The story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Luke is deceptive in its simplicity.
Too familiar with the words, we hardly hear them as we are led seamlessly from one scene to the next. Yet woven into the story are three distinct worlds, each of which is described in the narrative by its own space, people, and purpose. These worlds bump up against each other in ways that reveal unanticipated tensions in a story said to deliver news of great joy for all people.
The first world that we encounter is the world of political power. This world is not nameless and faceless. Its presence is constituted in the story by the person of the Emperor Augustus and his governor, Quirinius, who is charged with registering the inhabitants of Syria. From a literary perspective, whether or not the census took place historically at this time is immaterial. More important is the effect of the census within the narrative world of the text. It transports Joseph and his soon-to-be wife from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the birthplace of David. Although Luke does not mention, as Matthew does, that Bethlehem is the place from which one will come forth who is to rule Israel (Micah 5:2; Matthew 2:6), the destination “Bethlehem” evokes echoes of this other ruler. The echo will reverberate loudly when, later, the angel announces to the shepherds that it is in the city of David that a “Savior” has been born (Luke 2:11). In the Roman world, another who was also called “Savior of the World” was the Emperor Augustus. The wheels set in motion by this “Savior” through the census bump up against another world of which he is wholly unaware, yet which challenges his authority with the question: “Who is the savior of the world?”
Mary and Joseph inhabit a world that is separate from, but nonetheless affected by, the world of political power. For them this political world exists in the form of an imperial decree that sends them to Bethlehem to be counted for the purposes of taxation. As a result of this decree they are far from their family and friends when Mary gives birth. There is no one in Bethlehem to welcome them or take them in, so they find refuge where animals are kept. Perhaps they are bolstered by the confidence expressed in Mary’s magnificent song, which she sings to her cousin Elizabeth. Mary and Joseph are, at least, together. If Mary had a difficult birth we don’t hear about it. The child is delivered, swaddled, and placed in a bed of straw. While Rome is busy counting heads, the birth of Mary and Joseph’s much anticipated child takes place quietly and out of sight — in the last place Rome would be likely to look. This is the world Mary and Joseph inhabit: a world centered around the child whose birth was announced to them by an angel, whose identity they do not fully comprehend, yet whose coming fills them with confidence in a God who scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts (Luke 1:51).
The third world is that inhabited by the shepherds (more shades of David whose prowess with a slingshot enables him to topple a man in armor). They reside in the hills around Bethlehem with their sheep, where they must watch over them during the night to protect them from all manner of harm. As far as we know, the shepherds are not thinking about the emperor in Rome, and they are certainly not thinking about Mary and Joseph and their newborn child. However, their world is about to collide with both of these other worlds. The peacefulness of their night watch is shattered when an angel of the Lord appears to them with a message of great joy for all people: A Savior, God’s anointed, has been born in the city of David. This messenger from heaven is suddenly joined by a host of angels who, like Mary before them, sing praise to God and declare: on earth, peace among those whom God favors. This last statement should give us pause. How do we reconcile a message “of great for all people” with a peace that resides only among those whom God favors? Exactly who are those whom God favors? Seemingly shepherds. And, surely, Mary and Joseph. But perhaps not Augustus, or the proud whose ambitions will be brought to naught.
So much for simplicity. The seamless story of Jesus’ birth told in the Gospel of Luke turns not to be simple at all. It is a story that raises questions not necessarily easy to answer as we negotiate our day-to-day lives: Who is the savior of the world? Does it depend on the circumstances of the particular world we inhabit? Or does it vary, as we move perhaps too easily between one world and another? And with whom does God find favor? How do we know? There are hints, of course, as the story unfolds. A rich man languishes in Hades while a poor man rests in the bosom of Abraham (Luke 16:19-31). A woman of the city puts to shame a respected Pharisee through her generous, if embarrassing, act of hospitality (Luke 7:36-50). A hated tax collector will restore to those he has fleeced what he has over-collected and pocketed (Luke 19:1-10). Yet these are not simple stories either. They are stories where worlds are shaken up and expected endings are turned wrong-side out. They leave us feeling slightly uncomfortable and perhaps just a little uncertain of where our place in the story might be — just as Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus should do.
Loving God, you sent your only son, Jesus, into the world, so that all might know of your love. Remind us daily that we are your precious children, too. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
O come, all ye faithful ELW 283, H82 83, UMH 234, NCH 135 Silent night, holy night ELW 281, H82 111, UMH 239, NCH 134 Away in a manger ELW 277, 278, H82 101, UMH 217, NCH 124
What sweeter music, Michael Fink