Looking at Christmas Backwards: Now Let’s Talk Turkey
By The Rev Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, December 22, 2019
Reading: Luke 2:1-11
I want to begin by addressing the elephant in the room: My sermon title this morning. Some of you noticed it last Sunday in the Order of Service and over the last few days, people have been wanting to know precisely what I mean by it. Some of you have wondered if you should bring a notepad and pen with you because I’m going to be giving you a recipe. Well, I’m the wrong person for that! If you think that I am going to be talking about the sins of gluttony and ruin Christmas for you, trust me, I would not only ruin for you, I would ruin it for myself, so, I am not talking about gluttony. I am talking turkey. And by that I mean the popular euphemism; straight talk, honest conversation, frankness, forwardness. Today of all days is the day to talk turkey. We do so through the lens of today’s passage from Luke Chapter 2 verses 1 and following.
As many of you know, over the last three weeks in Advent we have looked at events after the birth of Jesus and gone back and looked at the birth through the lens of them. We started with Simeon and the blessing of Jesus in the temple as a child, with Simeon saying, “Behold, mine eyes have seen thy salvation. This is the glory of Israel.” He could die in peace. Next, we looked at the child in the manger, the vulnerable child, the God who came to us in the simplest of ways. And last week we looked through the eyes of the Gospel of John and how the light has come into the world in the flesh and declared that we are children of God.
Today, we’ve arrived. This is the Christmas text really, the last one before we celebrate on Christmas Eve and light a central candle. This is the moment when we really talk turkey. Because in this passage there is so much that is rich for us, so much that instructs our faith and helps us in our walk with God. It has become so commonplace, so ordinary that we forget its power and reach.
How many times in our lives have we heard John Chapter 2 either on the radio or television, at concerts or worship services? Yet, unless we really focus, we miss the power. I want to focus today. I want to talk turkey. This is the real thing because the historical account is important. The story of Christmas is not – I want to say this – a myth. It is not a legend. It does not place itself alongside mythological writings of other kinds. It’s a history written and interpreted as all history is, through the lens of a writer, in this case, Luke, who gives an account of the birth of Jesus, and extracts historical moments that have weight and power.
Take for example his reference to the census. We could simply gloss over it. What’s a census? In Roman times a census was critical to Roman power. It was used for two things: to make sure they knew who you were, so you paid taxes. Isn't that the incredible thing with governments and their data? When you owe them money, they know where to find you, right? Well, it was the same with the Romans; nothing new here, folks. Two-thousand years ago, if you owed taxes Rome would find you.
They also used it for military conscription. For the countries they had conquered, they would take able-bodied young men – and keep that in mind – young men and make them join the military. The interesting thing is that Israel/Judah and the Jewish people were exempt from that. Somehow, they made a case that fighting for another power was not part of their religious tradition. But for all other nations, conscription was part of the census so it was financially essential for the running of the Roman Empire. We find documents about the census written in papyruses and have been found recently in Egypt, in both the desert sands but also in the cities, where there are accounts of the importance of the census in Egypt, Syria, Babylonia, and also in Israel. Furthermore, an actual Roman edict has been discovered. This edict, according to William Barclay, states very clearly why there is a census: “Gaius vibius maximus - Prefect of Egypt - orders, seeing that the time has come for the house-to-house census, it is necessary to compel all those who for any cause whatsoever are residing outside their districts to return to their own homes, that they may both carry out the regular order of the census and may also diligently attend to the cultivation of their allotments” direct from Roman literature.
See what I mean? The census matters. So too does the fact that Luke refers to Quirinius, who was the Governor of Syria. Now you might read in some magazines like Time or even The Atlantic, where they question the date of Luke in relation to Quirinius being the Governor of Syria. The many documents suggest he only became the Governor in A.D. 6 or maybe A.D. 5. But remember, Luke is writing and wrote his gospel to a Roman audience and to a man called Theophilus. The Romans would know approximately when Quirinius was the Governor of Syria. They didn’t need to know the exact date. It was thereabouts and census were held every 14 years in the empire, so it was around the time of Quirinius. Let’s not get all silly about dates here. The Romans knew 60 years after the events by the way, when Luke was writing, the approximate time of Quirinius being the Governor. It was important for the Romans to know this Jesus was an historic person. He was a real child. Something happened in Bethlehem around the time of Quirinius being the Governor of Syria.
