“Decrees and Demands” Luke 2:1-20

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….”

“Blue Christmas” 2015

Kansas pictures 066John 1:1-17 “God Moved Into the Neighborhood.”

It is “longest night,” and we can feel it.   By 4:30 now on a cloudy day the lamps are lit in our house to push back the encroaching darkness.

Of course, there really isn’t anything unusual about us turning on the lights in this house at any time of day.  This is by far the darkest house we’ve ever lived in; darker even than the garden level apartment we started out in; and it’s a little hard to figure out why.

It really shouldn’t be that dark.

We have southern exposure windows in this house, a big bay one in fact.

You would think it would be light and airy, but there is something about the neighborhood.

It is wooded around our house, and there is just something about the way our neighbor’s trees obscure the light, or maybe the position of the house on the lot, or the placement of windows.

It’s a house with a central hallway where no windows reach, and so that contributes to it I’m sure, and the way the walls are positioned, and some color choices for the walls, a darker tone, and a large brick fireplace.  I know the way light works from years in the theater, so I can tell you why a space might feel dark.

Still knowing all of that, I can’t quite tell what makes this house seem dark all the time.  And so, we find it necessary to click on a light no matter what time of day it is.

We move room to room, clicking on lights and clicking them off again.  Light follows us, or precedes us depending on the click of the switch.

In the basement despite the windows we have down there, I have even installed motion sensor lights so that when we make our way to or from the garage at any time of day, lights will come on in sequence at just the right point to keep us from stubbing our toes on boxes and items stored.

John’s Gospel has made me muse about my house.   “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  John confidently proclaims.

But sometimes, there is a bigger tussle going on than we like to admit.

The darkness in this world seeps and creeps in upon us, and like my little house we’re not always sure just why.

Oh, there are to be sure big things that happen that threaten and are dark reminders of the powers of sin at work in this world.

There is terror the threats.

There are those intent on disrupting a way of life that they see as despicable, and it’s not just our “freedom,”, but rather what we choose to do with it and how pervasive our influence has become around the world.

Just witness “Star Wars” right now, how the Hollywood Marketing and Madison Avenue publicity and marketing machine can make it seem as though there is really nothing else in the whole world happening right now besides the release of a movie.

Think about it, we can hold captive an entire world that has many important things to scream about, and divert all attention to the cuteness of BB-8!

Darkness seeps and creeps and finds it way in, and it isn’t always readily apparent why it is there.  Sometimes darkness seems to find its way into our lives to cast a pall that no flick of a light switch will chase away.

Despite John’s confident words about how the light shines.

Despite the efforts of carols and brightly colored lights to push it back.

Despite the Holly and the Jolly, darkness tends to settle in and seems to hang around for no apparent reason.

We do trust that the light shines.

We do trust and believe that the darkness cannot overcome it.

But that doesn’t change our general impression, or our mood, or simply the “feel” of things.

Like my house, no matter how many lights we turn on, it always seems just a little bit dark.

So John’s Gospel frustrates me a little.  If the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it, why does darkness persist?

Why do we continue to live in fear?

Why does grief still nag at us?

Why do I mope from room to room, flicking on light switches, thinking that I will see someone there who I know is no longer around?

Why can’t I push the darkness out?   Or, better yet, why doesn’t God do that!

John has some things to say about that, as it turns out.

9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.] 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.

Light, as it turns out, is a bit elusive.   Even the True Light, the Son of God was not recognized by everyone.

His own people did not accept him.

Darkness does not have the final say, of that John is confident, but it does seem to have extraordinary staying power.  It does hang around and linger.  It does put up a fight with the light.

And so, in this remarkable move in the Gospel, John tells us something else about this “light”, the “Word” that was coming into the world.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

The light doesn’t just shine in the darkness.

No, it takes up residence.   It “lives” or “dwells” among us.

Why does that make a difference?

Because that has something to say about the staying power and decision of God!   For you see, even in the midst of this darkness light has decided to stay.

God (in light and Word) has “moved into the neighborhood” as Eugene Peterson puts it in his translation of John’s Gospel.

