Lifting Up the Lowly

Written by Pastor Dan Wilfrid. Posted in Sermons

Christmas Eve  12/24/17       Luke 2: 1-20
I’m going to start tonight’s sermon with an apology, a warning and a promise. The apology is to those who have come mostly for the carols and the candles and a simple story of peace and joy. The apology is for asking you to listen more carefully to a story you may think you already know, and to consider that it is perhaps not as simple as it first appears.

The warning then, is to everyone, and it’s a reminder that familiar and sweet as this Christmas story might be, it is still a Bible story, which makes it not JUST a story, but God’s living word for us, capable not only of revealing deep truth to us, but also of changing us and our world. Be warned that this story that we so easily assume is about a tiny, harmless, cuddly baby, is really about the power of the living God and how it works and gets revealed and is even today set loose in the world.

And the promise is to also be brief, to get to the point, and to end with an invitation to not only hear about this strange power of God, but to taste it, to receive it into your own person and life, and take it with you out into this holy night.

The first thing that I want you to think about then is the fact that even this Christmas story is a post-Easter story – a story that was first told and then written by people who had seen Jesus crucified and then, somehow, had come to believe that he was risen from the dead; which makes this is a story told by people who had seen the power of God, the way God works in this world, revealed in a crucified Messiah, and confirmed in an empty tomb.
They had seen (as the Apostle Paul would declare before any of the Gospels were written), that God’s power is made perfect in weakness, that God chooses to come and to work most powerfully in and through the least, the lost, the forgotten, the despised, the insignificant and unnoticed. As Martin Luther would later say, God comes into our lives and world wearing masks, hidden, easy to miss, in the guide of those who would seem to have no power at all.

And so when Luke set out to tell the story of where this crucified and risen Messiah had come from and began to shape this account of his birth, he didn’t just tell us that Jesus was born in the city of David where a Son of David Messiah should be born, but in every detail, he shows us that upside down power of God at work. We know, for example, that this story is about power and how it’s used because Luke starts by describing the power we understand all too well, the power of an Emperor to order people around.

Emperor Augustus, Luke tells us, wants a census. His power dominates the entire Mediterranean world, and he wants people counted, and the to-be-counted ones know that there are only a handful of reasons why the emperor would want to count them. It’s either because he wants to tax them or draft them into his army. And if you’re Jewish, as Mary and Joseph were, you’d have good reason to fear that the counting also has something to do with the Emporer’s worry that there may simply be too many of you and that your numbers should therefore be thinned.

Caesar Augustus and his census at the start of this story represent all brutes and their brute power, the people who have their hands on the levers of power, be it political or economic or religious and mostly steer them to benefit themselves at the expense of everyone else. Augustus represents a still common assumption about power, namely that it exists to get you whatever you want, and entitles you to grab and take whatever you want regardless of who gets hurt.

But then God gets into the act and God’s very different kind of power begins to show itself. Though Luke starts with Augustus and Quirinius (the Emporer’s representative in Palestine), his story is really not about those who do the counting, but about the counted ones – not about those who wield power to get what they want, but about those who are abused and oppressed by such power - namely Mary and Joseph – a couple of nobodies from Nazareth, who because they have neither money nor strings to pull, end up without a room and in a barn when Mary goes into labor.

And so while it appears that what always seems to happen in this world happens yet again here in Bethlehem – the powerful make the rules, give their orders and do their counting while people who have no power, no money, and no place to live get relocated and keep having babies  - what is really happening is that God is stirring up God’s strange, backwards power to turn the whole world upside down and make it new. God is coming down in human flesh to create a new world in which (as Mary sang) the mighty are cast down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up, in which the least become the greatest; the last, first; where the one who gives away the most wins, and the one who’s found something worth dying for is most fully alive.

In other words, the Messiah had come, the Messiah who would grow up to welcome the outcast, lift up the lame, count the no-accounts, call his followers to leave everything and follow him, only to see him then give himself away all the way to a cross.

At Christmas, God’s power made perfect in weakness had come, and was set loose in the world, and so this news gets announced by a choir of angels not to Augustus, but to shepherds, to people so low on the totem pole that not even a census stirs them to go anywhere. Shepherds, who simply shrugged and went back to work when Caesar spoke, now turn and run like the wind to see this thing that has happened in a backyard barnyard in Bethlehem.

And for them, the helpless baby they find sleeping in his poor mother’s arms while the cattle are lowing is, according to the angels,  a SIGN, a sign of what is to come, a sign of how God’s power works and gets revealed, and so the shepherds return rejoicing and Mary ponders these things in her heart, and we are prepared and our eyes are guided and ears attuned to this strange power of God, and to a Messiah who will lose his life on a cross in order to find the life that emerges from an empty tomb.

And now that, as promised, I’ve made fairly quick work of the story, and the connection between Christmas and Easter… here’s the thing: It’s still true. It’s still happening. It’s still how God works to change this world, to save this world, and to make all things new. Just as people did back in Bethlehem, you have to look carefully to find it – God still loves to wear masks -  but for those with eyes to see, God’s cross-shaped, backwards power is still at work making this world new.

Even at a time when a growing number of politicians and leaders here and around the world are being increasingly bold about wielding their presumed power to intimidate and bully and threaten the weak, and Hollywood moguls or media giants are exposed for using their status or power to coerce or abuse those they consider beneath them, we are learning that there are still among the seemingly powerless victims of such oppression and abuse those who are finding a new and different power by simply refusing to comply, or to stay silent, as well as others who are speaking up at great risk to themselves in order to stand together with those being abused.

Because whenever people begin to discover that there are far more nobodies in this world than somebodies,
and that the power of emptiness and of having nothing left to lose and something worth dying for is in itself great power indeed, even a power that is made perfect in weakness, we see at work God’s holy backward power, and how people still come together to make it manifest in their own flesh and blood. And when that happens, the real story of Christmas and Good Friday and Easter gets told again, and the world suddenly becomes a different place.

Today, we’re see it played out in politics and entertainment and in the news business, but it’s really about power, and what it is and how it works and how it’s used well or abused badly. But mostly for us on this night it’s about God’s power that was revealed in Jesus, power that’s made perfect in weakness, power that while it still stays mostly hidden in our world, still turns up in unexpected places and in the least likely people.

So that’s my Christmas sermon. God’s power is still made perfect in weakness. The mighty are still being cast down from their thrones and the lowly are still being lifted up. What happened in Bethlehem is still happening. It’s why we listen for God to speak powerfully in the quietest whisper. It’s why we gather like this week after week to be fed that holy power, and to receive Christ in a small scrap of bread and in a thimbleful of wine.

These things are all a sign for us, including the babe wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger – a sign of where to look (down instead of up for God), a sign of what’s to come (the mighty cast down and the lowly lifted up by God),  a sign of God’s future, where power is made perfect in weakness - a sign of Immanuel, God with us.

Christ, who will be for us the crucified and risen Messiah, is born.
Son of God.
Love’s pure light.
The dawn of redeeming grace.
Come, let us feast on him.
Come, let us adore him.
Christ the Lord.   AMEN