December 24, 2021; Christmas Eve Sermon Preached by The Rev. Carolyn H. Eklund
Year C; Christmas Eve; 12.24.2021
I greet you this night with Christmas joy, blessings and good health! Merry Christmas!
Many of you know that this fall during my sabbatical, I went on a sixteen-day pilgrimage of Turkey and Greece to follow the footsteps of our patron, Paul and of St. John. Each day, we visited several archaeological sites that were being excavated. Most were in active excavation. Some had halted because, for example, unknowingly, the modern-day apartment complex next to the ruins of the basilica of St. John in ancient Philadelphia in Turkey, had been built on top of the site. Some communities had been located, like Paul’s community of Colossae, but were still buried under centuries of silt and growth.
The day we visited Ephesus in Turkey, we arrived at the very earliest hour in order to visit the entire place. Both Paul and John spent much time in this community. Our first stop was the forum, the public open-air space where people gathered, played games and gave speeches. The forum was also the site of official government buildings. We saw only vague outlines of those buildings.
Down the great center road into Ephesus, we learned about the important engineering that brought spring water to the city from the hills above. We saw the hospital, the public latrines and the location of the “red light district” where seafarers and city dwellers could pay for pleasure. We climbed up into the newly excavated homes above the main road, and we walked down to the grand library, the centerpiece of the archaeological site.
There was a path to the great theater where a large crane was used to pick up and move the largest pieces of marble into the reconstruction puzzle. All along the path, there were small pieces of marble, rubble, really. Honestly, by the time we got to Ephesus after having visited the sites of the seven churches of St. John’s Revelation, Troy and Hieropolis, I was overwhelmed by the rubble. But I still took pictures of it!
In Ephesus, one of the pilgrims in our group reached down to pick up a piece of 2” square marble and said, “I wonder if I can take this home.” I said, maybe a little too cynically, “Honestly, it’s one less piece to catalog. They might be relieved not to have to deal with it.”
As inspired and transformed as I was to be at the exact sites of Paul’s communities on that tour and to re-read his letters, the truth of those sites revealed the transitory existence of the empires, the power structures, the grand buildings, stadiums, basilicas, city centers, palaces, fine clothes and jewelry – even graves have been excavated and items have been moved to archaeological museums.
What I loved the most about my pilgrimage was to be set in the ancient geographical communities that were founded by Paul and John, and at the same time, read their passages of Scripture that are alive to this day. Their legacy all these centuries later is the truth of God’s love for us.
And then there are the Caesars; the powerful who make decrees, edicts for a census. THEIR legacy is rubble and at best make for very interesting archaeological sites and history. They teach us that empires rise and empires fall. And people of faith know that God is with us through it all. God’s love never, ever becomes rubble.
The story of Jesus’ birth in Luke’s Gospel sets the stage in Roman power. Caesar-Augustus-power. Roman-Senate-power. Governor-Quirinius-power. In the first sentence of this very familiar Christmas passage, as we worry about the holy couple not being able to find housing and worry about the birth of the infant Jesus, we soon forget that all this was happening because of a powerful “edict” for a “world-wide” census issued by Caesar and the Roman Senate, as if they said, “Let’s get a count of all the people and track their lineage…because we can! We are powerful!”
Luke writes, “In those days a decree, [an edict] went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Talk about hubris! “All the world!” “And the governor of Syria, Quirinius, will help us!” He was given power over Roman provinces in the far reaches like Judea and Galilee.
Scholars have studied and studied whether or not this edict was historical or true. For us, tonight, what is important is that two powerful names of empire are mentioned in the birth narrative. They are set against the humble birth of God’s Son. Three chapters later, more powerful names of empire set the stage for John the Baptist’s and Jesus’s adult entrances into their missions.
In her Advent essay on this passage in chapter 3 of Luke’s gospel, Debie Thomas deals with the seven, count them, SEVEN names of power Luke lists in order to give context to the missions of John the Baptist and Jesus some thirty years later.
Count them with me: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, John heard God’s words in the wilderness.”
Debie Thomas writes, “That’s seven centers of authority, both political and religious…but God’s word doesn’t come to any of them. The story of the Incarnation begins elsewhere. It begins in obscurity, off the beaten path, appallingly far away from the halls of dominion and might.”
The story of the Incarnation, God With Us, knows that empires rise and fall. No one tonight is singing joyfully for Augustus or Tiberius. They fell with the rubble of their power and mighty structures. “…the folks who wield power don’t hear God, but the outsider from the wilderness does.” The “outsiders”, “shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” The “outsiders” as promised in the Magnificat, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly…”
The “lowly” respond tonight with joy and run “with haste” to Bethlehem to see this thing…that the Lord has made known to us.” The shepherds whose home is their fields, who have no standing in the power structures, THEY hear God. They rejoice.
I wonder, who are the “shepherds” of our time? Who is God reaching tonight with the Good News? Who needs the word of God’s love tonight? Two exhausting years into a pandemic, and frequent surges, front line workers, those who are working endless hours to heal, to keep communities safe, to grieve with families, to bury the dead. The bereaved, parents of young children and teachers. Those who are fleeing from unsafe “empires.” Those who are just very weary. God’s love is for them. It is never rubble.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us of the transitory nature of the world and the eternal love God has for us. In his “Letters from Prison,” he writes, “You live in the world. God has placed you in it, and in it you are to do the will of God in the midst of a transitory life. Enjoy whatever you can enjoy, but don’t lose heart to the world. Your heart belongs to eternity. Your heart belongs to God.”
Merry Christmas, dear ones for indeed, your heart belongs to God.