A Jewish Christmas

Luke 2:1-21

2:1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.

4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. 21 On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.

Adam, the first human being, was notoriously bad with dates. He was always forgetting what day of the week it was and he constantly missed appointments. But his struggle with keeping the calendars straight actually gave rise to a holiday tradition we still observe today. The story goes that one year, on December 24, Adam surprised his wife with a present and proclaimed, “It’s Christmas, Eve!”

As you surely know, some holidays always come on a particular calendar day. For instance, Christmas is always celebrated on December 25, regardless of what day of the week that might be. Some holidays are commemorated on particular days of the week and month: Thanksgiving is always the fourth Thursday of November. And still other holidays are based on the lunar calendar. Easter, for instance, is celebrated on…the day they tell me to celebrate it. I can’t keep it all straight.

Our Jewish neighbors celebrate Hanukkah this time of year, but Hanukkah is kind of different. Hanukkah changes every year and is based on the Hebrew calendar, which is based on both the solar and lunar cycles. I don’t pretend to understand how it works, but that’s okay. Hanukkah can begin in early December, and begins on December 2 in 2018. Other years it extends into the new year, as it does this year. This year is somewhat unique because our Jewish friends began Hanukkah at sundown of Christmas Eve, making Christmas the first “day” of Hanukkah. To wish someone a Happy Hanukkah in Hebrew, you would say, “Hanukkah Sameach!”

The word hanukkah simply means “dedication” and it is a celebration of the re-dedication of the Jewish Temple in Israel. In the second century BCE the Greeks attempted to force their culture upon the Jewish people, a process known as “Hellenization.” In the process, they brought a pig into the temple and sacrificed it to the Greek god Zeus. Obviously, the sacrifice of an unclean animal to a foreign god defiled the Temple, and outraged the Jews. A small army of Jewish men then overthrew the Greeks and they had a rededication ceremony of the Temple. But there was only one container of undefiled oil left to use in the dedication ceremony. Even though this canister would only last one night, the Jews decided to go ahead with the ceremony of rededication. And God made the menorah, the candelabra, burn for eight nights on one night’s fuel.

So if you ever read the New Testament and you read about the Zealots who wanted to overthrow the Roman Empire and you wonder where they ever got the idea that that was possible, remember, a small group of Jewish revolutionaries had done it before. And they celebrated that event every year.

We sometimes forget that Jesus was a Jew. That is why I had our worship leader read verse 21 today, even though it is often left off from today’s reading. Verse 21 reminds us that Jesus was circumcised and named on the eighth day, just like all Jewish boys.

Hold on to this story of Hanukkah for a few minutes. We will come back to it momentarily to see if we can make a few connections with our text from today.

Our text for this morning is one you have heard before, especially if you came last night to our Christmas Eve service or if you have ever watched the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, where Linus recites this passage. Yet I noticed a few different things this time around. For instance, verses 1-3 tell us the reason for Mary and Joseph’s trip to Bethlehem: all the world was to be taxed, so Caesar Augustus issued a decree that everyone is to return to the land of their ancestors to be registered. If you want to tax someone, they need to be in your ledger.

This “registration” sounds a little bit different in 2016, and if you are of Latino or Arabic descent, such a word may even instill a sense of fear. But Caesar Augustus wasn’t looking to control immigration. He was trying to understand just how big his kingdom really was, just how many subjects he ruled over, and how he might be able to better fund his efforts.

If you research the history of the Caesars, you will find that Augustus’s predecessor was his adopted father, Julius Caesar. Julius Caesar was a great military force who helped establish the Roman Empire and in the process, acquired a vast amount of wealth, which he passed on to Augustus. After Julius Caesar’s death on March 15, 44 BCE, Julius Caesar was actually deified, or named a god, by the Roman Senate on January 1, 42 BCE. The Romans believed that Julius Caesar was divine because of the appearance of a comet, sometimes called Caesar’s comet or Caesar’s star, which appeared soon after his death, and can be seen on Roman coins from that time.

So if Julius Caesar was considered a god, what would that make Caesar Augustus? According to New Testament scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan and their book The First Christmas, not to be confused with Wham!’s “Last Christmas,” Augustus was known as “Lord, Son of God, Bringer of Peace and Savior of the World.”

Now compare the story of Caesar Augustus to that of Jesus. While Augustus and his parents were rich and powerful, Jesus was born to two common peasants. When Jesus was born, his birth was first announced to shepherds, who were looked down upon in Jewish communities to the point that their testimony was not considered valid in a court. And look at the proclamation from the angel of the Lord in verses 10-12: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

In the city of David, the hometown of one of the most beloved kings in the Hebrew tradition, the savior is born. The Messiah, the anointed one, the Lord. And…they laid him in a feeding trough. You know, because that’s what you do with the savior of the world.

Oh yeah, and next week we will hear about some Magi, some would call them kings, who followed a star that led them to believe that Jesus was king.

In one story we have a king who seeks peace and salvation for the people through violence and conquest. This king is willing to do whatever it takes to maintain his power and authority over others. In the other story, we find a king who seeks peace and salvation for the people through nonviolence and service. This king says love your enemies, do good to those who seek to do you harm. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This king is willing to do whatever it takes to be reconciled with his people, even give up his power and authority over others, even give his life for them.

By mentioning Caesar Augustus and Jesus in the same story, Luke isn’t just situating the birth narrative among other historical events. He is inviting us to make a decision, to choose which narrative we will believe. Do peace and salvation come through force, through strong tactics and authoritarian rule? Or do peace and salvation come through something else altogether? Something that starts in a humble manger and ends on a humiliating cross?

My friends, today is the first day of Hanukkah, the day of dedication. As Christians we do not believe that the spirit of God is bound by any four walls, but rather we follow the teaching of the Apostle Paul which shows us that our bodies are the holy temple of God. On this first day of Hanukkah, let us rededicate our bodies as the temple where God will reign. May we make the decision today to remember that peace and salvation come to us through the son of God, the one who was born in the manger. The one who taught us how to love one another. The one who would give his life for us.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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