Monday, December 24, 2012

Sermon for Midnight Mass at All Saints & St Matthew's: Luke 2

"This was the moment when nothing happened.
Only dull peace sprawled boringly over the earth.
This was the moment when even energetic Romans
could find nothing better to do
than count heads in remote provinces.
And this was the moment when a few shepherds
and three members of an obscure Persian sect
walked haphazard by starlight straight into the kingdom of heaven." 
                                                                             BC:AD by U.A.Fanthorpe

The Christmas story never fails to surprise me!
Not the overall shape of it, of course.
I can't remember a time before I knew the narrative and I could probably recite every single one of the readings as presented by Kings College Cambridge well before my 10th birthday...but, if I pause to really engage with the text then there are always surprises in store.

This year as I read Luke's gospel once again it was the overwhelming irony of the situation that struck me.
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered”
They fancied themselves, those Roman much so, that some demanded to be worshipped as gods....and they had a hugely inflated idea of their own status and power.
Imagine – believing that everyone in the world could be recorded, tabulated, and filed neatly just on your say-so!
Even in these days of ID cards, offices for national statistics and the dreaded electronic surveillance we have no illusion that everyone is accounted for – even on our own small island.
We know, or guess, that there are tens of thousands of people whose existence may never be formally recorded, that the estimates of the earth's population remain just that – estimates...and though I'm sure the geeks would tell me of any number of systems that could keep track of everyone, everywhere, I'm relieved that thus far they've not begun operating. Or at least (paranoid glance over the shoulder) - not as far as I know...

Yet here is this 1st century ruler, issuing a decree from his Imperial Palace in Rome – that       ALL THE WORLD should be enrolled.
Of course, someone will say to me, he meant “All the KNOWN world”....which, for him, equated with the boundaries of the Roman Empire...Beyond its borders civilisation broke down in the outer darkness where the barbarians held sway.
But you see, that's the point.
It was all the KNOWN world that he set out to record...and as he did so, One crept unnoticed from outside the world, outside our confines of space and time, amid the chaotic diaspora of a people milling about, travelling from A to B to be registered.
As the crowds thronged the streets of Bethlehem – and presumably every other town and city in the Roman Empire, God himself crept into the world He loves so much, - long awaited but still unexpected and unaccounted when the moment came.

Nobody thought it would be like that.

Though angel choirs rejoiced after the birth, the moment itself had no discernible impact on the unthinking crowds. It's tempting to say it still doesn't. If you could have persuaded any of the stressed, frantic, last-minute shoppers to pause for an interview earlier today I suspect that none of them would have cited “the birth of God's Son” as the reason for their bulging trollies and overloaded credit-cards.

But still and all, at that moment when heaven touched earth, everything changed.

The known world, the world that Caesar thought that he ruled and controlled, was subverted by a ruler infinitely greater, wiser, kinder than we,or Caesar, could ever imagine.
One who chooses to exercise power by setting it aside, upturning everything we think we know of the ways of the world.
One whose love for his people is such that he shares everything with them – birth and childhood, the storms of adolescence and the final lonely journey of death.
One who again and again challenges our concept of the “known world” by showing us that we can live a different way.

We can – we must – learn from him,  to give for the sake of giving and to love for the sake of other motive than that of Love itself.

At the start of his mission to transform humanity, the Kingdom which Jesus embodies does not so much confront as defuse the power and might of Rome. It is not in the Imperial Palace, nor even at the census offices that the real action takes place tonight – but quietly, out the way, in the least likely corner...a place of poverty where the greatest riches are given freely, a place of exile where everyone can find their home.

At the end of his earthly ministry, in the small hours of Good Friday morning, Jesus will once again stand against powers and principalities as he tells Pilate
My Kingdom is not of this world”.

That's still the case – and we can choose our citizenship tonight and live it in all our tomorrows.

Two kingdoms, two ways to live...
The power of force and fear or the power of self-sacrifice and love
The power heard in an Emperor's command or in the cry of a newborn child.
Which do you choose?

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