Also, the reference to the courtyard seems to matter, and to the inn. We think of an inn, don’t we, like inns in our mind where you go in and you sign up and you go to your room, and you have a shower and you come down and you have a meal, and you park your horse in the garage, you know, as we do! Well, in those times the hotel or the inn was not like that at all. They were just a series of open rooms with a large courtyard, and the animals were left in the courtyard. If there were no more rooms available, then you had to sleep outside with the animals. Oftentimes, the innkeeper would pay for the food for the animals and would be responsible for a fire, but you had to bring your own food as a human. We’re told that Jesus was born outside in a manger, maybe in a stable-type place in a courtyard, with a lot of other people who had come to Bethlehem, because it was the City of David, to fulfil the obligations of the census. So, the courtyard and the manger and the stable make sense in terms of the actual historic situation.
It doesn’t matter whether history is interpreted or written from the point of view of the Syro-Ephraimite conflicts of the 8th century BCE, the Norman Invasion of Britain in 1066, the War of 1812, or even the repatriation of the Canadian constitution in 1982. We know that history matters. We know that the record of those things happening matter. Luke Chapter 2 matters. It was of historic importance.
So, you say, well that’s nice, but where’s the turkey? Is this all there is, history? No. There’s much more in this text. There is the meaning and there is the purpose. It was in the theophany to shepherds, and in that theophany were these carefully chosen words, “To you this day in the City of David is born a Saviour who is the Messiah or Christ the Lord.”
Those words are heavy in meaning. To come from the lineage of David is important because the Messiah was to come from the lineage of King David. It was in a sense the restitution of the reign of King David. To be born specifically in Bethlehem had profound and deep meaning for those who were waiting for the Messiah. It was the coming again of the messianic kingdom of David. It was rooted in Jewish history. While Jesus had no particular honorary position, he was exiled a little while later and born in a manger in the most humble of places, the Davidic lineage of Jesus is absolutely critical to maintaining the connection between the bible and the God of the Old Testament and the message of the gospel in the new. If Joseph was thrown in a ditch by his brothers, if Ezekiel the great prophet was exiled into a foreign land and did not have his own, they themselves became part of the foundation of the way God does things. So, Jesus born in a manger in Bethlehem is another sign of the power of the Davidic rule. It’s important, for Jesus is called the Messiah, the Saviour, and a saviour transcends a messiah. A saviour comes to save humanity, not just one part of it. The Saviour comes to put back together that which is broken. That is what the Hebrew word shalom means, to restore that which has been broken. In the time of Jesus, the world was broken.
I love what the great New Testament writer N.T. Wright, a bishop, says of this in his commentary on Luke’s gospel: “The birth of Jesus was the beginning of a confrontation between the Kingdom of God in all its apparent weakness, insignificance and vulnerability and the kingdoms of this world.” There was a sense in which the rule of the kingdom, the Pax Romana, was in direct confrontation with what was coming in Jesus of Nazareth. It was also a salvation that spoke about Jew, Christian, and Gentile living together under the common covenant with God. It is not only the line of David for whom Jesus had come; it is for the whole world. It is for you and I and every subsequent non-Jew to be grafted onto the vine of Israel and to belong to the Kingdom of God.
It was also the restoration of a broken relationship that many have between themselves and God. In the time of Jesus, that was exacerbated by those in positions of religious authority who had helped cause a rift between ordinary people and God. This sense of guilt and inability to fulfil the law that many people were feeling and wondering how to atone for. How can this brokenness be put right? How can sin be defeated? How can death be conquered? What is there for us? For those in the time of Jesus, there was this sense that a Saviour had come in a manger and what was fragmented and broken would be put back together again.
I read a beautiful story in The New Yorker some years ago. Many of you will identify with this, especially parents. It’s the story of a father who decided around Christmastime that he was going to reserve a bit of time for himself. He got up very early in the morning, five o’clock, went downstairs, made himself a cholesterol-laden breakfast with copious amounts of coffee. Then he read the paper in solitude before the family awoke, and the dog needed to be walked. He’d says to himself, “Oh, this is what Christmas is all about. I’m so happy.”
Suddenly the door creeks open and his daughter comes out of the room in her pyjamas, and says “Daddy, I just want to be with you.” His heart fell. “Oh no, my alone time is coming to a close.” Yet, it’s his daughter. She wants to be with him. What’s he to do?
