The following is Rev. Adam Phillips' sermon on Christmas Eve 2017, reflecting on Luke 2:1-20.
Jesus was literally born in the middle of a tax controversy.
Our lesson out of the Gospel of Luke, one of the main accounts of Jesus, his birth and his whole life, doesn’t just toss out this idea of the tax controversy - or census - he goes into as much detail about it as he does the story of Jesus’s birth.
Now, you’re forgiven for not really thinking about taxes and controversy every Christmas - it’s just not part of our traditions. I don’t think any one of us could name our favorite Christmas song or movie or family recipe that goes into exquisite detail about taxes and controversy.
The First Noel the angel did say
Was that Rome has a new tax bill
and boy are we gonna pay;
That’s how that one goes, right?
Ha! Thank goodness it doesn’t.
But hidden there in plain sight is a matter of massive significance there in the background of Jesus birth story and if we spend a little time in it, it might just unlock another level of what the love, hope, peace and joy of Christ might mean for us even today.
Now, look, I bet Mary and Joseph weren’t super in the weeds of this tax controvery. New parents are just looking to put one foot in front of the other and catch a nap if they’re lucky in those early days.
This past summer Sarah and I welcomed Desmond, our firstborn son, into the world. And I honestly do not remember what specifically happened in national or global affairs those first few days. I just remember that first night with such a beautiful, special boy and the next morning with its hunt for a decent cup of coffee around the hospital.
But the world kept turning and Desmond was born into some real world affairs - in 2017 that much was for sure.
Now, we had it easy. Mary and Joseph? We drove a few miles to a hospital and were cared for incredibly well by our midwives and nurses. There was an abundance of room for us. But Mary and Joseph, the holy family of Jesus? They literally had to caravan to another town in order to register accordingly on the tax rolls, for the census. And when they got to Bethlehem, Mary went into labor, and there was no room for them to be found. Jesus was born in a manger.
And what was this whole tax thing about anyways?
It was a controversial thing, because it was about Occupation and overlords, saber rattling, possible wars and rumors of even more. Whenever the Emperor called for a census and it’s tax rolls, it meant the possibility of another great conflict, another great war. And it was a stinging reminder that people weren’t entirely truly free.
If we look closely again, Luke mentions, in detail, something like four times in the span of seven verses, the imperial edict of a tax bill, details with ramifications about Syria and Palestine and an assortment of politicos and puppets, known for their gold-fillagreed buildings and abysmal leadership. Nowhere to be found is any mention of the exclusively religious elite - the ones Jesus would continually be out of favor with as he grew up, living out loud his message of love, light, joy & justice.
Politcos and puppets.
A tax bill.
And a town called Bethlehem.
And there, in two quick verses, the mention of a new birth:
While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.
What child is this?
This child will turn the world upside down, for love.
But not any meek and mild kind of love. A tough, resilient love that bends yet never breaks.
A love that doggedly pursues us no matter where we might go.
Like the poetry of the songwriter in Psalm 139 (:7-10)
Where could I go to get away from your spirit?
Where could I go to escape your presence?
If I went up to heaven, you would be there.
If I went down to the grave, you would be there too!
If I could fly on the wings of dawn,
stopping to rest only on the far side of the ocean—
even there your hand would guide me;
even there your strong hand would hold me tight!
This force of love in the world cuts through all the noise, all the distraction - knows no barrier it cannot break through. We might choose to shut ourselves off from this force, this movement of God’s Spirit, from time to time, but as another songwriter says: Love is bigger than anything in its way.
The great teacher Richard Rohr shared this word about Christ’s love in his Christmas Eve devotion:
Both love and power are the necessary building blocks of God’s peaceful kingdom on earth. Love utterly redefines the nature of power. Power without love is mere brutality… and love without power is only the sentimentality of private lives disconnected from the Whole. The Gospel in its fullness holds power and love together, creating new hope and healing for the world.
Christmas is about the birth of a different kind of king who brings about a different kind of kingdom.
This is not the power of this world - with its politicos and puppets, it’s gold filagreed buildings, the gaslighters, false truths and a religious elite who couldn’t care less.
This is the force of love in our world that bends but never breaks. This is the reign of love - a kindom of and for the common good, that takes roots here, and now.
On earth, as it is in heaven, as the ancient prayer goes.
Luke’s telling of the story includes a further cast of characters - folks that will exit stage left and right back into the wilderness: especially a band shepherds who slept outside under the stars.
An angel appears with what is described as the glory of the Lord shining bright - you can imagine these houseless shepherds, they would be startled to say the least.
The messenger of God says, simply, to them:
“Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord.
It’s hard to believe, it’s hard to not be afraid these days.
We seem to forget the still small ways of God’s grand love on display in our midst through new births. Through the promise of Jesus and God’s vision for peace on earth - in our world, in our hearts, in our homes.
Good news. Tidings of joy.
For. All. People.
Yes, everyone. All of us.
We live in a curious time of disruption and conflict, division and our own rumors of war.
But we also live in a time of great possibility.
The question for us is how might we live anew for this common wealth of love?
How might we wait anew, for new birth to come?
And I don’t mean in terms of big global ideas. I mean, simply, in our own hearts. In our own lives. In real, simple ways.
I’m not sure what routines you have this Christmas week, but maybe you can find a moment to sit still. And open your palms and receive a fresh word, a fresh breath. Maybe you can light a candle of intention or say a simple prayer of Yes to what might be born anew in your midst.
Because I think we all want something new, something fresh, something beautiful to come in this season.
So, I invite you to ponder what a new birth this Christmas season might mean for you and yours. Yes, with the backdrop of real-world affairs, and yet all the while, the real inner yearnings each one of us hold.
What might a new birth mean for us as we pause, as we rest, as we celebrate, and as we say goodbye to another year and welcome a new?
Thank God this birth is so joyously good. Love and peace. And happy happy Christmas.