Advent 1: Living Your Blessedness
Isa. 11:1-4; Luke 1:26-33; 47-53
In order to get some context for what we should emphasize in this birth narrative, it would be helpful to know about another one. Jesus was born right at that period of time when the Roman Republic was becoming eclipsed by the Roman Emperor, military rulers that concentrated power in their hands. It was also a period that extended the range of Rome through military conquest, so they controlled the economic infrastructure of the Mediteranean, the biggest empire in history.
Caesar Augustus was one of the first of a long line of generals to become Emperor. He had been named to rule by his great uncle, Julius Caesar, who named him as his heir. So, he was appointed to be general at a young age. Rome won several huge military campaigns. They taxed the whole region and enforced it with harsh military reprisals, from which we get the military expression that we still use today, ‘scorch and burn’. If your region didn’t pay its annual tribute, the Roman military was loosed to burn it all to the ground and to conquest women as they would.
So there was order in the Empire, prosperity skyrocketed in the Capital City. Caesar Augustus built many new buildings. He declared the Pax Romana and led the Roman Empire for almost 41 years. The Rich were getting mad richer and the expense accounts were full.
Not surprisingly, Augustus decided that Rome needed a founding myth, a story about how the most powerful Empire in the world came to be. He commissioned the poet Vergil, who wrote this myth in a work we still have called ‘The Aenenid’.
The Greeks had a founding myth in the Iliad. It tells about the heroic battles so long ago, no one can ever remember, but that is how the city-states in Greece came to be. So Vergil starts his story with one of the soldier from those epic battles recorded in the Iliad that everyone had heard since they were kids. You may recall his memorable opening line in the Aeneid, “I sing to you of Arms and Men”, a tale of the incredible sacrifice that was made in battle so that we might enjoy the prosperity of the vast Roman empire.
And in the early part of the book, one of the gods rolls back the scrolls of fate, such a Roman idea, that the gods can predict for us the future, even though we can’t see it ourselves. Opening these scrolls of fate allow all of us to see the destiny of the great Roman people.
Only the Ancients thought very differently than we do today. Today, we tend to tell stories, particularly in America, about rugged individuals that overcome difficult odds and create some very important entrepreneurial advance that made them rich and helped the rest of society become better.
Back then, the world was structured by ruling families or ruling tribes. And people would ask themselves, ‘why is it that some families are of such noble birth that they seem destined to rule over the rest of us? What is it that makes them so special?’ They tended to see these families as simply better or more blessed by the gods.
So Vergil asks the question, how is it that the gods were so good to us as to give us a clan, the noble family of Julius, that our empire would become so great that there is none other like it ever, and we are the most prosperous people on earth?
Back then, it would have been more like the way the British defer to the Queen and the house of Windsor, but it would kind of be like President George Bush Jr. (W) asking our poet laurete to write an epic poem about how the world got so lucky that his father was born (George H. W. Bush) had been born because that man gave birth to a son that would become the best that our world has to offer right here in a humble guy, just born to lead the free world, hand picked for this precise time by gods, because that is the best the gods can do.
Like our prosperous times, this one also lacked modesty. And Vergil has to go down in history as one of the greatest ass kissers of all time. But then again, this Caesar took the name ‘Augustus’ which means something like ‘divine like’, ‘one we should stand in awe of’, etc. And this Caesar also had coins minted with his face and the line on the bottom, ‘Son of God’.
Vergil has these gods, speaking a 1000 years ago, predicting (from a thousand years ago) that one day this great ruler will be born and he will impose the Pax Romana and the reputation of the Roman people will be enshrined in eternity.
“From this noble stock there will be born a Caesar whose bounds will only be at the end of the oceans themselves, the ends of the world, whose fame shall be as far reaching as the stars in the heavens. He shall be called Julius, a name passed down from the great clan of the Julii (the great Julius family clan). In time to come, have no fear, you will receive him from the skies (partly divine), laden with the spoils of the East. [Roman Generals had a huge parade when they came home with all the stuff they captured in front of them]. He too will be called upon in prayer. Then the years of bitterness will be over…
And the gods say this, “The walls he builds will be the walls of the god Mars and he shall give his own name to his people, the Romans. Upon them, I will impose no limits of time or place. I give them an Empire that shall know no end.”
