A Reading from the Book of Isaiah (9:2-7)
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts
will do this.
1 Sing to the Lord a new song; *
sing to the Lord, all the whole earth.
2 Sing to the Lord and bless his Name; *
proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day.
3 Declare his glory among the nations *
and his wonders among all peoples.
4 For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; *
he is more to be feared than all gods.
5 As for all the gods of the nations, they are but idols; *
but it is the Lord who made the heavens.
6 Oh, the majesty and magnificence of his presence! *
Oh, the power and the splendor of his sanctuary!
7 Ascribe to the Lord, you families of the peoples; *
ascribe to the Lord honor and power.
8 Ascribe to the Lord the honor due his Name; *
bring offerings and come into his courts.
9 Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; *
let the whole earth tremble before him.
10 Tell it out among the nations: “The Lord is King! *
he has made the world so firm that it cannot be moved;
he will judge the peoples with equity.”
11 Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad;
let the sea thunder and all that is in it; *
let the field be joyful and all that is therein.
12 Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy
before the Lord when he comes, *
when he comes to judge the earth.
13 He will judge the world with righteousness *
and the peoples with his truth.
A Reading from the Letter of Paul to Titus (2:11-14)
The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.
The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke (2:1-20)
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered.
Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.
When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered… and all the people went.” Isn’t that the way it always was? Isn’t that the way it always had been? Isn’t that the way it always would be? The Emperor decreed, and all the people went.
For as long as the people of Israel could remember, that was the way things had always worked. First it was the Pharaohs of Egypt; they gave the orders, and the people did what they were told When Israel first lived in the Promised Land, it was usually the kings of the other nations around them who gave the orders, and they had to obey. Even when they had their own kings, those rulers were all too often not much better than the foreigners; despite the condemnation of the prophets, those who had the power and the money made the rules, and the large majority of the people simply had to go along. Then came a whole succession of emperors: the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, Alexander the Great and his successors, on and on, down the line. Some were a little “less bad” than others, but essentially, they were all the pretty much the same.
And now it was the Romans. They now were the masters of the earth, the ultimate rulers of all. To defy them meant cruel and certain death. They always had the final word.
Their armies and their coins and their ubiquitous inscriptions reminded everyone constantly of who was in charge, of who was the definitive ruler of the world; it was Caesar, the Emperor. And his royal titles virtually shouted the reasons why. In the official doctrine of the Roman Empire, Augustus was the “Divine Emperor,” the “Lord,” the “Son of God,” the “Redeemer,” the “Savior of the World,”
He ruled the world. He gave the orders, and everyone else had to follow. That was the way things had always been. That was the way, it seemed, that things always would be. After all, who could possibly challenge that? Who could possibly change that? The situation seemed hopeless.
But little did the Emperor know that one of the many exercises of his supremacy, his calling for a census of the whole world, would set in motion a series of events that would “cast down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly”? For, according to St. Luke’s wonderful story that we heard again this evening, a young couple, living near the far eastern edge of Rome’s vast empire, would hear that decree and, like the rest of the world, would obey Caesar’s demands. But the child whom they would bear during the course of their sojourn would usher in the end of Caesar’s reign – and not only that of Caesar Augustus and all of his successors, but the reign over the world of all those who held the world’s power and wealth, all those who made the rules to benefit themselves while neglecting the needs of all and who insisted that everyone else simply go along.
In Luke’s timeless story, that child is born in the humblest of settings: not a very promising beginning for one who would change the world. The setting then shifts to a field nearby: to a group of shepherds simply doing their mundane and none-too-glorious job of watching over a flock of sheep in the middle of the night. But suddenly the scene changes dramatically, and it becomes glaringly obvious that this is by no means just another ordinary child. An angel of the Lord appears: not another messenger of that supposed lord, that pseudo-lord, Augustus, who claims to rule the world, but a messenger of the real Lord, of the one who truly rules heaven and earth. And that messenger brings “good news of great joy to all the people.”
Now the verb that Luke uses, the one that is translated “bringing good news,” was a technical Greek term that referred to the announcement of the coming of the emperor or of his personal and authoritative representative. As such, for the first hearers of the gospel, that word was packed with meaning. It defied the pretentions of Augustus and of all the rulers of this world, and declared that God, the true ruler of all, was coming in the person of God’s personal and authoritative representative – and not just coming to a select few, but coming to all people. And as for the child who had just been born, he was to be what Caesar had only claimed to be: this child would truly be “the Savior…, the Lord.” Coming in the name of God, and himself embodying God, this child would be the true Son of God, the true Redeemer, the true Prince of Peace.
It was with the birth of Jesus that God began to turn the world upside down or, more accurately, to set the world right for the first time. It would be in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus that God would begin to overcome the powers that had ruled the world for so long and to establish a kingdom of justice, peace and love. It would become the kind of world that God intended it to be from the beginning: a world in which everyone genuinely cared for God’s earth and for all those who live in it, where all people had a fair and equitable share in the world’s resources that God had given, not for the wealth and comfort of the few, but for the good of all.
That transformation would never be easy, nor would it be completed quickly. So far, it has taken 2000 years, and we are obviously far from the goal. But it has begun. It began in Jesus and has continued in the lives of countless believers over the centuries who have decided to do what the shepherds did in Luke’s story: “Let us go… and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” They have gone, and they have seen, and they have followed where Jesus has led the way.
And now it is our turn. Now, on this Christmas Eve, God calls on us to follow in their footsteps. God calls us to “go… and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” God calls us to go and see: to go and come to know Jesus whose birth we are celebrating. God calls us to go and see the vision of the reign of God that Jesus laid out before us in his life and teaching. God calls us to go and see the way of dying and rising by which Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God and through which Jesus calls us to walk in order to continue his work in our time, doing our part to bring it to completion in a day of God’s choosing.
The birth of Jesus, as marvelous and world-changing as it was, was only a beginning. It was the start, not only of Jesus’ work in the world, but of ours as well. It was the beginning of the struggle of the ages: the struggle to put down from their thrones all those would-be emperors of every age so that God alone might reign, so that God’s will alone might be done, so that God’s kingdom in all its fullness might at last come in this world.
And someday, when, with the grace of God we, who are followers of Jesus, bring that work to its completion, then will all creation join at last in the song of the angels, proclaiming eternal glory to God in the highest and unending peace to all the earth.