Texts: Isaiah 9.2-7; Titus 2.11-14; Luke 2.1-14
The stories and readings of Christmas will have little power or consequence unless we understand that the events they describe take place within a particular kind of political reality – worlds dominated by an imperial super-power, a military emperor who can make ordinary people do and say whatever he wants them to do or say. When Isaiah was preaching in Jerusalem at the end of the 8th century BCE, that power was the king of Assyria, whose empire stretched from India to Egypt. The darkness of his harsh and oppressive rule extended even into the daily lives of the people of Israel, whose labour and produce was heavily taxed to enrich the emperor and support his expansionist policies. In this environment, the power of the local Jewish King was so insignificant that there was really little option for him except to become a local supporter of the Emperor’s will. To defy the Emperor would have left Judah open to attack by one of its small neighbours, some other petty king with powerful ambitions. In this environment, “security” and “safety” was guaranteed only by sucking up to the biggest power on earth, the Emperor of Assyria. Yet the situation of the ordinary people could hardly have been described as “safe” or “secure”. The Jewish people suffered terribly because there was little practical sense in which they could claim to be free. They belonged to the Emperor of Assyria. The economic and social privileges granted them under the covenant with Yahweh their God were severely curtailed, because the Emperor now claimed to own their bodies, their houses, and all they produced. There was precious little of their lives or their livelihoods that the Emperor could not claim as his own. In the words of Isaiah, they were a people who walked in a very great darkness. They were an oppressed people ruled by the soldiers of a foreign power.
The situation was not all that different when Jesus was born over 700 years later. The global power had changed, certainly. It was now the Romans who ruled the roost. Yet the lives of the Jewish people were much the same. Their political leaders, whether kings or councils, spent most of their time sucking up to the Romans and doing their bidding. That was the way to survive. What that meant for the ordinary folk, the folk who actually produced the food and built the roads and the houses and whatever else, was misery. For again, whoever they were or whatever they produced ultimately belonged not to themselves, but to the Emperor of Rome. So that while most people could feed themselves, if they worked hard, and while some people could even become quite wealthy if they worked very hard to supply the Romans with what they wanted most, everyone (whether rich or poor) belonged not to themselves or even to God, but to the Emperor. If the Emperor demanded something of you, through the agency of a governor or even a local solider, you had no right to resist. If you valued your life, or the lives of your loved ones, you did as you were told. That is what Luke is trying to tell us with his tale about an Imperial command that the whole world should be registered. He is telling us that in the world in which Jesus was born, you did as the Great Power told you. To resist was to die.
So what the promised coming of a Messiah meant for Isaiah’s Judah and Joseph and Mary’s Jerusalem is exactly the same as it means for us in our contemporary world. It means that God does not surrender the bodies of his people to the oppression and slavery of whatever global power is wanting to have its way with us. It means that just as God took our human flesh to himself in Jesus so that our bodies were no longer simply ours but God’s as well, God continues to take a body to Godself in the church, a social body which God makes for Godself in the conversions wrought through baptism and Eucharist. It means that God stands with us and for us against the powers of this world, not in Spirit alone, but also in the body and in bodily practices that make for peace, justice and the integrity of creation. For in Jesus the yoke of the oppressor’s power is broken. In Jesus we see a body broken up, tortured, and finally killed by the power of an evil state. Yet. When the powers appear to have his body absolutely within their control - enclosed within the silent tomb of death - at precisely that moment, Jesus breaks free in the power of the resurrection to show that not even coercion and death is finally strong enough to defeat the power of love. For the truth revealed in the resurrection of Jesus is this: that the power of our political overlords is ever only the power we grant them through our fear and our failure to believe that we can be what God has called us to be. If a child born amongst the poorest can one day threaten the power of Empire – not because he is smart or strong, but because he believes absolutely in liberating word of God that stirs within him – then the church, too, can become a community of resistance that threatens the power of Obama, Putin and Abbot to enslave us all in the neo-liberal lies of our time.
I pray that we, who take the name of Christ to ourselves tonight, may give our bodies not to the state, out of some kind of fear that we shall miss out on the ‘relaxed and comfortable’ life it promises, but to God and to God’s mission of love, that the world may find its liberation through the revolutionary giving of Jesus. For in the end, it is only the gift of God, ever given again by his people, that shall save our world from its lies and self-deceptions. It is precisely that radical sharing and giving, that politics of love, which we remember and perform in the Eucharist, which we shall now prepare to eat together.
Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to all God has favoured with his care.
This sermon was first preached at St Luke's, Mt Waverley, on Christmas Eve 2006. Another version was subsequently published in Cross Purposes: a forum for theological dialogue 26 (2011):8-10.