A Community of the Desperate
"It was the most fun that I have ever had in ministry. We were a community of the desperate." Those were the initial words that rolled off of the tongue of church planter and pastor Eric while he was recalling fondly the early years of a church that he and his wife Kim founded in Maine back in the 1990s. Eric and Kim were in their mid-twenties and fresh out of seminary. They moved to Bangor, Maine to establish a new congregation without knowing a single person in the city. They worked feverishly to make contacts and foster relationships with all whom they encountered. To this day, Eric and Kim remain awestruck and joyful in their description of the persons who first expressed interest in this fledgling church. They did not attract the movers and shakers nor did they reach the beautiful and the self-assured. Instead, the core members of this congregation consisted of recent transplants to the area, several persons struggling with addictions, some ex-convicts, and many who for a variety of reasons were simply struggling to make their way through the world. What did these persons have in common? To put it simply: They were desperate for the very things that the Gospel alone can truly deliver - they were desperate for God. Moreover they were precisely the types of persons whom Jesus himself impacted powerfully during his earthly ministry. Jesus' earthly life models the creation of a community of the desperate -- persons hungry and desperate for God whom God can then transform and deploy back into the world to love and serve others. Luke's birth narrative provides for us the earliest hints that this will in fact be the focus of Jesus' ministry and should be the focus of our own lives as followers of Jesus.
Our Scripture lesson on this Holy Day (Luke 2:1–20) is so familiar that it is easy to miss its subtle and subversive message. The text recounts the Christmas story of a census, the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, Jesus' birth in a manger, and the arrival of angels and shepherds to celebrate the event. Yet, it is in these well-known details that we find the true power of the story. For in them, we discover God's intentions to create a community of the desperate through whom God will reach out in love to the world.
Let's hear Luke's words again:
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
A Tale of Two Cities
Luke skillfully opens his report of Jesus' birth by setting it in a specific time and space. The reference to Caesar Augustus serves as much more than a chronological marker. Rather it sets up a conflict between two kings and two kingdoms. Augustus was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of all Emperors who ever reigned over Rome. Caesar bore all of the rights and prerogatives of power and influence. His reach extended even to the small and insignificant province of Judea. There our Scripture lesson opens with a trip by Joseph and Mary from the town of Nazareth to their ancestral city of Bethlehem in order to register according to a decree from Augustus.
While in Bethlehem, Mary goes into labor and gives birth in a manger because there was no room in the inn. A king is born that night in Bethlehem, but this King will lay aside all of the trappings of power and live his life armed only with faith, hope, and love. Furthermore, Jesus' humble birth in a manger emphasizes God's care for the lowly. The King of kings and Lord of lords is not born into wealth or power; he was not found in Rome; but rather he lay asleep in a manger. What kind of king is this? If Jesus were born today, where would we find him?
A Surprising Announcement
The scene shifts to the regions around Bethlehem in which shepherds were out with their flocks (verse 8). Perhaps these were the same areas once patrolled by Israel's first shepherd-King, David. Shepherds in Jesus' day were not numbered among the rich or powerful. They were peasants at the bottom of the status ladder. Yet, these were the persons to whom Jesus' birth is first announced. God did not come looking for the proud, the important, or the powerful; he came to those in need. Jesus came to those desperate for the sort of life that comes only by living for God. Jesus came looking for those desiring a better life, a life lived for a value greater than their own good.
The shepherds were terrified at the appearance of an angel (verse 9), but their terror soon turned to awe, wonder, and joy at the announcement. The angel tells the shepherds to be full of joy because of the good news of Jesus' birth. Moreover, note that verse 10 declares that the birth of Jesus will be a source of joy "for all the people." Jesus' birth and the salvation that he will bring has the potential to reach and touch everyone!
What does the angel announce? In verse 11, Gabriel declares the place of the birth to be "the city of David." The angel also gives titles to the child: Savior, Messiah, and Lord.
"Savior" was a title worn by the Roman Emperor, but Luke boldly declares the Jesus is the savior. What an audacious and surprising claim! In this distant corner of Roman influence is born one much greater than even Caesar Augustus. Yet, he does not bear the trappings of his rank – the baby Jesus identifies with the weak and lowly.
"Messiah" implies that Jesus is Israel's long awaited Davidic King and deliverer. "Lord" is the title used typically of God. By declaring Jesus as "Lord", the angel is saying that Jesus is the one in whom God is working to bring forth salvation. In verse 12, the shepherds receive a sign. This sign coincides with the description of Jesus' birth earlier in the passage.
Verses 13-14 describe the worship and celebration of "a multitude of the heavenly host." Worship is the proper response to the miraculous work of God. Verse 14 contains the familiar words of the angels. Note carefully however that modern translations such as NRSV or NJB differs from the old King James' "...and on earth peace, good will toward men." The NRSV correctly translates the best Greek manuscripts “on earth peace among those whom he favors.” These words carry a powerful message. They proclaim worship and glory to "God in the highest heaven." God is worthy of honor and acclamation for his work. Additionally, on account of the arrival of Jesus, "peace" is available for humanity, those most in need of God. This peace of God refers to God’s desire for justice, restoration, hope, and wholeness. Think about who received this message: lowly shepherds out in the field. Yet, these were precisely the persons whom Jesus came to save.
Whom does God favor? The contrast between the powerful and lowly continues here. The announcement of the birth of Jesus by the angels does not occur in the presence of the Roman power brokers, business tycoons, or other influential elites. The announcement of Jesus' birth came to the community of the desperate. But God’s work does not stop with a mere announcement. The announcement becomes a mission.
A Mission to Live
How do the shepherds respond to the birth announcement and the worship of the angels? An experience of God’s grace is never an end in itself. If it is authentically from God, it will always push us outside of ourselves and point to others. The lowly shepherds become this new king’s first ambassadors.
The shepherds head directly for Bethlehem to see things for themselves. The authentication of the events with their own eyes causes them to proclaim the words of the angels to those who are present (verse 17). This leads to amazement by "all who heard it" (verse 18). Perhaps the "all" refers to those staying in the actual inn that night. Mary, who already knows the truth about Jesus (1:1-76), simply reflects on the wondrous events around the birth of her son, Jesus (verse 19). The shepherds then return to their flocks worshiping and praising God (verse 20). The actions of the shepherds are significant. They receive the good news about Jesus, and they are transformed from lowly shepherds to heralds and ambassadors of God's good news. This is the call to all of us who know and believe the story of Jesus. We who have experience outpourings of grace must become witnesses to the world of this fact.
A core value of Christianity is hope. Too often we make hope a mere insider value. In other words, Christians have hope because we put our trust in God. This is certainly true but it is not radical enough. Hope is also to serve as a value offered to outsiders. Christians are to be known to the world not simply as persons of hope, but more profoundly as persons who inspire others, especially those outside the Christian community, to have hope as well. This is the true witness of Jesus' birth - that a community of the desperate becomes the source of hope for the world.
© 2016 Brian D. Russell