Christmas with All the Trimmings
As I told you in the newsletter, this is the first time in over 20 years that the Christmas Eve message isn't a letter I've written to my 5 kids. They're all past 18, the age I planned to stop writing. Some of you are disappointed; maybe you won't be when I tell you why I started the practice. In 1989 it was my third Christmas at a congregation. I noticed in the past two that attendance tripled on Christmas Eve and shrank to less than half the normal attendance on Christmas Day. Following St. Augustine, I assumed that most that came Christmas Eve weren't there for theology. They came for family, social, or seasonal reasons. I was wrong. I ought to have assumed that anyone who walks into a church on Christmas Eve is there for the best I can give theologically. So this year it's Christmas with all the trimmings.
First I decree that we really listen to our text. Every year I have the congregation read the Christmas Gospel from Luke 2:1-20 in unison. I have us read it from the King James because from Charlie Brown, to Christmas cards, to children's programs this is the version used. And we read, "There went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed."
"All the world" is the Greek word for "inhabited world." It was used by the Romans to mean the entire Roman Empire because for them that was the world. What you need to know is that Jesus, while still in the womb, lived under the law. The trip from Nazareth, where Mary and Joseph were at, to Bethlehem is about 90 miles. One commentator says it would have taken 3 days (Marshall, 102). I think longer. But imagine a woman "great with child" riding for that many hours. How uncomfortable it must have been for her. Yet even in the womb Jesus was under the law.
The word translated "decree" is used 4 other places in the Bible. Once it's used for a decree of the apostles and once for another decree of Caesar. The two other cases are more interesting. In two places Paul tells us the result of Jesus fulfilling this decree of Caesar and every other decree. In Ephesians 2:15 he says that Jesus abolished in His flesh the law of the Commandments that were contained in the decrees of God. And in Colossians 2:14 Paul says Jesus blotted out the decrees that were against us and nailed them to the cross.
All the decrees of God that said you better not pout, you better not cry, you better do exactly what I say or you will be lost forever, Jesus kept in His flesh perfectly so they are abolished, fulfilled, done. More than that, all that those decrees convict you of: not loving God with your whole self, not loving even your spouse or children as yourself, misusing God's holy name, and not coming to church, Jesus pled guilty to in your place. Sentenced to death for the decrees we broke, Jesus died for them, and as was the practice of the day, the charges for which He was crucified were nailed to the cross with Him. And so those charges and broken decrees are taken away from us.
Tired of taxes? Tired of talk of taxes? Our short text refers to taxing 4 times. Modern translations translate registered, enrolled, take a census. The Romans registered for two reasons: military service and taxes. Since Mary goes too it was probably for taxes. Syria, which Palestine was part of, subjected everyone to a head tax (Marshall, 102).
The only other time the New Testament uses this word translated "tax" here is Hebrews 12:23, and it's a beautiful picture. Those in Christ are told they have not come to thundering Mount Sinai where the law condemns all they have every done, said, thought, and are. No they have come to Mount Zion, to the City of the Living God, to the Church, to countless angels in joyful assembly, and they have come as one who has been registered, enrolled, counted in heaven.
You do realize that no one from heaven, no saint, no holy person was being counted, enrolled, registered or taxed by Rome. Only sinful, fallen people were. Jesus bouncing about in His mother's belly made the 90 mile uncomfortable trip to be counted, registered, enrolled among sinners, so that you could be registered in heaven, so that you could stand with angels and archangels in joyful assembly.
Think we've plumbed the depths of Christmas, got out all the trimmings, decked the halls as best they could be? Not even close. There is real love here. Popularly, and probably accurately, we see Joseph quite a bit older than the Virgin Mary. Since so many women died in childbirth, it was not uncommon for older widowed men to marry younger women. When we read that Joseph is "with Mary his espoused wife," we think a marriage of convenience; maybe even an arranged marriage. I can't really prove this isn't the case. I can tell you the word translated espoused' here is used three times in the New Testament and only of Mary and Joseph. I can tell you that the first meaning of the Greek word is "woo and win" (B.A.G. 525).
