, Isaiah 52:7-10
; Luke 2:1-20
; Psalm 97:1, 6-9
We all live according to a script; a script that tells us how to live, how to speak, what’s important and who to trust. This script we learn from our parents, our peers, and from our culture. In our world, in our culture there is a big script, which governs and dominants how we act. This script is highly dependent upon technology: technology has become part of the very fabric of our life, that is, we would struggle to live without it. Likewise, this script exists through shopping – we are encouraged to buy, consume, acquire and purchase everything and anything. Our culture has rejected the 10 Commandments and replaced it with Tesco ergo sum
(I shop, therefore I am). Happiness is found through consumption. Another aspect of this script is the overwhelming desire to find well-being – we’ll try anything to be happy, especially if it promises a quick-fix. A final aspect of this governing script is our reliance on military might to provide us with power and security – in our post-9/11 climate our economic stability and our domestic safety is dependent on the intelligence services and our show of military muscle. This is perhaps most explicit in the United States, where we witnessed presidential elections on the very issue of which candidate could be trusted more to keep America safe. 9/11 is the key date in this dominant script, it is the day the world changed and the point at which the script we’ve described became even more entrenched as the screenplay of life.
The story of Christmas is written from a different script. It reveals a different way of telling the world’s story
. The Christmas story says there is one Lord and it is not Caesar, it is not Herod, it is not Bush, or Blair or the god of consumerism. The Christmas story says there is only one who should be worshipped, and it is not Caesar, or Herod, or the god of celebrity. The Lord who is worshipped is Jesus.
The story of Christmas is part of a much larger story – a script with a long prologue or back-story, that reaches back through the names of kings – good and bad – men and women, to the beginning of Israel and the story of Abraham. The opening to Matthew’s gospel has this long list of names, to say: hey, the script we’ve all been a part of, is reaching its climax, the point in the story we’ve all been waiting for has arrived, the king we’ve all been waiting for has arrived. The story of Christmas is the story of the king’s arrival. This is the first thing we must recognise – God’s script – his big story – has been playing for a lot longer than the militarist-consumerist one that surrounds us. Which story do you trust more?
The story of Christmas tells the story of the King coming to rule, the arrival of the promised Lord, who will govern with justice and mercy, not the iron rod or the sword. In our reading from the gospel of Luke the story is framed with a reference to Emperor Augustus, king of the world. Is this simply an example of Luke’s careful concern for history, or is the point he’s making somewhat different? The script that was followed at the time of these events, went something like this: Augustus had turned the great Roman republic into an empire, with himself at the head; he proclaimed that he had brought justice and peace to the whole world; and, declaring his dead adoptive father (Julius Caesar) to be divine, styled himself as 'son of god'. Poets wrote songs about the new era that had begun; historians told the long story of Rome's rise to greatness, reaching its climax (obviously) with Augustus himself. Augustus, people said, was the 'saviour' of the world. He was its king, its 'lord'. Increasingly, in the eastern part of his empire, people worshipped him, too, as a god. (Now read Romans 1:1-6!) In this light, Luke’s reference to the Emperor, finds new meaning. This man, this king, this absolute monarch, lifts his little finger in Rome, and fifteen hundred miles away, in an obscure province, a young couple undertakes a hazardous journey, resulting in the birth of a child in a little town that just happens to be the one mentioned in the ancient Hebrew prophecy about the coming of the Messiah (Micah 5:2: But you, O Bethlehem, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days). The birth of this little boy is the beginning of a confrontation between the kingdom of God - in all its apparent weakness, insignificance and vulnerability - and the kingdoms of the world.
Luke is writing a different script; likewise, our readings from the Psalms and Isaiah are from a different script. The Lord – YAHWEH – is king and the gods of the peoples are mere idols. The gospel – the good news – is that God is king, and that he has not abandoned his people or his world, but he ‘has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the end of the earths shall see the salvation of our God.’
And the miracle of Christmas, or the amazing truth of Christmas, is that the ‘arm’ of the Lord is a small bare arm, reaching out at random from the manger, or perhaps towards his mother. This is our Lord. This is the King. This is the love of God revealed. This is the arm that invites us to follow, that is stretched out wide with welcome, and will later be nailed upon a cross.
Our Christmas script is one of celebration that the King has arrived, the Lord is here and begins a new act in God’s story that began with creation, and now brings salvation, and looks to the coming of new creation. And the question on this night before Christmas, is which script are you listening to? Which script do you trust in? Which script are you living by? Are you surrendering yourself to god of consumerism, where Christmas is simply a matter of trees, lights, presents and watching Shrek? Is Christmas merely a matter of survival, where the only thing that matters is lasting through to New Year? Or is Christmas the opportunity to welcome in the world’s true King, like the shepherds from the hillside? You see, when the real king arrives, when the true king appears; when Jesus moves into the world, into our world: the pretence is up. It becomes quickly clear that our claim to the throne is a sham; it does not take long to see that the gospel of economic happiness or the gospel of peace and security are found wanting and hollow in the shadow of the good news of King Jesus’ arrival. The thing about the other scripts is they don’t know how they’re going to end – they might make wishful promises, or big claims that peace, happiness, freedom and safety are just around the corner – but the reality is they cannot be certain. God’s script knows its ending. The arrival of Jesus is the sign and the promise fulfilled that God is going to set the world to rights; he will triumph over evil and establish his rule. This is not a God of empty promises, or unfulfilled dreams, but Immanuel, that is, this is God with
us, God for
Where the numbers 9/11 now signal so much for the dominant script, the way we celebrate 25/12 reveals and witnesses that we trust in and live by another story; a story which claims that the day the world changed was when the king arrived and moved into the neighbourhood (John 1:14). This story demands that we place our allegiance in Jesus, and not Caesar - whatever Caesar might represent for us. It reminds us that there is only one Lord and it's not me. It reminds us that we cannot save ourselves and neither can we be safe behind a rhetoric of military strength or a strong economy, but that salvation belongs to God, who is Immanuel.
This is our Christmas story, this is the script we live by and the God in whom we trust.
(I must acknowledge Walter Brueggemann and Tom Wright as sources in this sermon's writing)