Alleluia, to us a child is born:
O come, let us adore him. Alleluia.
A FEW YEARS AGO, I decided to re-read The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, a classic trilogy that I had read several times in my teenage years. I was surprised that on this reading — well, on this attempted reading — I didn’t care for it. I quickly bogged down in the details — Do we really need a hundred or so pages to describe a birthday party? — and I simply wanted Tolkien to get on with the story. It is a grand story, a grand set of intersecting and interlocking and conflicting stories, that he has to tell. Why bury them under a mound of minutiae? Of course, to Tolkien the details were not incidental to the story; they were integral to it. For Tolkien, the story is found in, comprised of, and flows out of all those details.
We come, this holy night, to another story, to the Gospel according to St. Luke, to the narrative of our Lord’s incarnation. It is not trite to say that this truly is one of the greatest chapters in the greatest story ever told. For Tolkien’s readers, the fictional fate of Middle Earth hung in the balance as Frodo faced the fire of Mount Doom. For all of humanity, the very real fate of the Earth — of the cosmos — hung in the balance as Mary and Joseph faced the birth of a child alone in a cave or stable far from home, far from the loving care of family and friends. How does Luke start this grand tale?
Luke 2:1–3 (ESV): 2 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town.
The one by whom, through whom, and for whom all creation came into being; the one in whom all creation holds together; the logos, the very Word of God, the only Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one Being with the Father — this one is about to be born in human flesh of a human mother to dwell among us human and to unite us to his divinity. And Luke starts with Caesar Augustus and Quirinius, doing what politicians do — taxing the people? Forget these trivial details, Luke; get on with the story!
But, long before Tolkien, Luke had an eye for details; you see that all throughout his Gospel. For Luke, too, the details aren’t incidental, but are integral to the story. The story emerges from these details.
So, what of Caesar Augustus, whose name would endure beyond this story anyway, and what of Quirinius, some forgettable governor of Syrian whom the world would never have known apart from this story? What do these names, these details of their reign and administration and taxation add to the Gospel?
First, they mark Luke’s Gospel as history and not myth. Luke does not start “once upon a time,” or “long ago in a galaxy far, far away,” or in Middle Earth, but rather in the concrete, factual details of this time and this place and this ruler and this petty bureaucrat and these odious taxes, and this forced travel with this very pregnant wife. This is the real stuff of real first century life — though they didn’t yet mark this time as the first century — the real burdens of real people in a real place in a real time. Luke is an historian, a biographer, a theologian; but, he is not an author of fiction or fantasy. So, these details matter, these factual details matter, because they declare Luke’s intent to tell us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth — what really happened that night. While truth can be told in parable, in myth, in poetry — and we see all these in Scripture — these are not Luke’s genres; his form is narrative history. What he says happened, really happened.
Second, these details tell us that the world was going about its own business when God broke into history, so busy with ordinary things that it noticed the great invasion not at all, so intent on the levy and collection of taxes in this little backwater village that it noticed the rending apart of time into before and after this birth not at all. Augustus might have noticed the foundations of the empire shift under him, but he was otherwise occupied. Quirinius — well, he was just too busy following orders to notice anything but the bottom line on the tax ledger.
As in the first century, so in the twenty-first century, I suppose. We are so busy with the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta-verse or the conflicting media-verses of cable new channels or the universes we make of our private lives that we have too little time left to notice the in-breaking of Truth — the coming of the One who is the Truth. And, our politicians are busy with taxing and spending and writing bills that have little chance of becoming laws because other politicians are resolutely and busily opposed to anything at all getting done. So it goes from election to election regardless of which party is temporarily in power. What difference does the birth of a baby in Bethlehem make to our government, to any government, other than perhaps a day off from the hubris of some and the bureaucratic grind of others? No, the powers-that-be largely go about their business of pretending to be powerful: a few Caesars, thousands of Quiriniuses. And we pay our taxes and obey their laws, following the decrees of these days.
The story moves on and leaves these powers behind.
Luke 2:4–7 (ESV): 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Geographic details this time: Galilee; Nazareth; Judea; Bethlehem, the city of David. Why? Why does place matter? Long before this night, God had spoken through the prophet Nathan to David, the great king of Israel, when David had proposed building a house for the Lord in Jerusalem. God speaks:
2 Samuel 7:12–14a (ESV): 12 When your days [David] are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.
The prophecy continues to say that this house, this throne, this kingdom of David’s offspring, will be everlasting. So, the detail of birthplace matters, the detail of Bethlehem matters, because Bethlehem is the ancestral home of David, and being born there identifies this child as the offspring of David, as one of royal lineage, as perhaps the one to fulfill Nathan’s prophecy.
Galilee and Nazareth matter, too, because they speak of obscurity, humility, poverty, weakness. Can anything good come from Nazareth? was a common byword of the day: no need to answer; just smile and shake your head and chuckle. All throughout the Law, God had expressed — and God had impressed upon his people — his concern for and their responsibility toward the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. What better geographical locale to symbolize this very class of the weak and powerless than Nazareth in Galilee: far removed from the locus of power in Judea, far removed in prestige from cosmopolitan Jerusalem. When God becomes man he does so among the very ones he instructed his people to care for, to experience himself in the flesh what it is to be the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the butt of jokes. So, yes, geographic details matter.
