Christmas A 2010 12/24/10
The story begins with an act of government: In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Why does this Roman census begin the Christmas story? It is like a skunk that ambles down the aisle at an elegant wedding. We want to hear about angels, shepherds, wise men, and a baby in a manger. Instead, the story begins with this odd tale of government bureaucracy.
While it is a way to get Joseph and Mary from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem, the home of David’s clan, so the prophecies about the Messiah can be fulfilled, these is something more going on in the story about a government census. What was the purpose of the census? It was so the occupying Roman government could levy taxes against the Jews. What did the taxes support? The wealth of Rome, the outrageous lifestyle of Caesar, and, most egregious, the Roman army of occupation. These pagans were everywhere, eating unclean food, disrupting Jewish observance, and crucifying dissenters. Everywhere the Jews looked, the Roman army reminded them of how their once-proud nation had fallen into despair. Those who tried to avoid the census were liable to be hunted down and tortured. The journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem is their response to a hated order from an oppressive, conquering empire. They go to Bethlehem in a climate of terror.
Since the dawn of time, leaders have known that terror is one of the most effective ways to manipulate and control people. The advertising industry uses fear to sell: the beauty industry exploits our fear of aging and fear of exclusion from the company of the attractive to sell their wares. Color out that grey hair, cover up those wrinkles, look young and beautiful and attractive. The entertainment industry exploits our fear of boredom to convince us to watch must-see-TV (there’s the ultimate oxymoron!) or the latest movie.
But there are darker agents of terror. One is religion. It is oh-so-easy for those of us in religious leadership to use fear to manipulate people. When I was in my first year of college, I went one Monday night to a fundamentalist Bible study in a dorm room. The professional leader of that group was present that night, and came to see me a week later to try to get me to join that group. I thanked him and said I wanted to be in a Bible study, but his met on Monday nights, and that was the meeting night for the Boy Scout Troop I was working with. He insisted that Bible study was more important than Boy Scouts. I replied that the Boy Scouts had sent me around the world and had shaped me in important ways, and that some of the Scouts in the troop were also in the Junior High Sunday School class I was teaching and the youth group I was counseling. I felt that working with Scouts was an important thing for me to do. His parting shot as he left my room was ”Well, we’ll see how effective you’ve been when your Scouts rot in hell.” It’s pretty hard to argue with that kind of theology. There are legions of people who have been burned with that kind of Christianity – who have been told that if they don’t believe and act and do exactly this, they are damned. Most people I know are more interested in a faith to live by, not a faith to die by. Or, as an old preacher once told me, you can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar. But there’s no question that spiritual terror is an extremely effective tactic to control people.
We also live in a climate of political terror. Mind you, this is absolutely nothing new. Growing up in the 1950’s at the height of the Cold War, I believed that any moment the big air raid siren on the roof of my elementary school would go off, and a mushroom cloud would rise over Baltimore. John Kennedy was elected President in 1960 campaigning on the “missile gap” between the United States and the Soviet Union. There was, in fact, a nuclear missile gap between those nations, but not the way Kennedy portrayed it: the United States was substantially ahead of the Soviet Union, and the American missiles in Turkey aimed at Moscow were chief causes of Russia’s attempt to retaliate by putting missiles in Cuba in 1962. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended the fundamental legal right of habeus corpus in the name of national security, in 1798 President John Adams issued the Alien and Sedition Acts, which suspended freedom of speech and of the press. And in our own day, the “War on Terror” has been used to justify the suspension of habeus corpus, the establishment of secret prisons, the use of private mercenary armies, the use of torture, and governmental spying on citizens. It’s highly effective, and it’s nothing new: people in power have known for millennia that fear is a highly effective motivator.
So, when the angel appears to bewildered shepherds on the hillside above Bethlehem, the declaration Do not be afraid is about ever so much more than terror caused by heavenly beings appearing in the night sky. These are the same words the angel says, many years later, to the women bewildered by an empty tomb: Do not be afraid. In a world ruled by fears of every kind – physical fear, emotional fear, spiritual fear, economic fear, political fear – the angel says Do not be afraid: I have good news. Emmanuel – God is with us. God’s perfect love has come to cast out every fear, so we can live lives radiant with hope and justice and love.
Years ago I read a story about a Christian missionary who had been captured by government agents in a South American country, and imprisoned and tortured. The interviewer asked how the missionary had come to be released by the government. The missionary said one day, lying beaten and bloodied in his cell, praying about how he was going to endure the torture, he had a realization: all the prison guards could do was kill him. They could take his life, but they could not separate him from God. They could not kill his soul. And at that moment, the missionary said, everything changed: the guards had no power over him. The next time they took him to be tortured, they realized they no longer had power over him, and released him. He was of absolutely no use to them if he was not afraid of them.
Jean Shepherd’s classic tale, made into the movie A Christmas Story, tells of Ralphie Parker, who, besides wanting a Red Ryder 200-shot BB gun that will shoot his eye out, is terrorized by the neighborhood bully, Scut Farkas, and his minion, Grover Dill. Much of the movie involves Ralphie and his friends running away from Scut and Grover until one day Scut hits Raphie with a slush ball. Ralphie flies into a blind rage, and beats the living daylights out of Scut. When Ralphie loses his fear of Scut, everything in the neighborhood, the school, and the Parker household changes. Ralphie no longer lives in terror – at least, until the BB ricochets and hits him in the eye.
Do not be afraid: I have good news. That is the heart and soul of the Christmas story. The empire has no power over you. Sin has no power over you. Death has no power over you. All the armies of Rome, all the machinations of the priesthood, all the manipulations of the culture can not keep this baby out. If there is no room in the inn, God makes room in a barn. If kings and queens will not cooperate, God will use a peasant. If the chosen people will not come to worship, God will call pagan astrologers. If the neighbors will not heed, angels will appear to shepherds. In a world that continues to sell bad news after bad news after bad news, trusting that we will react in fear, the angel says, Do not be afraid: I have good news.
Maybe that’s why we keep coming back, year after year, to see if the baby is still in the manger. All the powers of the world are stacked against the baby and what he represents, but the baby wins. If that baby can win, then what in the world are we afraid of? We can say to all the principalities and powers that want us to live in constant terror, We are not afraid. Yes, we will age and we will die. Yes, there will be people who reject us. Yes, we will sin and fall short of the glory of God. But we are not afraid. There is good news down in the City of David tonight: God has come to be with us forever. That changes everything in life and in death and in life beyond death. We are not afraid. Thanks be to God.