So, his daughter comes up and snuggles next to him. He pushes his breakfast away and thinks, “What can I do to entertain my daughter for a while so I can continue reading the paper?” He sees in the newspaper this map of the world telling a story of world events. So, he thinks to himself, ‘I know what I’ll do. I’ll cut up this map into pieces, give it to her with some tape and ask her to put the world back together like a jigsaw. This will take about an hour and a half.’ He gave it to her and thought, ‘Ah, this is the greatest day.’
He didn’t hear from her for five minutes. She came back. It was all done, the whole thing. He says, “Darling, how were you able to do this?”
She said, “Well, on the back cover there is a face of a man. All I had to do was put the man’s face back together and all the world came together.” His day was ruined, but his daughter was profound. When you have the man together the whole world comes with it. For those who saw the arrival of Jesus of Nazareth, it was like the whole world was coming together because of the man or the child, because of the Saviour.
In this day you might be like those who lived in those fragmented times. You might be one of those people who are deeply concerned about the state of the world and what we’re going to hand to our children and our children’s children. We might be people who are concerned that, for all the wealth and prosperity, there is still a hole in our heart that isn't being filled. Or you might have just lost a loved one, someone who was close to you and there is this void, and you feel fragmented. Maybe you’re holding on to a past sin or something that you’ve done wrong and can't seem to atone for it. How do you put it right? Or you might just be disappointed that all the things you’ve been given and all the riches that you possess mean nothing if you don’t have good relations with those who you should love. You might be feeling like this today, just like a cut up map. If you do, think of the little girl and the puzzle. When you have the man’s face right the world comes together. That’s what it means, between us and God, the Saviour.
Let’s talk turkey. There needs to be a response to the meaning and purpose of Christmas. I think is epitomized in the phrase: “There was no room for them in the inn”. You might say there is a good historic reason for that. In fact, one eminent biblical scholar has suggested that because there was no room, they had Jesus in a stable partly in the open courtyard, so the shepherds knew where to find him. But surely there’s more to this than that. There is a profound sense that even the King from the line of David, even the Messiah, even the Saviour had no room. The notion of no room is not one to overlook or treat lightly, because in many ways there was no room for this kind of Christ and Lord in people’s lives in the 1st century. This is not what they were looking for. They were looking for something different.
And in a sense, in our lives, if we’re absolutely honest, we find very little room for God i except in moments of particular poignancy or meaning? The rest of the time we fill our lives with all manner of things that really don’t cause us any eternal beauty or gratitude or peace, but we’re driven by all of those things so the room for God becomes squeezed, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “to the boundaries and not the centre of our lives.” Christmas is the time to bring the redeeming loving, gracious power of God back into the centre and not the boundary of our lives.
I remember coming to Timothy Eaton Memorial Church quite a long time ago and thinking about how our lives are so busy and hectic. When I look at the statistics from sociologists and technocrats today, it is obvious that our world has almost tripled or even more in terms of the amount of stimulus for us. We live in a world where things are so immediate, and everyone’s demands take seconds. There is barely time to think, to reason, to reflect, to pray. We live in that world. How much more important then is it to find room in our lives? Then having found that room, to realize that the richness, the beauty, the glory of God in our lives is so important that it changes us fundamentally.
There was a beautiful essay by the Christian writer John Stackhouse some years ago in Faith Today magazine about how as a lover of jazz he went to New York City. He wanted to go to a particular performance in a club more than any other in the whole world, and finally he was able to go. The person playing (get out your envy boots now folks) he got to hear Wynton Marsalis live
It was the most glorious piece of music. In the middle of this concert, he played, “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You” and Marsalis was just ripping. It was fantastic. John was ecstatic, and the crowd was with him. Then a cell phone went off and the person could not get the darn thing to stop ringing (it was that horizon tune that so may of us use). So, what did Wynton Marsalis do? Did he get angry and stop playing? No. Did he single the person out for embarrassment? No. He decided to play along with the tune that was on the phone. As he played, he brought in the band for some harmony, the percussion for some syncopation and beat. Before you knew it, horizon had become a Wynton Marsalis classic. He transformed it, not by rejecting it, not by embarrassing the listener, but by coming in and making a beautiful tune out of a harsh moment, then seamlessly went back into the piece he’d been playing.
Christmas is just like that. It is God coming into a discordant, bland, broken world, playing with it, coming into the midst of it, transforming it and changing it, making it beautiful and returning all of us back to the God who made us. Now that’s talking turkey. Amen.