The Power of Love
This whole December I have been looking at this “Jesus as baby” business. As my son Jeremy said, “we know he was not born in winter – the Christians simply appropriated an existing festival.” But then, he went on to say, “at the same time, there is good reason to have a major feast in the dead of winter, a feast of lights, a feast of hope, so why not celebrate Christmas now?” In fact, we know that most of the things in the Gospels around the birth of Jesus were written at least 60 years after his death, which means 90 years after his birth, which means no one was alive to confirm what the Gospel writer put down. Does it matter?
In good Episcopal fashion, I have to say, well, yes and no! Do we need to get hung up on the details? And by details, I mean things like the Virgin Birth, the manger, the shepherds, the wise guys, really, all the details. No, we do not need to get hung up on the details. Did they happen? Who knows? Here’s the better question: could they have happened? Of course! Except I can tell you for sure that you can have either winter or shepherds in fields, but not both. Shepherds stay overnight in the fields during the summer, not the winter.
Did I really say the Virgin Birth was optional? Well, yes, first of all, it’s a bad translation, going from Hebrew to Greek. A “young woman” should not be translated “virgin” especially when there is another word that means “virgin.” But fundamentally, it’s their way of saying this was very important. But! We do not need to take it literally to understand that this is THE important guy. Just to put this in perspective, Caesar Augustus, the same guy that was around before Jesus, was supposed to have had a virgin birth, and had all of the same titles that we are used to seeing about Jesus, King of kings, Lord of lords, Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, that whole list? That list was picked up, word for word, from Caesar.
So what does matter? Does anything matter? Why do we have these stories? If they are not “true” do we have to throw them all out? So let me answer these backwards. Do we have to throw the stories out? No, no we don’t. What we have to do is to recognize that they are stories that have something for us. They are important stories, stories for us to learn from. Are they facts? No! Are they important stories? Yes! Does it matter that they are not “facts”? No, because they are important stories. There is a lot of truth in them, without trying to make them factual. Equating “truth” with “fact” is a late invention.
So why do we have these stories? Because they do give us important information – and remember, information is not always the same as facts.
What do we see in these stories? We see angels – and we see people who paid attention to their messages, enough to change their lives. We see that Jesus was human, and he was human like you and me, not like someone living in a castle – and even people who live in castles are human. When I was young and said something to my father about how impressed I was by someone, I forget who it was now, my father’s dry response was, well yes, he has a lot of money. However, never, ever, forget, he puts his pants on the same as I do, one leg at a time. Jesus, son of God, put his pants on, the same as I do, one leg at a time. (Never mind that men in that part of the world didn’t and many still don’t wear pants!) What these stories with the shepherds tell us is that he was poor, born to poor parents who would soon be refugees in Egypt. We see that life was rough, I can’t imagine traveling on a donkey being 9 months pregnant!
When we compare that with Caesar, the comparison does not get any wider, and yet, we claim Jesus as Lord. Caesar was also called Lord, and was also considered fully divine, was also called Son of God. But what does that mean?
Fully divine. The Romans were practical people. They left philosophy to the Greeks. So they didn’t waste much time saying, “How can Caesar be fully human and fully divine?” They did it primarily with images. On every coin you have inscriptions of Caesar as divine. Here’s the deal: In the ancient world, there was a difference between being divine and being God. In the ancient world, being divine was a job description, meaning somebody who does something very important for the human race. So when that claim was made of Jesus, they were not claiming that he wasn’t human–they were quite aware in that world that he could be a human being–but they claimed it based on his having done something extraordinary for the human race. (See John Dominic Crossan’s e-article on Jesus and Caesar at beliefnet.com)
What does this have to do with Christmas? What we have with the Christmas story is a look back. The Gospel writers were looking back from after the resurrection. What they could see was that this human being had done something extraordinary for the human race, something divine. You know how when something extraordinary happens, you look back and then you can see the signs? We call it 20-20 hindsight. They could look back at John the Baptist, and say well, he was pretty amazing, but look, his mother was just like Samuel’s mother, having that baby late in life when everyone, including her, thought it was too late. So it’s not surprising that he turned out to be something special, he started out that way.
And that Jesus, never would have thought he would turn out to be much, but now that I think about it, he was always hanging around the synagogue when he was supposed to be working, and he sure liked to read. And questions! He always had questions that no one could answer. The rabbi would just look at him. We looked at each other, wondering how he could think about such things. We never did. His mom and dad didn’t amount to much back then, didn’t have two coins to their name, and weren’t they caught up in that Roman tax time, or was that another time, I don’t remember any more. I never heard what happened to his dad, probably some accident, but his mother, she was really something. That woman was made of steel. I heard things didn’t start out too well for her either. She spent some “time with her cousin,” if you know what I mean. We never said anything much about it, since Joseph went along with it, but, boy, makes you wonder.
You see how that goes? Then Luke comes along and gathers up all of these stories and makes some sense of them. He is writing for a community who is looking back at where they came from, at the stories that hold their values. And this is what I hope you hold as a take-away from my words.
Look to the values in these stories. God comes to the least, so we can trust that no matter how down we are, God will come to us. God comes without warning, like an earthquake, we have to be prepared. God will be found in the small places, in the rough places, if we will just look. Angels may come to us at the most unsuitable time, like at work, demanding that we leave what we are doing. And everywhere we look, there is love. Joseph loves Mary, they love this baby, the dirty, smelly shepherds are shown respect, much to their astonishment, and the astrologers, who were the scientists of their time, they come from a foreign country, to everyone else’s astonishment. But mostly it is God who shows love. That is the big value, that is our take-away. If we teach our children anything, we need to teach them love.
Jesus came so that we would really get how much God loves us. Jesus loved us, and said, that’s what we should do to and for each other. It won’t be easy, we will have to forgive, but that’s what this Lord is all about, the love. When you look at your life, what needs more love?
Perhaps it is yourself, perhaps your new practice will be stopping the negative self-talk. If God loves you, then who are you to put yourself down like that? Perhaps it is a co-worker or friend that needs more love, perhaps your new practice will be really listening, listening like you realize God listens to you. Perhaps it is the environment, perhaps your new practice will be changing something more demanding than new light bulbs. When you look at your life, what needs more love? This Christmas, I hope, above all, that you will feel the love. It is not that everything will suddenly be roses. No, feeling love is knowing that whatever happens, God is there with you, walking with you, holding you tightly when it hurts, being there, always. Thanks be to God!