It Starts in Grace: Advent 3, 12/13/2015
Isa. 12:2-6; Lk 1:39-56
Our text this morning is one of the more beautiful passages in the bible. And it is very clever, though you would not really know this 2000 years after it was written. These first 3 chapters are a literary prologue. We know very little about the birth of Jesus.
In the oldest gospel, Mark, Jesus just shows up preaching in Jerusalem and he already has celebrity status. Likewise the Gospel of John, we just get a symbolic hymn as an introit, ‘The Word dwelt among us full of grace and truth’ but no mention of the birth.
Only the Gospel of Luke has the Angels coming to visit Elizabeth to for tell her about the birth of John the Baptist and the Angels come to visit Mary to tell her about the birth of Jesus. As you probably know, we don’t have a lot of Angels visiting people in the Old Testament. There are a few, but not many.
But what you probably don’t know is that Romans were pretty big on Angels and Romans were even bigger on the idea that our fate has been pre-ordained by the gods and that our job as humans is to figure out what our destiny really is and follow it.
They actually believed that and they spent quite a bit of time, energy and money going to the priests to get them to read the entrails of animals or interpret the movement of the stars- our astrological signs that predict you will meet a tall dark man this week come from the Romans. They tried to figure out their destiny to determine who to marry, when was the right time to have a child, when is the right time to start a new enterprise, can I trust my business partner and the like.
More than that, it was a fairly common literary device that Romans used to introduce a story. In our case, that story would be the “Aeneid” by Virgil, the story of the founding of Rome. The Aeneid is a long, involved story that every Roman boy had to learn in college, pretty much like we all study our constitutional history. And the “Aeneid” contained some elevated poetry, sophisticated language, so that they taught it in Latin class as well. They knew it like we know the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and the opening paragraph of the “Declaration of Independence”.
Every Roman kid would know that at the very beginning of the “Aeneid”, they roll back the scrolls of fate, and the scrolls of fate predict that one day, the Roman people will be a great people, numerous beyond the counting of it, and that one day, a long, long time from now there will be a peace that will be established, the Pax Romana, and that Pax Romana will last for a thousand years. So decree the scrolls of fate.
And if you are living right around the time that Luke was writing, amazingly, there was a Pax Roman, an incredible century of peace that should go on, let me get this straight, for about another 900 years. Wow, aren’t we blessed to be Romans?
Romans lacked subtlety and Vergil was no exception. He didn’t just leave it there. Julius Caesar had commissioned him to write the “Aeneid” about 100 years before the Gospel of Luke was written. Vergil was grateful for the work, like most writers are. So he depicts these Angels opening these scrolls of fate way, way back in like 300 years ago. And he has these Angels predict that at some point in the future (say about 300 years) that “Out of the house of Julii” will come the birth of this great, great leader whose power and wisdom is beyond anything that even Rome has ever known. And he will be born in a simple, rustic manner in the country side of Italy, where his family comes from.
It is the birth of the most noble of the noble, a man in touch with his simple Roman roots, who understands the common man and is rooted in his family values, his national values. He is depicted with this way because already by the time Jesus is born, Romans who lived in the City of Rome were overly sophisticated, cynical, and corrupt. Not that different from the way we think as New Yorkers and they had this sentimental notion that they could return to the simplicity of the country, the simplicity of Rome before it became a huge international Empire, we could find our way again. So, Vergil predicts that Julius Caesar will be just that kind of leader. He comes from the one of the oldest Aristocratic families of Rome, but he is grounded.
Vergil lays out the theme for this Epic poem right up front. It all leads forward towards explaining how Rome got to be such a fantastic empire and how they got this magnificent leader Julius Caesar. It explains how Romans became so powerful, so rich, the greatest Empire in human history. Wow…
As I said, Romans lacked subtlety…
So the author of Luke, knowing all this- because the Aeneid is about 100 years old when he writes- pens this other story about the birth of the Messiah, the polar opposite of the Emperor, and he inverts all of the themes that power, wealth and fame are the marks of success and God’s blessing. It is very clever.
The Angels in Luke don’t come to the most powerful family in Rome to find the ‘anointed one’. These Angels come to a peasant girl. This peasant girl isn’t on retreat at the family compound out in the country, overlooking the vast vineyards and olive tree orchards, surrounded by a cast of servants that you might see on Downton Abbey. She will actually be on the road here shortly, having to sign up to pay a tax that the hated Roman Empire imposed on all of the people at the edge of the Empire, the cursed tax that they imposed on all of the powerless people for the privilege of having Roman soldiers stationed all across their land.
She won’t be surrounded by a host of servants, with buckets of warm water and arms full of clean sheets, in the quiet of the night when she gives birth. She will be in the cold and stink of the barn because ‘there was no room for them at the inn’.