Here’s the thing, my little house is always going to have an issue with darkness, it just is, for all those things I mentioned before, –the neighborhood, the way it’s built, the trees… those things aren’t changing.

But even knowing that, I can’t think of any place I’d rather live.

That’s the promise in the Gospel.  Even with the way human beings tend to linger in the darkness, there is no place that God would rather take up residence.

In Christmas, Jesus takes up residence in the midst of a dark and dangerous world, and says defiantly that even if you choose darkness, I still choose to live with you!

That is powerful witness of the love of God.

There is no darkness that God cannot overcome because God has staying power.   God takes up residence even where it is darkest, and stubbornly will not leave until with his love and grace God has pushed back the darkness that just seems to hang, pervade and threatens to never go away.

So on longest night, this is what we celebrate.  We celebrate the love of a God who chooses to “move into the neighborhood” of darkness with us. Our God chooses to enter a dark world, and will sit there for as long as it takes in order to pressing back against such darkness with God’s love and grace until that darkness gives way to the light and is no more.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.


“Hope Comes Unexpected” Luke 1:39-45

Hope often comes to us in unexpected ways, and the Gospel today lifts up two characters who discover hope by becoming “expectant” mothers!

Mary comes to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth to confirm that a conversation she had with an Angel was real and not just a figment of her imagination.  Mary is here to make sure she wasn’t just hallucinating in that episode where she was called a “favored one” by God’s messenger.

All Mary was looking for really was a probably a simple, little sign, some glimpse of Elizabeth to reassure herself that she wasn’t crazy, that the visit did happen and that it wasn’t just a dream.  If Elizabeth as a baby bump, that’s enough for her.

What she gets instead is quite an eye full and an ear full.

What Mary gets instead of a discrete visit to glimpse a “bump,” is the baby leaping in Elizabeth’s the womb at the sight of her.

What Mary gets instead of a little peek at Elizabeth to see if she’s pregnant, is a long song and prophetic words.

What Mary gets is a blessing beyond her expectations.

She may have only been looking for some little sign, but it seems that little signs aren’t in God’s plans for her.  God has big signs in mind!

Which prompts a question, what kind of sign are you looking for from God?   Has God been talking to you lately?  And if so, how would you verify that?

I doubt very much that you have received any angelic visitors but that does not mean that God has not been talking to you!

That does not mean that God hasn’t been making promises to you.

But here is the problem with most of God’s promises.   They are by nature long range and they tend to come to us at unexpected times.

God, you see, is interested in your whole life.

God is interested in giving you life that is everlasting.

God makes promises that take you from the cradle to the grave and beyond.

So when God talks to you, God is usually talking about your whole life, not just a moment, or a quick errand that God has in mind for you to do.

That is often our point of confusion with God.

What Mary and Elizabeth remind us of today is that the coming of God into your life is a life altering experience for the long haul.

Oh Joy!  Elizabeth is no longer barren!  She will bear a son and name him John!

We focus on the moment of announcement and tend to forget what this means for her life.  She can now look forward to messy diapers, middle of the night feedings, worrying and fretting over a child as he grows.  She will have to nurture and care for him, launch him out of the house and then endure the vocational choice of him becoming a the “voice in the wilderness.”  I mean, really can you imagine what the neighbors must have said about John?  “The boy showed such potential.   Now look at him; he’s out there in the desert wearing camel’s hair and eating wild locusts and honey.   Where did Elizabeth and Zechariah go wrong?”

Oh Joy!  Mary is to bear the Savior!  Blessed are you among women!  We focus on the event of announcement and birth and tend to forget everything else.   We forget that this means that for the next 20 years she’ll be parenting, and she isn’t even married!

There will be an awkward conversation she’ll have to have with Joseph.

There will be the panicked journey back from Jerusalem when the child goes missing.

There will be the times once he begins his ministry where Jesus will begin to do crazy things, and a mother will worry.   Even go out to try to convince him to dial it back a bit, only to hear him denounce her and choose his followers over her.

There will be the exchange at the foot of the cross, where as you watch your own child die in brutal agony you are led away, with the memory of Simeon’s words burning, taking on meaning at last, “and a sword shall pierce your soul also…”

We look at these stories without fully realizing what is about to happen after “the moment.”   Lives will be altered here, changed forever because of the way God has stepped into this world and acted in the lives of ordinary people, all so that promises made long ago might be fulfilled.