We call it the Eternal City today. Gripping read. This was written by Virgil about 20 years before Jesus was born, about 90 years before the Gospel of Luke was written. Sometimes it helps to have a little feel for what the average Roman would think about when he picks up this other story.
This story is not about nobility of birth, or worldly power, or celebrity fame, or military conquest. It starts off not with the wealthiest family in the empire, retiring to their country estates to remember their roots, but with a peasant couple, we don’t know their name.
The region that they are from no one has ever heard of really because it is on the very edge of the empire. And beyond that is the great desert to the East.
They are coming, not even as Roman citizens, but as the locals subject to Roman tax. They have no home, no room reservations. They spend the night in the barn.
The angel comes not to the patriarch of the most vaunted family in the Empire to bestow upon them the divine right of political rule. The angel comes to an ordinary girl, with no last name, so we have no idea who she is, where she is from, and there is no indication that she possesses any particular virtues at all.
And the angel says, “Hail, O favored one, for God is with you. Do not be afraid for God has found favor with you.”
The very first word of the Christmas story comes to those of us that are lost in the shadows, on the edge of history. It comes to those who have no home, who are anxious, precarious. This season if you carrying a special burden, an illness that is not being cured, a relationship that is coming apart awkwardly, an anxiety from being financially overwhelmed… defeated, your self-esteem pummeled. The very first word from God in the Christmas season comes to you. “Hail, O favored one, for God is with you. Do not be afraid, for God has found favor with you.” You matter. God cares. You are loved by God.
If you have are asking yourself the question ‘how’- how am I going to get through this? If you are asking yourself at the end of this year the question ‘why’- why is it that so much misfortune has piled itself upon me at one time, all of these critically things in my life going wrong and wronger that you are starting to feel so alone, even in the midst of your family, that you have this internal dialogue in your head that won’t shut off that keeps asking ‘what is going on with me?’
The answer from God in the Christmas story is ‘the Holy Spirit will rest upon you.’ “Peace be with you.” “You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.” You matter. The heart of the universe is not driven by the Spirit of Arms and Men of power. The heart of the universe is driven by the Spirit of Love.
God is not interested in our feats of strength and power, God hopes for the salvation of all of us through the expression of love. You are blessed. And on our better days, we are reminded that being of service to those in need blesses us as well.
It is something God has taught me in spite of myself usually. When my daughter Annie was about 6 or 8, we were walking through Central Park on our way to the Met. Suddenly I could find her and I had that moment of panic, searching this way and that. I’m running back in the direction that we’d just come from and I spot her underneath an underpass, squatting with the homeless guys that were living under there- back when we used to let people live on the streets.
I grab her and start in with the speech on staying close to me and not talking to strangers and she says, “Dad, these are our people. These are Christ Church guys. They have our blankets.” Sure enough, I look down and they are all covering themselves with blankets that said “Church World Service”. We’d been giving them out through Bridges.
I had one of those embarrassing moments when I realized that for the past half hour, I’d been guilty of walking as an upper middle class white guy. It is related to driving while black. It is a default mode that I can slip into, particularly in the big metropolis of New York, when I’m just focused on getting to my destination, pretty much oblivious to lots of things around me because they are not part of my mission at the moment.
Annie introduced me to my people, who, as it turns out, were not statistics, not stereotypes, not an anonymous backdrop. They were ordinary guys, with lives, families, hopes and dashed dreams, trying to find a place. And just like any of us that were flattered that a little blonde headed girl with a bright, bouncy smile had stopped to say ‘hello’ to them.
Isaiah has that lovely passage we read at this time of year, “And a child shall lead them…” It is one of those insights from the Christmas story that we’ve all been reminded of in the past week, we all want to be part of one people. We want to belong and be accepted and respected. We want compassion to lead us, so that we see each other as those that God has drawn close to and blessed, quite in spite of themselves. They are God’s people and so they are our people.
And may you be so led this season. May the Divine disturbance awaken you to those around you that God has deemed blessed. May God so move you that you can find a way to be gracious even to the most difficult members of your extended family that are just harder than average to love. May salvation find a way to be born in the midst of your packed and too busy life.
And may you who are broken, find the divine healing in this season of acceptance and grace. Amen.