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Love versus power and might

In the Christmas readings this week, Sarah Harris looks at Luke's contrast between the worldly powers and our infant saviour's power of love. 

Sarah Harris   |  18 Dec 2016

Sunday 25 December 2016 – Christmas Eve or Christmas Day

Theme   

The Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ – Te Rā Whānautanga o tō tātou Ariki, o te Karaiti /Baradin (hindi)

Sentence     

Do not be afraid; for I bring you good news of great joy which will come for all people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.

Collect   

God of light and life,You are born as a baby, born of Mary.

Through the mystery of the incarnation you enter fully into our human nature.

Help us like Mary to treasure the words of the incarnation and ponder them in our hearts.

Grant that we may join with the shepherds in glorifying you on this holy day.

We ask this though our Lord Jesus Christ who shares our human nature,

Who is alive and reigns with you,

In the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Readings   

Isaiah 9:2-7

Psalm 96

Titus 2:11-14

Luke 2: 1-14, (15-20)

Isaiah 9:2-7

This oracle addresses new hope for Judah. Though Judah has lived with gloom and darkness under the reign of King Ahaz – there will be a reversal of fortune and they will enter a time of peace and prosperity. Light (hope) is coming to them which will result in joy and abundance of harvest.

A new Davidic king is to be born – historically this is King Hezekiah (cf. Isa 36-39) – although the church has read this Christologically where Jesus is the ultimate fulfilment of this prophesy. Hezekiah will govern them well, even in the face of the Assyrian threat. Yahweh is the one who has given Judah this new king who will be known as a Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. These are titles which ultimately no earthly king can truly fulfil – Jesus Christ will be their ultimate embodied expression.

vv.2-3 announce the new political horizon for Judah. From despair and darkness to hope and light.

vv.4-5 shows the transformation will come through a vigorous military action. In this action the yoke and rod of the oppressors will be broken. This will be a new beginning like on the day of Midian. Yahweh will save them again through a violent battle which will overthrow the oppressors.

vv.6-7 the royal figure is described – a baby who is heir to the throne of David. This new agent is the polar opposite of the harsh military description in the previous verses – this is a baby who is vulnerable but filled with possibility and expectation.

Psalm 96

This is a song of praise where creation, the people, and the nations sing to the Lord. Psalm 95 has focused on the praise of the people, while the scope of this following psalm is that where worship begins with creation.

vv.1-6 All of the earth are charged to sing a new song; the Lord is great and his glory is visible.

vv.7-9 The Lord is to be ascribed glory by all the peoples. An offering is to be brought before him in the sanctuary; he is to be worshipped in holy splendour for his glory and strength.

vv.10-13 The nations declare, “The Lord is King! He rules with righteousness and truth, and is coming back to judge the earth. Again we hear of creation’s praise linking back to the beginning of the psalm. This signals not only the end of its cadence, but a call for this pattern of praise to continue.

Titus 2:11-14

God’s grace has appeared for humanity; his salvation has come for all people. Therefore, Paul charges Titus and the Cretans to renounce the ways of the “present age”, and embrace lives that reflect the glory of Jesus Christ who is their Saviour.

Paul’s focus is on the sacrifice of Jesus (he gave himself up for them); the redemption he brings (he had paid for their sins), and their new clothing of purity which equates with good deeds.

Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

This passage is set in the time of Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor, and before the time when Quirinus was governor in Syria. (This dating may or may not be accurate, but the passage is theologically rich and historicity while important, is not our primary consideration).

Luke contrasts the might of Augustus who issues the imperial census decree with the power of God. In obedience to the human will of Caesar, Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem. However, an earlier decree had been issued by God who had spoken to the prophet Micah in the 8th century BCE. For Luke, it is God who determines where the messiah is to be born, and his account shows the superior might of God: Caesar is on God’s timetable, rather than the other way around.

The decree was for a taxation census and according to Luke, the couple travel to Bethlehem. Some scholars posit the actual birth in Nazareth and that Luke’s record adjusted the details to cohere with the prophesy of Micah 5:2-5 (because he was trying to make a theological statement about the significance of the baby).

Nazareth was the town where Joseph worked and so a census to record information about daily life was most likely linked to one’s actual home. In some ways, it makes little sense that the empire would have required anyone to travel back to their ancestral home.

Further, it is perplexing that the young couple find no place to stay in Joseph’s ancestral town for Middle Eastern hospitality and kinship ties would have prevailed, and it is most likely that some relative would have found them lodgings.

The fact that Mary was heavily pregnant would have added weight to that call for hospitality. The birth narrative has layers of historical complexity which are narratively fascinating and yet may still be true.  

Jesus’ birth is told simply in two verses (vv.6-7) while its announcement and the subsequent activity is given considerable narrative time (vv.8-20). The birth is announced to the shepherds on the hillside at night. The bright light and sound from heaven contrast the dark night and the incomprehension of the men.

The angel (which in ch 1 is Gabriel) announces good news of great joy for all people; this comes in the form of a baby who is in Bethlehem, the city of David.

The knowledge this is Bethlehem recalls David’s story (see 1 Sam 16) but the “city of David” was not Bethlehem but Jerusalem (2 Sam 5). Bethlehem was a small and insignificant farming town which did not even have its own water supply.

Jerusalem was the town David conquered, where he built his palace, and most especially where the temple, God’s own house, was built. Jerusalem was the place for the sacred festivals, the conclave of priests, the place for offerings and sacrifices, and the place where God’s presence touched earth. What was Luke meaning?

This statement is clearly deliberate and functions as a rhetorical highlighter which has theological and narrative import ; the one to be born does not represent kingly and religious privilege as was seen in Jerusalem; he is a different type of king who heralds a different type of kingdom . Luke’s genealogy confirms this – he does not trace the line from David through Solomon, but Nathan, a lesser known son. Rank and status is of little interest to the Lukan Jesus.

The shepherds themselves also point back to the David story, even as they are a directing tool to the expectation of God’s messianic shepherd of Micah 5:2-5 who will feed the sheep and guide the people into paths of peace. They are not simply examples of the poor, they are participants who embody the message that the new-born is God’s messianic shepherd.

The shepherds hurry to see the baby and retell all that they have seen and heard. Mary is centre stage, (as I guess any mother is after the birth of her first baby), while she is also pictured as the faithful disciple who ponders God’s action and words in her heart. For Luke, Mary is the first theologian (1:46-55), she is the quintessential disciple (1:38), and the faithful virgin whom God blesses (1:27).

The story ultimately tells of a new king (the anointed messiah) who stands in stark contrast to Augustus, the temporal ruler. He is the ancient world’s lord, saviour, and monarch (v.11) while the new king’s reign will contrast all expressions of power the ancient world understood.

This kingdom is founded in heaven and from where “an army of angels” has come to sing of God’s peace which has come to earth. For Luke, the world above and the world below are now one; God’s salvation has come to earth; this is the good news of great joy for all people. The centre of the world is not Rome where Augustus hails from, or even Jerusalem with its string of priests and the majestic temple. The centre for the world is again, God.

The Rev Dr Sarah Harris lectures in New Testament at Carey Baptist College and belongs to  Cedar Centre Anglican Community Church in Beach Haven.

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