Zealous People in the Emperor’s World
Text: Titus 2:14: “He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds and his kingdom.”
You have every right and every reason to expect that story on this night in this place. It may be, as the New York Times reported a couple of weeks ago, that fewer and fewer people have much of a grasp of the actual story that this night is about, or why for us it is the pivot on which the whole of human history turns.
But if you are in a church on Christmas Eve, and you are, then you absolutely expect you will hear this story again—the story of the Emperor sending out an edict, completely unaware and utterly indifferent to the drama befalling a desperate little family in the farthest reaches of the empire. And you expect to hear about the inn that is either unable or unwilling to take them in, despite their predicament; and about the food trough in the barn which ends up being the makeshift cradle; and about the stupefied shepherds.
All of that you rightly expect. And because I am your pastor and I love you I would, of course, never let you down.
But I would guess that unless you take notes on Christmas Eve, you may not notice that all of the readings we hear on this night are the same each year, each time we gather here on this night.
We always hear that chapter from the prophet Isaiah, which Isaiah kindly wrote to provide lyrics to Handel’s Messiah.
And we always hear this slim little slice of Paul’s letter to his gentile friend Titus, a fellow minister who had take on the job of pastoring one of the churches that Paul had started.
Now because I am your pastor, it’s that little bit of the letter from one pastor to another, that little moment of getting to read someone else’s mail, that are the words I look forward to hearing again on this night.
They were written a long time ago, but they were always meant to be words of encouragement. And because this night comes at the end of a season of preparation, and a month of planning for you, and a week of making sure we got all the details right, they come at a moment when encouragement is welcome, right as I am about to drop across the finish line.
The gospel story always tells us, in those words we so look forward to hearing again, what happened--—the Emperor, the family, the inn, the perilous birth, the manger, the shepherds. But these few words in the letter to that pastor of a little church, those words talk about what is actually the point of the story-—what it’s supposed to do for us, and how it does that.
What it does for us is, it gives us the greatest possible gift of all: The gift of the absolute assurance, the disappointments of this world notwithstanding, that there is a God, that God loves us in ways beyond our knowing, and that no matter how high we fly or how low we sink, God is in it with us.
And how all this happens for us—well, there is a clue to that in the Gospel story. Because the story starts with the most powerful person on the planet—the Emperor Augustus. But the most powerful person on the planet turns out to have little concern with the health and welfare of our souls. The story is not about the most powerful person, it is about the most vulnerable person-—a tiny baby, wrapped up against the cold, laying in a barn.
The strong person in the story couldn’t really help us much, because we don’t really have much in common with Emperors. We may think of ourselves as powerful, or assured, or in control. We may even think of ourselves as wealthy, or at least privileged, when you consider how unbelievably fortunate we are among all the people sharing the world with us on this night.
But when it comes right down to it, every one of us is vulnerable. Every one of us is frail. Every one of us could go in a dizzying instant from the comfort and joy of this holy night to the want, the fear, the terror that millions of our brothers and sisters are living in tonight—because of war, because of addiction, because of illness, because of the simple lottery of birth. All of us could. And some of us have.
We in this community have been reminded in the past year just how frail we are. We have been reminded how vulnerable our children can be. We have been reminded how frail these mortal bodies of ours turn out to be, no matter what. We have been reminded that the deal we get in the life God has given us, as William Coffin once preached, is minimum protection and maximum care.
We love that deal for the freedom it gives us, freedom that extends so far as to allow us to think that the story we come to hear again tonight doesn’t really matter to us anymore—that we’ve outgrown it.
But then the world turns out not to be under our control, and we are reminded of how vulnerable we can be; how easily we can lose the people we love; how much fear we really carry around deep inside us that we are usually pretty good at ignoring or denying.
And when that happens, it is that vulnerable baby in the manger, who grows up to become for all of us a fellow human living completely transparently to the possibility of a loving God—it is that vulnerable child who is the way this all ends up working out for us.
Because there is no place so dark, no mistake so terrible, no loss so profound, no pain so deep, that this tiny child has not already entered into with us, and stays with us throughout. We are never alone in our triumphs—and we are never abandoned in our despair.
It is not just some abstract idea that is born for us this night. It is not just some theory about the spiritual aspect of human nature.
When everything else is stripped away, what we hear again tonight is the assurance that despite the minimum protection, we do indeed get the maximum care.
We get it because the God who planted something holy in each one of our hearts comes to be with us right alongside us in this life.
We get it because we are offered this tender possibility—this invitation to find our place among people who have been made so alive by this hope, so certain that what is good and just and loving and holy ultimately wins out over all the Emperors in the end.
We get it because tonight we get invited to hang out, not with the kings, but with the shepherds—the people in the story who are so filled with hope that all of their suspicions, all of their disappointments, all of their embarrassment, all of their failures get left behind in the dust on the mountainside, when they come running to see their most cherished hopes vindicated. That is us. We are the shepherds, running toward that source of hope.
We get it because we are reminded on this night that there is joy—real, pure, holy, undiminished joy—that is born into our lives.
And we get the invitation to share in it, to make it our own, by being part of the happy, crazy band of people who can’t wait to share that hope with the rest of the world by doing the work God gives us now to do.
That is where the maximum care comes from—it comes to each one of us here from all of us here, all of us who come to hear this story again, all of us who hold onto this hope and kindle it in our own hearts all the year through even against winds of the world.
Those people of God who are so eager to do good deeds? To feed the hungry and visit the sick and help the poor and give hope in the midst of despair?
That is you. We know it, because you came running again tonight to see this glimpse of hope.
That is us. We know it, because that is just the work, and the ministry, and the service that this little church has always done, and is still doing.
So Merry Christmas, dear shepherds. Tonight the angels are telling us the joy is here again. Just for this moment let’s drop all our sorrows and all our disappointments, and let us go running to see it for ourselves. And then, when we have to leave, let us return rejoicing.