preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
Eve, December 25, 2015
Revised Common Lectionary
(Luke 2:1-10) And it came to pass in those days, that there
went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be
taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of
Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also
went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city
of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage
of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with
child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were
accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn
son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because
there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were in the same
country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by
night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory
of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel
said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy,
which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of
David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign
unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, 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, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
And it came to pass, as
the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to
another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to
pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and
found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen
it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this
child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them
by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her
heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all
the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.
I'll bet you are all familiar with some of illustrations of
optical illusions. You look at a drawing one way, and you see a flower vase.
But if you change your focus toward the background, it is two faces turned
toward each other in profile. Or the one that looks like a young woman or an
elderly lady, depending on where you focus.
Some people have a hard time seeing one of the images once
their brain has imprinted on the other. Sometimes it helps to have a friend
coach you through it. Scientists tell us you can't see both images
simultaneously. Our eyes and minds shift back and forth and tend to follow our
focus. Occasionally, the imprint of one version will be so strong that it is
virtually impossible for a person to see the other image, even if they've
glimpsed it or seen it before. It takes energy and concentration to see the
other image. We tend to see what we focus on. We tend to see what we expect to
Luke's Christmas Gospel offers a dual focus that I find
compelling. It begins on the world stage: And
it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar
Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made
when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
Caesar Augustus, the founder of the Roman Empire, who ruled
that Empire for 40 years as one of the most powerful men in human history. And
Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, the governor of Syria, who was charged with making
an assessment of the regions of Samria, Judea, and Idumea (or Edom), starting
with a census, in order to facilitate the Roman tax.
When Caesar sneezes, little places like Judea and Galilee
get pneumonia. It's still that way. That tax decree set in motion a militant chain
of reactions, starting with the creation of the Jewish party of the Zealots.
The Zealots believed that God alone rules. They worked to oust the Romans by
violence and to install a theocracy, with themselves in charge. One wing of
their movement, the Sicarrii, focused on assassinations of fellow Jews who they
believed either collaborated with the Romans or held to false tenants of
Judaism. The Zealots were described by Romans in terms not unlike how we
describe ISIS. They were terrorists deserving death, and the Romans crucified
the worst of them. The Zealots' militancy led to their seizing Jerusalem
briefly, provoking a war involving Jews against Romans, Jewish sects against
other Jewish sects, breathtaking causalities, mass executions, and finally the destruction
of Jerusalem and its enormous Temple. Thus began the great Diaspora of the
Jews, exiled from their home, and Jerusalem became a Roman city called Aelia
If you had lived in Bethlehem on the evening we celebrate
tonight, the focus of whatever was that century's version of CNN would have
been Augustus, the Census or Quirinius, or the latest Zionist atrocity. These
are the things historians like Josephus report.
But the most earth shaking event was actually happening in a
cave serving as an animal shelter: the birth of a child to a young Jewish
peasant family. We now number the years of history from before and after that
night. But the only contemporary notice came from some shepherds who were
sensitive enough to pay attention to something that seemed like an angelic
message in the middle of the night. And some ivory-towered scientists who
theorized about a connection between something in outer space and something on
Life in Bethlehem and Jerusalem and Rome went on unaffected
by this birth. Rocked to sleep instead by the latest violence, the newest
economic forecast, and today's political crisis.
So Luke gives us both reference points, both objects of
focus. Caesar and Mary. Quirinius and Joseph. The incendiary census and Jesus.
We know what is actually more significant. We know what God is up to then. But will
we wire our brains so that we will continue to keep that focus? Will we
continue to focus on what God is up to in this world of optical illusions?
Recently I was talking with one of our high school seniors,
Tel Johnson. I was interviewing Tel for a Fuller Youth Institute research
project about youth ministry. This is one of the questions, I asked Tel:
"When God looks at you, what expression do you imagine is on God's
face?" Now take a second. How would you answer that question if I asked
you that tonight? "When God looks at you, what expression do you imagine
is on God's face?" Tel said she recalled being with her mom's best friend
right after her baby was born. "That look of a mother, gazing at her
newborn baby. That face: peaceful. A smile, not big and teethy, but deep and
enduring," she said. "That's how I imagine God's face looking at
Oh, yes! Yes indeed! God looks at us like Mary looks at
Jesus, or like any loving mother looks at a beloved child. A look filled with
loving care. Tel's answer filled me with gladness, and maybe a little pride too.
That a child who has grown up in this congregation as she has, experiences God
that way…? Well, we're doing something right. And so are her parents, and so is
God is love. Humble, simple, present love, deep in the heart
of reality. The deepest and most powerful reality at the core of the universe,
the source of life and light. Love so deep and so humble; almost invisible. To
recognize that ever-present love, you have to shift your focus intentionally.
You have to adjust your view, often away from the garish and loud, and toward
the quiet and subtle.
We say that on Christmas, God comes to us as a baby: a child
born to a displaced middle-eastern peasant family with no shelter but a manger
for animals. That's not easy to see. Until Jesus revealed himself to the Romans
by entering Jerusalem in the manner anticipated for the coming Messiah, his
ministry stayed well below the radar. He was hidden, like a pinch of yeast in a
huge measure of flour, or a tiny coin lost in the stone cracks of a poor
woman's dark hut.
Think of the stories of Jesus. When he took the disciples to
the great Temple of Herod, one of the architectural wonders of the ancient
world, Jesus' focus was on a widow placing a penny in the treasury. He declared
that her gift was greatest gift in all that Temple. When he looked at wildflowers
covering a field, he said that the field was grander, more beautiful than all
of the jeweled raiment of King Solomon, the richest of rulers.
When others saw a stranger or an alien or someone repulsive
or an enemy, Jesus saw a beloved child of God. He healed the Canaanite woman's
child and gave living water to a Samaritan, both traditional enemies of his
people. He healed a Roman soldier's slave and naked madman living in the tombs.
In violation of Biblical laws of cleanliness, he touched a corpse and a leper,
bringing them life. He invited himself to eat at the home of Zacchaeus, the hated,
rich chief tax collector of Jericho, and a few miles down the road, he healed a
blind beggar. He included among his closest companions a tax collector, several
peasant fishermen, one of those aforementioned Zealots, and many women, like
Martha's sister Mary, whom he let sit at his feet as a student, a place
normally reserved only for men.
Jesus invites us to live in his world. One way to describe
what it is like to live in Jesus' world, is to imagine how Jesus looked upon
each person he encountered. Judging from his actions toward them, you might say
that Jesus looked at each person he encountered much like a mother looks upon
her beloved child. Jesus chose to look with compassion and love toward all. He
made that choice in the middle of a turbulent, threatening, violent world. And
he spread peace.
He invites us to live in that alternative world. But it
takes some discipline and some focus. We're conditioned to see what CNN sees,
or what that worst tyrant, our own small, self-interest sees. We've got to
shift our focus. Is it a vase or is it two human faces? We tend to see what we
focus on. We tend to see what we expect to see.
Tonight will you see the heavens opened in joy at our
celebration of the birth of the Christ Child? Will you know his presence in the
communion of bread and wine, his body and blood? Will you be one with all of
us, his Body in the world?
Will you walk out of here with your eyes healed? Seeing God's
face turned toward you in infinite love, God's eyes looking at you lovingly, like
a mother gazing upon her child. Will you walk out of here and choose to see the
world through eyes of Jesus, eyes of compassion and love? Shift your focus just a bit, and you can. You
can see like one who is able love your neighbor as yourself? That would be a
wonderful Christmas gift to the world.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will
The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church is to explore and
God's infinite grace, acceptance and love.
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mission, please contact us at
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