It starts with Emperor Augustus. That was not his original name, by the way. His original name was Octavian, but after he won a major civil war in the Roman Empire and made himself dictator of the Roman world, he took on the name “Augustus,” that is “August one,” powerful one, proud, dignified one, one who looks good to his followers, savior of the empire, because he ended the civil war, son of a god, because he was adopted son of Julius Caesar, whom they had deified. Augustus became emperor by using brilliant manipulation of his image and political alliances, by employing organizational and administrative genius, and by inspiring stark fear.
The empire remained basically stable for another two hundred years. But it was based on fear. People stayed in line because they were afraid what would happen if they didn’t. Mary and Joseph, along with everybody else, travel to their ancestral village to be registered, probably because they were afraid of what would happen to them if they didn’t.
While they are there, Mary gives birth to her firstborn child, wraps him in bands of cloth and lays him in a manger, a feed trough for animals, because there is no room for him anywhere else. This is how God comes into the world. Through people who have no place else to go except a smelly stable, in an empire based on fear.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Mary and Joseph will have to run away, because Herod wants to kill the Christ Child. Will commit atrocities in the attempt. The Holy Family are refugees, fleeing from people and circumstances that will destroy them if they stay. This is how Christ comes.
This is where Christ is today.
Here is how Christ is announced. An angel appears to these shepherds. An unsavory bunch. Shepherds were not allowed to bear witness in a court of law because they were considered untrustworthy. They would have smelled rather pungent, spending most of their time outside. They would have been the sort of people you would be afraid, might steal from you.
These are the people to whom the angels come.
Angels say the same thing to the shepherds that they have said to just about everybody in the Christmas story. Say it to Mary and Joseph and Zecharaia, John the Baptists’ father and Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s mother. Here in an empire based on fear, they say “do not be afraid. “Do not be afraid.” For I bring you good news of great joy for all the people. There is something bigger in this world than fear. “to you is born, this day, a Savior,” who is not Augustus, whose realm is based on something deeper than fear.
And this is a sign for you. The sign of the new ruler, of the new age. In ancient times there were various signs of important people and events. Alexander the Great, for example, he conquered every scrap of land between Egypt and Pakistan, before he was born, his mother dreamed that a bolt of lightning had touched her womb. When the Normans invaded Great Britain there was a sign in the sky: Halley’s Comet sweeping by. In the Gospel of Matthew there is the sign of the star of Bethlehem. Here in Luke, this is the sign of Jesus, the Savior: Not a thunderbolt. Not Halley’s comet.
You will find a baby. A purple, blob of pudgy wigglyness, smelling slightly of mother’s milk, smelling like something else when his diaper is full. A baby, wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger, an animal’s feed trough because there is no room for him anywhere else.
That is the sign of Christ.
Now, here’s the miracle. We people, who generally would prefer to be like Augustus, to be powerful, to be proud and dignified, to look good. And indeed, we do have power, we do have dignity, we do for the most part make a good appearance, we still come here to this place, on this night, to worship this God who meets us as a baby in a manger, that is, in the places where we are not powerful but rather, weak, where we are not proud and dignified, but rather humble, where we do not look good but rather smell bad. We come to worship a God who meets us at the places in our families and in own souls that rather not look at, that we’d rather not make room for, rather not talk about, that are like stables with cows and donkeys, where it smells bad and you’ve got to watch out or something big might step on you. Christ comes to us through the people in in our city and our nation that we don’t really trust, that we’re afraid might steal something from us, the places in our world where people flee in terror from powers and circumstances that would kill them.
Jesus comes to us in the parts of our souls and our world where we are least caring, least compassionate, most brutal, most cruel, most lazy, Jesus comes to us at the cross, and saves us there, loves us there, first.
That changes everything. The power we hold is true power, we do not just use it for ourselves or our own family or group or nation. We use our power to serve all people, as God does. Our pride and dignity becomes true dignity, not just our own importance and status compared to everybody else, but a part of God’s dignity in all people, requiring that all people treat each other with that dignity. Our good looks deepen into beauty, into the image of God with which we are all created, which people can see through our attitude toward ourselves and others, our love for people and creation.
Everything is changed. This is the Christmas miracle: a life based on more than just fear, a God who comes to us as babe in a manger, a rabbi on a ill, a convict on a cross, an empty tomb, a blazing resurrection light.