What's this? A love story in our Christmas story? Could it have been love at first sight? Could Joseph have courted Mary over weeks, months? Did she demure? Did she play hard to get even though her heart quickened every time he was around her? Did they go back and forth about the age difference? Did they talk through the night without realizing it?
In the end Joseph wooed and won the Virgin Mary. I'll leave it to you to think of the shock and heartbreak that came over Joseph when he found out that Mary was with child. For now, focus on the love. Although there was real love between Mary and Joseph, it wasn't love between a man and a woman that put God the Son, your Savior, in Mary's womb. It was the love of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost that did. When Angel Gabriel explains to Mary how it can be that she a virgin can have a baby, he names all three persons of the Trinity. He says, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the Holy One to be born will be called the Son of God."
Think of that 5th century Christmas hymn "Of the Father's Love Begotten" and that 17th century Lenten hymn "A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth" to sense the love here. If you've sent a child off to college and especially a son off to war, you have some sense of how poignant Christmas Eve is. You know how relieved you are to find that your child has arrived safely? It's not that way if he has gone to war. And Jesus is going to war; He's going to fight by living a holy life while the World, Satan, and others tempt Him to the point of agony. He is going to win not by killing the enemy but by allowing the enemy to kill Him but not before His loving Father damns Him to hell to punish the sins of the world.
You and I just think we know what love is. Sure our hearts have been broken by unrequited love; sure some of us have had them torn in two by death; some of us have loved and lost. But there is a depth of love here that only the heights of poetry can reach. You know the dismal sadness of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven?" You know how that blasted raven repeatedly saying "nevermore" adds to the man's deep sense of lost love? Well "Of the Father's Love Begotten" written centuries earlier adds to the height of God's love for fallen mankind by its refrain "Evermore and evermore." As Poe's "nevermore" signals the end of love, "evermore and evermore" signals God's love for sinners can never, ever end.
There's one more strand of garland to be strung, one more ornament, one more light. There's real humanity here. The KJV describes the Virgin Mary as "being great with Child." All modern translations including the New KJV translate simply "pregnant." They've all missed it. Luke was a doctor. He uses 5 different words to describe pregnancy. He is very specific and once you hear how the word was used elsewhere in Greek you'll be clear on what he is zeroing in on. The word is used to describe a sail billowing in the wind. It's used to describe women in the advanced stages of pregnancy. Mary's not just pregnant she's great with Child with the emphasis being on the word great.' Do you feel the earthiness, the realism, the humanness?
Dr. Luke is emphasizing what any couple who has had a child knows. How absolutely huge the woman grows. See her billowing belly and know that's how real, how human, how complete the incarnation of God the Son was in our flesh and blood. Our mind can't get our head around the fact that, as St. Paul clearly says, all the fullness of the godhead dwells bodily in Christ. And that's important because our fallenness is in our very bodies.
Our sinfulness, our fallenness reaches past your actions, words, and even thoughts; it's in our very bones, marrow, DNA, and chromosomes. To get to that fallenness, God would have to go that deep, get that real, become what we are so that we might become what He is. Through the womb of a Virgin, God the Son did that. He assumed not only our bone, marrow, DNA, and chromosomes, but our sin and guilt. He assumed the sin and guilt of everyone you know and everyone you don't know too. He will carry all this sin and guilt, suffering every step of the way, till He gets to the cross and has it nailed with Him to the cross to finish at last paying for it.
Where Oh where is such a Christmas, such a Christ for me? Where is such redemption of humanity, such love for humanity? Where do I get enrolled in heaven and see the decrees against me nailed to the tree of the cross? All this redemption, love, forgiveness, and heaven comes to sinners through the Waters of Baptism where Jesus put it. It comes in the mouth of a man pronouncing you forgiven, where Jesus promised it would be. And it comes in Communion where Jesus promised we would find the same Body and Blood that we see billowing the belly of Mary tonight.
Historically Communion wafers were embossed at Christmas with "a little Baby Jesus tightly wrapped in swaddling clothes" (The Heresy of Formlessness, 178). There was no doubt then that God was giving you much more than family, food, and presents for Christmas. He was giving you His Son and with Him come all the trimmings. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Christmas Eve (20121224); Luke 2: 1-5