But this Angel doesn’t just tell her that her son will start a reign of peace that will last 1000 years. This Angel tells her, “Of his kingdom there will be no end”. That is a lot bigger kingdom, even than Rome, the biggest ever known. It is really inconceivable.
In fact, the Angel says, “Name the boy Jesus” which means “salvation” for this child will bring “salvation”, not just for the rich and powerful Romans who benefited from the Pax Romana, but for everyone on the globe, poor and rich, powerless and the connected.
The Angel says, he shall be called “the Son of God”. We don’t get the irony or the humor in that declaration 2000 years later. But when Jesus was born, Caesar Augustus, started minting coins that said “Caesar Augustus” (Biggest Caesar ever) and underneath is picture he included the tag line “Son of God”. Every Roman kid would instantly recognize this tag line like we would recognize the line on our money that “In God we trust”.
Caesar Augustus, who followed Julius Caesar as the Emperor of Rome, had an ego that made Donald Trump look genuinely modest. Caesar Augustus was outdone by Tiberius who was outdone by Caligula, who was outdone by Claudius who was outdone still by Nero after him- and then the Empire starts coming literally unhinged with the likes of Nero, where naked ego displaced even a semblance of rectitude and propriety.
All of this has been lost on us modern readers I’m afraid and I wouldn’t bore you with it, except… except that it makes the reading of our story so much more touching and humane when you reflect on the themes that are developed here. Luke is giving us the point of his story too, what the teaching and the spiritual way of Jesus will be about. It is full of touching humanity and that is the actual point.
Unlike rolling back the scrolls of fate, inscrutable perhaps, but unwavering. The Angel comes to Mary, tells her she will have a child by saying, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you.” And we are told that Mary, ‘wondered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be’. Good news, bad news? And even at the end of this passage, after the baby is born and the chorus of Angels leave and the wise men leave, Luke says “Mary pondered these things in her heart and pondered on what they might mean (Lk. 2:19).
It wasn’t all that clear. She isn’t a powerful man from an aristocratic Roman family, she is an ordinary peasant girl, faithful, honest, trying to figure out her life and open. Because maybe that is what God really wants from us. Maybe the real meaning of faith is that we don’t have all the answers, (we don’t have a fate) we just have to be willing to be open to figuring out what our ambiguous lives with their ambiguous messages really mean.
And this Angel comes to visit a simple peasant girl because maybe the message of God’s love is not just for the powerful, the successful, the educated and well-connected, but it is a message for everyone, even to the utter ends of the world. In the Roman world, Bethlehem was right on the edge of the end of civilization. Far, far from the city of Rome… Beyond that the sands of the desert and the unknown continent of Africa…
The Angel tells her that her son will be the “Son of God” but this Son of God will teach us that we are all “children of God”. When he is baptized the heavens will open up and God will say, “you are my beloved Child in whom I am well pleased” and maybe that is because Jesus taught all of us that “You, you, you, are God’s beloved Child in whom God is well pleased.”
You are blessed. You are loveable. You have been loved into being by those that came before you. You have been loved into being by God. God loves you. You are worthy of respect. You a work in progress and with those around you love one another into realizing the potential that you have by blessing those around you with your love so that they can realize what they can become. It starts with a gift. It is all about gifting those around you.
The Angel blesses this Mother and Child. And in the story, there is no room in the inn, the baby is born in a cold barn, and when 3 Wisemen (Astrologers that predicted your fate for you) show up, Herod sends the Roman army to kill every baby in the area. Mary and Jesus barely escape and they become refugees in Egypt, a literary depiction of the fate of Jesus that he will die the death of tens of thousands of slaves and insurgents. Blessed.
That is because the message of Jesus is that God sees our pain, God identifies with our suffering. And so, his whole life, Jesus opened himself to the suffering of others, brought healing where he could. Jesus taught us that when we identify with others in their suffering and we join our spirit with them, those are divine moments. That is the most spiritual, noble thing we can do. It doesn’t always heal but we can redeem tragedy.
And we know that in our lived lives. This week, I was having an ordinary conversation with another man my age, asking him about the next couple weeks. He was leaving town. “Where are you going?” I asked. Way led to way and he haltingly explained that he was going to be with his children and his grandchildren. They were taking a trip through the “Make a Wish” foundation because his 3 year old granddaughter has a terminal illness and will die soon.
It is so painful, he just had to turn and look at the floor. And just hearing it is so threatening that I just had to look at the floor and collect myself. How do we get through these things? To be the shoulder that someone turns to when tragic sorrow makes them mute is divine. We can’t always heal but the love we share can be redemptive. And you, even you, can be that person, quite in spite of yourself. You are a child of God. You are blessed. Through the ups, through the down, in times of plenty and when all you have is just yourself, be a blessing. God is with you. Amen.