I am hearing Luke’s Gospel with new ears this year. Listen and see if you hear it too.
“A decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be enrolled……”
I’m not sure I’ve ever focused on the result of decrees before.
I’m sure that I’ve preached about making room for the Christ child in your life, in your heart.
I’m sure that I’ve focused on Luke rooting the coming of Jesus in the particulars of history, of God coming into a world of particular kings and emperors, the powerful and the rich missing the events of Bethlehem in their palaces warm.
But for some reason this year I’m hearing the Christmas story differently, and the difference is not just in the disconnect of the rich and powerful from the events of Bethlehem, but it comes in the form of the decrees and the demands that are made, and the result of those decrees upon the people.
Here is the thing, when the powerful make demands and decrees, more often than not people suffer, and those who make their decrees don’t really care how others suffer so long as it accomplishes what they have in mind to do.
So, a decree goes out, a demand is made, and all are expected to comply.
Mary and Joseph are caught up in events that they cannot control and the Gospel writer Luke also gives us a glimpse into wider implications of decrees and demands made by the Emperor.
Bethlehem is a mess as a result of the Emperor’s decree.
“There was no place for them in the inn.” That’s not simply a comment that all the rooms are full in the Bethlehem Motel 6. Indeed, in a day before such things as inns and guest houses the provision for hospitality was something that was built into Middle Eastern culture, and in particularly those who followed Yahweh.
You were to care for the sojourner in your midst, for you had been one once. You were to provide for them. There is no other recourse. There are multiple stories in the bible of hospitality that is done right, and hospitality that is done wrong.
Abraham welcomes 3 strangers by the Oaks of Mamre, and in the process of extending hospitality discovers that he is playing host to God himself, who confers on he and Sarah the long awaited blessing of a son. Hospitality done right!
Since Joseph is going to his ancestral home, it is very likely that it will be distant relatives with whom he will be expecting to stay at a family home. But because of the decree, there isn’t even a decent place left on Joseph’s own family property, nothing left but a corner by the feed trough!
Hear this for what it is meant to be!
Because of the Decree of the Emperor, we can’t live the way we are accustomed to living!
Because of a decree by the Emperor, we can’t live the way the God of our Ancestors taught us to live, commanded us to live by caring for the traveler.
God had instructed God’s people to be open to the sojourner. Hospitality is supposed to be extended, was expected and could be counted upon. But, because of the decrees of Emperors, Bethlehem is overwhelmed with visitors, (refugees really) and so the people can’t do what is in their very nature to do!
The decrees of the Emperor compel us to close our hearts and shut our doors to those in need, and that threatens to take away from us who we are as God’s people.
The people of Judea are afraid of what might happen to them if they don’t comply with the Emperor’s decree, and so they uproot and go where they are commanded.
Joseph and Mary are afraid to refuse the Emperor’s decree even though it is so near her time to deliver.
Bethlehem is overrun beyond its capacity.
Everyone in this story is caught up in the fear of the decrees of the rich and the powerful who demand the census to impose their taxes. In the end the decrees of the Emperor turn even extended families one against another in a competition for limited space. “No room in the inn.”
So Joseph and Mary, and really the whole of Bethlehem suffer because of an Emperor’s decree.
But the Emperor’s decree is not the only decree being issued in Luke’s Gospel.
An Angel of the Lord appears, with a decree from God. But this is a decree that begins not with an accounting of scarce resources, but with a different kind of decree. “Do not be Afraid….”
I’ve always read that as something that the Angel has to say because, well, you know, an Angel of the Lord isn’t something you see every day, and mortals confronted with the infinite are supposed to be afraid of the heavenly vision.
But this year I’m reading it as God’s Word spoken into the midst of a people who are afraid because of decrees and demands.
“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
And what is the sign of this good news?
It is the same one that came about as the result of the Emperor’s decree! A child is wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger!
Yes, there is room! Room in a manger. Room for the stranger. Room for the sojourner.
The birth of Jesus is a shot across the bow to the rulers of this world who want to peddle in fear with their decrees. The Emperor’s decree made it look like there would be no room for us to do what our God commands of us, to extend hospitality; but we found a place!
Hospitality is not dead! Fear of scarcity does not win!
Further confirmation of this comes in the way of the Shepherds, who feel quite at ease leaving their flocks in the field at the Angel’s decree to go and see “this thing.”
I’ve always read that as referring to the birth, but babies aren’t exactly “things.” “The thing” is the act done here. The thing is the birth yes, but it is also the defiant making of room for the stranger when it appears there should be none!
This is the sign that makes Angels sing “Glory to God.”
The decrees of the Emperor cannot wipe out the capacity to extend hospitality. A place is found for the child, and in doing so, like Abraham, we discover that we are extending hospitality to God himself, welcoming him to our world.
This is the good news of great joy that I long for this Christmas.
We’re hearing a lot of “decrees” from the rich and powerful in the political arena these days.
We’re being told who to trust, who to reject, who should go where, who should not be let in, and what we should or should not do or care about.
Such is the way of Emperors, they will issue their decrees and bluster and sputter and try to trade in fear. They do so knowing that fear will for a time make you do as you are told.
But you cannot live in fear. God knows this.
And so in this story the decree of God comes out loud and clear, first and foremost.
“Do Not Be Afraid.”
It is from that decree that all other action flows.
Refusing to give in to fear, a space is found in the manger.
Refusing to give in to fear of losing your sheep makes the journey to see what God is doing possible.
Refusing to give in to fear makes shepherds sing praises to God, and causes a mother, maybe all mothers, to ponder things in her heart.
The babe born in a manger presses back against the decrees of the rulers of this world, not with force, but with love and the reminder of who you were called to be as the people of God in the first place.
When room is made for the Christ Child, even in the most humble of places and beginnings; the decrees of Emperors and the fears they want you to relent to are pressed back and overturned.
We will be a people of hospitality, if only in this little way, and from this little beginning will come the Prince of Peace who will roll back all the fears that worldly rulers try to use to keep us captive.
“A decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled…” The ruler of this world wants us to count and take tally and encourage an understanding of scarcity.
Fear that there is not enough to go around.
Fear that there is no room.
Fear your neighbor.
Fear the stranger.
But a stronger decree goes out from the Angel at God’s command. “Do not be afraid.”
This is the decree that does not bring suffering.
This is the decree that starts the pushing back of the darkness, the decree that opens the way to everlasting life.
So, on this Christmas, of all the decrees and voices to listen to out there, let this be the one that finds a place in your heart.
“Do not be afraid….”