As in the first century, so in the twenty-first century, I suppose. Geography matters; birthplace matters. Zip codes matter; they serve as pretty reliable indicators of health, wealth, access to quality education, and more. It is not easy being born in a modern day, United States, Nazareth in Galilee. But, Jesus is there, as he was in the first-century and as he promised to be in every successive generation, there in the distressing guise of the poor:
Matthew 25:35–40 (ESV): 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
The details of geography — and our response to it — matter. But, the story moves on again, this time to a field outside town.
Luke 2:8–14 (ESV): 8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
Gender reveal parties are a recent trend among expectant parents. You have probably seen some on social media or television— particularly those that go badly and hilariously wrong: fathers-to-be who shoot themselves in the face with a blue power cannon filled with blue confetti or mothers-to-be whose homemade cake, when cut, is some indistinct grey color inside instead of a vibrant pink, leaving everyone puzzled. What we have in Luke’s Gospel is the great, divine reveal — not of gender, though that is implied, but of identity: a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This detail matters! This is not just any baby. This is the offspring of David, the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord. This is the one whose birth merits an angelic annunciation and a heavenly host praising God and proclaiming peace throughout the earth to those with whom God is pleased. And this detail also matters: that the angels appear to shepherds watching their flocks all night long while everyone else snuggles up into whatever comfort they can find. These shepherds are among the essential workers of their day: necessary, but accorded little respect, little consideration, little notice. A collect from the Office of Compline — night prayer — in our Book of Common Prayer comes to mind:
O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day, who work while other sleep, and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other’s toil; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen (BCP 2019, p. 64).
Why did the angels announce this great news first to shepherds? Well, they were up, working while others slept. The one born this night will have much to say later about watchfulness, about being found at work, about staying awake and being ready when the bridegroom or the master or the king returns. The shepherds were up watching — not for this, of course! — but, they were up watching, doing the work they had been given to do.
But, there is much more in this detail. There is an allusion to, a resonance with David. Psalm 78 tells the story of God and Israel and concludes with these words:
71 He chose David his servant,*
and took him away from the sheepfolds;
72 As he was following the ewes that were great with young, God took him,*
that he might feed Jacob his people, and Israel his inheritance.
73 So he fed them with a faithful and true heart,*
and guided them with skillful hands.
David was a shepherd-made-king by God. The one born this night, the one the angels herald, is the offspring of David who will be the Good Shepherd, who will feed Jacob his people and Israel his inheritance with a faithful and true heart, who will guide them with skillful hands: the Good Shepherd made King of kings and Lord of lords. Is it not fitting that his birth is first proclaimed to shepherds like David, to shepherds keeping watch over sheep in the fields outside Bethlehem, the city of David?
Can we see more in this detail? What need does Augustus have for a Savior when, in his own estimation, he is the great Savior of the World? What attention would Caesar pay to the ευαγγελιον, the Gospel, the proclamation of a royal birth coming from the fields of Bethlehem? What time does Quirinius have to spare, busy as he is with taxes, for a Jewish Lord? But the poor, the powerless, the ones of little reputation — the shepherds and those like them — they just might listen to such news; they just might hope for and in such a savior; they just might follow such a good, fellow shepherd. And so the angels come to them with the glad tidings.
As in the first-century, so in the twenty-first century, I suppose. The good news has always been most readily received by the poor, the powerless, the forgotten — by those who know they need a Savior. Yet, like the priests and the Sadducees of the first century, it seems that the church of the twenty-first century often seeks a seat at the table of the rich and powerful, seems to curry favor with the movers-and-shakers of society, and sometimes forgets to go out into the fields at night, to sit with the shepherds and the other essential workers, to watch sheep and listen for the angels.
The details of St. Luke’s Gospel really do matter, because they tell us of a world very like our own: a world busy with its own affairs — too busy, it seems, to attend to the birth of God-With-Us; a world in which the powers-that-be and the structures and policies they create have little room for the true King of kings; a world in which geography still disproportionately shapes the course of one’s life; a world in which we still depend upon each other’s toil but fail too often to properly honor and reward it; a world where, quite measurably, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer; a world where too few hear the proclamation of the Gospel because they have stopped their ears and because the church, sometimes, speak with a mumbled voice.
So, we come again tonight to be reminded of and challenged by all this in the details of the story. We come to listen to shepherds tell their tale of angels. We come to follow them even unto Bethlehem to see this thing which has come to pass. We come to kneel in the presence of the Creator of all things, now in human form, now as a helpless baby born in the wrong zip code. We come to wonder. We come to rejoice. We come to worship. We come to treasure up all these details, to ponder them in our hearts. We come so that we may go out again, returning to our world — to a world changed by this birth — as did the shepherds, glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen. Amen.