You Count: December 24, 2019

December 24, 2019

Year A, Christmas Eve                  
Luke 2: 1-20                                                                                                                    
            I remember my first Christmas as a newly ordained deacon.  I was very anxious about reading the Gospel at the late service.  That church had a tradition of processing around the church (there were aisles on both sides of the pews) before reading the Gospel on big feast days.  It felt like a very long walk.  One of things I had practiced over and over again was the name Quirinius.  In doing so, it was burned into my memory so that every time I hear Quirinius, I remember my nerves on that Christmas night 14 years ago.  But this year for the first time, I started wondering, just who was this Quirinius and why does he matter.  Why did Luke bother mentioning him?  Luke saw himself as a bit of an historian.  He starts his Gospel by saying, “I too, decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you.” Therefore, it was understandable that he set this scene in the context of history.  But there was more to it than that.  He had to explain, why Mary and Joseph felt the need to take a very long journey to Bethlehem when she was extremely pregnant. 
            They were making that trek so that they could be counted for the census.  “All went to their own towns to be registered.”  The census was a required by the Roman Empire.  They required it so they could know how much to tax these people who were under their control.  It was also so they could determine how much military they needed to keep these people in check. As you can imagine, many Jews resented the census. When hearing the story of Jesus, we can never forget that he was born to a conquered people.  His family lived with few rights or privileges under the control of a foreign government.  They were making this difficult journey because it was required and the Romans knew they could make them do it.  It was dehumanizing. This is what powerful people often do to a conquered people (or anyone who might be vulnerable), they try to take away their humanity.  It was this world and family that Jesus was born into. 
            If you have been to church on Christmas enough times, you have probably heard the word incarnation.  It means that God was born in the flesh, as a human.  That’s spectacular for so many reasons.  But when you put it in the context of Quirinius and the census, it’s revolutionary.  This census, like so many things the Romans did, was an attempt to control people.  It was an attempt to take away their dignity, their humanity.  In the midst of this inhumanity, Jesus was born as a human baby to a woman, with even fewer rights then the men in this occupied territory.  It was like God was watching what the Roman Empire was doing, how they were wielding their power and he said, “Oh you think you can take away my children’s humanity, watch this.”
            While I admire God’s creativity and sense of irony, sometimes I wonder if God could have used more effective and efficient means.  If Jesus was born to a king, in a palace, he would have gotten a lot more attention. He could have had the weight of an empire behind him. Everyone would have followed him because he would have been forced on them.  But that is not what God wanted. God didn’t want to force Jesus upon people– he wanted  to invite them into a relationship with Jesus–God in the flesh.  The Romans thought they had control over the Jews, but it was a flimsy and superficial control.  Jesus, being born as a human is a reminder that no power, no principality can ever take away our humanity.  Even if you are born in a barn amongst animals, you are a child of God, a human who deserves basic rights and more importantly, who deserves to be loved.
            The census was counting people so that they could be efficiently exploited.  In sending Jesus in the flesh, God was telling everyone on this earth (both then and now) that they counted to him.  He counted them as his children and he would stop at nothing to let them/us know that.[1]That means that I can tell all of you tonight that you count, you matter to the greatest power this world has ever known.
            Now we don’t live in a place that suffers under a foreign rule.  Yet, we still see people in our world, our country, our community who are exploited and treated as less than human.  On this night, I want you to go home with warm fuzzy feelings and the knowledge that God loves you with reckless abandon.  However, I also want us all to remember that Jesus was born to people who were oppressed, people who worried that God had forgotten them.  He was born in this way to ensure that we never forget any human, that no person is ever treated as less than human.  God’s gift to us is our lives and this world.  Our gift to God is how we care for one another and this world.   I would like to close with a lovely poem by Howard Thurman, who we are reading in our Sacred Ground program.
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.[2]

[1]This idea came from a Working Preacher podcast for Christmas 2019 by Rolf Jacobson
[2] “The Work of Christmas” is from Howard Thurman’s The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations