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Joy to the World – Christmas Eve Sermon

The Rev. Sara Warfield

Scripture: Luke 2:1-20

I think it’s easy to forget amidst the swirl of Christmas music bombarding us in stores and the brightness of lights on houses and the rush to buy presents that the Christmas story is an inherently political story, especially the story Luke gives us. If we were to translate it directly to our context, our gospel would read: “In those days a decree went out from President Biden that all the world should participate in a census. This was the first census and was taken while Tina Kotek was governor of Oregon.”

Luke immediately brings our attention to the people who have power in the world at the time: Emperor Augustus and Quirinius, and then the gospel story tells us how they choose to use their power. By calling for the world to be registered, which is, yes, the taking of a census. Now in our time, we take the census to draw congressional districts and to figure out which communities need what kind of resources. But in Emperor Augustus’ time, a census was taken in order to determine what taxes and resources the Roman Empire could extract from its different colonies.

The emperor didn’t see humans with lives and sorrows and joys and needs. He saw a means to an end: ways to keep the empire thriving and the emperor powerful.

So obviously it wasn’t even a blip on Emperor Augustus’ radar that Mary was going to give birth any second when he called for the people of Palestine to travel to particular locations for a mandatory registration. The emperor didn’t care what hardships this registration would create. He just needed his numbers.

And listen, I don’t know if the emperor was necessarily seeking to make life harder for anyone. I just think that when people in power are making big picture decisions, they’re not always aware of the real implications those decisions can have on individual lives.

And the more they make decisions like this, the easier it gets to ignore their impact on individual people. The more ideas or theories—about thriving or security—start to take precedence over actual humans thriving and living in safety.

That’s the slow, insidious, often unintentional process of dehumanization. We’ve seen it happen in our lives today. Reducing people to oversimplified aspects of their identities like Democrat or Republican, Evangelical or Episcopalian, male or female, Israeli or Palestinian—reducing people to the ideas we have about them, which blinds us to the complex human they are, to the real needs and cares and joys and sorrows they have in their lives.

When we slot someone in as an idea rather than a human, as a means to an end rather than an inherently sacred and essential part of God’s creation, we’re lost.

The Christmas story takes us directly into vulnerable human lives, into the consequences of powerful people’s decisions on individuals.

It takes us into the story of a woman nine months pregnant, about to give birth at any moment, but who is forced to travel 90 miles to Bethlehem, days of walking, a grueling and dangerous trip up and down steep hills with the potential of bears and wild boars and bandits hidden along the way.

It takes us into the contractions starting as Joseph is frantically trying to find a place for them to stay. The whole world is traveling to be registered, so all the rooms in all the houses and inns are full. Mary’s water breaks. They’re out of time. An innkeeper points them towards a cave where the donkeys are kept. “That’s the only space we have,” he tells them. (Yes, most scholars agree that is was most likely a cave rather than a stable.)

So they clear a corner of the cave and gather the hay so that Mary can give birth, the scent and sound of donkeys all around them. The night is cold, the ground is hard. Mary’s birthing cries ring into the darkness.

I wonder how Mary and Joseph felt. Alone? Afraid? Isn’t that what vulnerability so often makes us feel? Like there’s no one who understands, who cares. Emperor Augustus, who got them into this mess, certainly doesn’t understand or care. All he sees are numbers. To him, Mary and Joseph are just tiny, almost invisible spots in his grand idea of an empire. He doesn’t see Mary pushing between contractions, he doesn’t see the worry on Joseph’s face.

But then, in that darkness, in that cold, amidst the hay and the donkeys, in that open air that makes everything feel so uncertain, so vulnerable, comes Jesus. The Word made flesh. Emmanuel. God entering this world not as a conquering force, not as an all-powerful ruler. But as a helpless baby, totally dependent on the people around him for his survival. A single human, a single life, a single bundle of hopes, fears, vulnerability.

Just like you. Just like me. God no longer a booming, scolding voice or an old man with a long beard sitting on clouds or a set of rules and regulations to follow or else. No longer an idea, but the most helpless of humans. An infant born into the precarity of Roman occupied Palestine. In a cave where he is laid in a manger.

And that, my friends, is the hope and the joy of Christmas.

Through Jesus, we are invited to see God born into the precarity and vulnerability of our own lives. Emmanuel, God with us not as some idea or ideal, but God with us just as we are, where we are, in all our hopes, fears, and vulnerability. In whatever manger in whatever cave we happen to be lying in at the moment.

In just a bit, we will be singing:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come.

Let earth receive her king.

Let every heart prepare him room,

and heaven and nature sing.

What does it mean to let our hearts prepare him room? I think it means to make room for the humanity of everyone in this world. Not as some idea or assumption we have of them because of where they live or what they believe or how they voted or how they love or what they look like or who their leaders are. But to really see their own very specific experience of this life and this world. Their vulnerability, their fears, their hopes. To hear heaven and nature singing together in harmony in each person.

But I don’t think we can do that fully until we each are able to make room for our own humanity, for our own vulnerability, for our own hopes and fears, for our own very specific experience of this life and this world. Not who the powers of the world and in our lives think we should be, but how God specifically created each of us. To hear heaven and nature singing together in harmony in ourselves.

That is the gift of this Christmas season: that God loved us so much that God not only came to us, but entered into our experience. Through Jesus, God understands the experience of our vulnerability, our fears, our hopes. Not only God with us, but God becoming us.

Yes, Jesus is joy to the world. Because through him God knows us, and we are able to see God in each other and in ourselves. Amen.

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