So it is that when we look for a sign, or a direction from God, we expect it to happen as if it were to just be a “magical moment.”   We say to ourselves, “When something like this happens, I’ll know what God wants me to do!”

But that isn’t quite the way it works.

Oh, Mary and Elizabeth have a “magic moment” but it leads them directly into a life long journey.  It pulls them into a journey that is filled with fears, wonderings, and questionings, as would be any parent’s journey.   It pulls them into a world where outcomes are not guaranteed, nor is perfect clarity about what to do and when to do it always there.

We rarely think about it, but when God steps in and alters a life with God’s presence and call, not every moment from that time forward is one of complete clarity and unwavering direction.

In a moment things may be changed.   But it will take a lifetime to fulfill what begins in that moment, and sometimes a lifetime of living into God’s presence in your life to see what this means for you, what you will have to do for God’s sake, and in God’s name.

So, what is it that you have had on your heart lately?

What is it that has been pulling at you?

Have you been wondering if this is all there is to life?  Have you been wondering what God wants you to do?   What purpose your life is meant to fulfill in this world?   Is this what my whole life has been preparing me for?

That’s how God talks to us today.

God speaks not so much now in angelic messengers as in the call to discipleship; the call to be and to do what being a follower of Jesus pulls upon you to do.

It’s a long range promise!

But that also means you share something in common with Mary.  She gets an angelic visitor who tells her that she’ll have to wait 9 months to see the fulfillment of what was spoken to her.

How long will you have to wait to see the fulfillment of God’s promise and call upon you?

This is what we share with Mary.  We too, are the recipients of promises that are so long range sometimes that we aren’t quite sure how they will turn out, and so we have to live into them.

If we share that “wondering” that Mary had, then maybe what we also share with Mary is the curiosity.

What Mary does is to go and check out the Angel’s story.   She has to go to Elizabeth for that, and there she gets her ear full and eye full and the blessing beyond expectation.

Where would we have to go to check out God’s story for us, to satisfy our curiosity?  Where would you have to go to get some confirmation of God’s plan and purpose for your life?

Well, it would be right here.

Right here in worship.

Right here in the reading of scripture.

Here we get an eye full and an ear full.

Here you get a long song or two about what God is doing in this world, and what God intends to do through you.

Here you get a blessing beyond expectation as you are reminded once again of how God invites you to his table, into his very presence.

Here you are reminded of how God forgives you, renews you, and commissions you to tell others of this grace that you have found!

Here you get an insight into what God wants this world to be like, a “foretaste of the feast to come” and more than a little hint of what part you could play in that.

It’s more than you were looking for, I’ll bet.

Like Mary, you probably just wanted a little sign.  Just let me slip into church and listen a little bit.  Just let me sit in the back and hear whether or not God is still around.  I just want a little reminder, and then I’ll go back home and be about my own business.

But little signs aren’t in God’s plan.   God is into big signs, and life-long tasks for those to whom he gives his promises. You can’t slink in to church and slink back home any more than Mary could just go home after the angel’s visit and seeing Elizabeth.  She now believes, and she will have to deal with the fulfillment of the promise given to her.

In 9 months she will have to endure the pain and trauma of childbirth because God has taken notice of her.

She will bear the Son of God, a sign set for the rise and fall of many, and a sword that will pierce her own heart as well as she watches him grow, and leave her, and find his pathway.

You may not have received any angelic visitors, but your presence here means that God has taken notice of you.

God has plans for you, plans for the part you will play in the redemption of this world.

God has plans to use your gifts and talents to make a difference in the lives of others.

God has plans to let your life be a light that shines for others, that they may see your good works and give glory to the Father in Heaven who has considered you and called you his own dear child.

There will be no slinking in and slinking back out in life!

If you are here, you will get an ear full and an eye full and a blessing beyond your wildest expectations!

That is what God intends.

If the news that God has something in mind for you comes to you unexpected this day, then so much the better.

That is the way hope always comes, unexpected!