looking for Jesus in Ferguson, or in the suffering parts of our own city, then we aren’t really following the child whose birth we sing tonight because those are the places he hangs out, and those are the people he hangs out with.
But Jesus doesn’t just show up in the broken places out there, he’s also is born into the most forgotten and impoverished places in our own spirits. While Christmas is a time when the normal frenzy of our lives gets a gentle reprieve, and we get some extended time with those we love best, these days are also a time when the various kinds of grief, and loss, and loneliness we might carry with us can all sting a little more sharply. The fact that Jesus came, helpless and vulnerable and poor, reminds us that God’s heart breaks with ours, and he often draws closest to us in our deepest sadness.
And the second thing Luke’s version of Christmas reminds us of is that Jesus reshapes what it means to be family. The deeply intimate scene of a newborn baby with his parents is quickly blown wide open as an army of angels descend on a band of shepherds and invites them to crash the party. Shepherds were sort of like the ancient equivalent of a biker gang: hard living, probably up to no good, and thoroughly disreputable. These are the very first people God invites to join the holy family. The angels couldn’t be clearer in their message: to you a child is born. To you. Not to his mother and father, not just to the people of his tribe or race or class, not to the people who think or vote or love like him. But to you. The message is clear: because of Jesus, there are no longer any outsiders. Everyone is loved. Everyone is an insider. No one gets to be forgotten or alone. Everyone is family.
That’s the reality we are committing ourselves to if we dare to sing the savior’s birth tonight. We are signing up to be the people who look for God to show up in the poor and unwanted people and places in our world and our own lives. We are the people who are being asked to join God in making all those who are cast off as outsiders beloved insiders. We are the people whose job it is to stand in the midst of a world that is torn a thousand different ways by division and proclaim that poor lives matter, rich lives matter, black lives matter, police lives matter, immigrant lives matter, Christian lives matter, Muslim lives matter, all lives matter deeply to God. A people who would dare to sing tonight is a people who are then sent out to make it so, to unite all God’s beloved children under the banner of the Prince of Peace. Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. May we dare to sing that with our whole lives. Amen.