“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed”
What a terrible prospect to start our Gospel reading – global taxation
– the sort of thing which Gordon Brown or George Osborne could only dream of
– Rome the ultimate state, its power covering all the known world– with no tax havens (except perhaps Caledonia – i.e. Scotland!).
So St Luke puts us in the world of history
– this is the real world
– where Quirinius was Governor of Syria
– the real world where people have to pay taxes (it’s that time of year soon – remember the self-assessment deadline is 30th January)
And Augustus did have great power in the real world
–the first Roman Emperor
– the victor of Actium
– the man who defeated Pompey and Mark Antony
– so powerful that he was declared a god
– to be worshiped as a god
– ruling from the Palatine in Rome, like Zeus on Olympus.
While he was still alive they wrote a list of his achievements – the Res Gestae Divi Augusti (the things which the divine Augustus had achieved)
–Like the Pax Romana – which saw peace and prosperity according to the Roman way imposed by military force throughout the world
– when he eventually died in 14AD they put up the Res Gestae on bronze tablets all around the Empire (they did not seem to notice that dying was not actually very godlike)
– fragments of the Res Gestae tablets have been found all over the Roman empire, although none of them actually remains complete
So Luke starts our narrative with the power of the state being imposed on ordinary people
– Mary and Joseph are being shunted around Judea at the arbitrary whim of the authorities
– the same whimsical power which will execute their son …
But our reading moves quickly from the mighty Roman Empire to “shepherds living out in the fields nearby” with angels visiting and telling them first the good news of great joy for all people about the birth of Christ in, Bethlehem, the City of David. And they sing “Glory to God in Highest, and on earth peace, good will to men.” There is an implicit juxtaposition between the Pax Romana of the divine Augustus and the Peace on Earth which the angels announce.
But why do the angels seek out shepherds? There is nothing in the other Gospels about it. Why are the shepherds so important to Luke?
Being a shepherd in New Testament times must have been the equivalent of being a modern day security guard. A job which involved anti-social hours, lots of time alone, not well-paid but full of responsibility, a job for those who are comfortable in their own company, solitary, thoughtful people – with a lot of time to fill with thoughts and dreams.
Not perhaps the lowest of the low but not your first choice career. And yet shepherds and the attributes of shepherds are full of significance in the bible.
Most importantly David
– the boy who would become King – one of the principal archetypes for Jesus in the Old Testament – David began as a shepherd – he is called in from tending the sheep in the fields to bring food to his bothers and so finds himself facing Goliath (1 Samuel 17)
Shepherd metaphors are found throughout the psalms and most famously in Psalm 23 where we sing The Lord is my Shepherd
In our Old Testament Lesson from Micah last Sunday: “But you, O Bethlehem, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth one who is to rule in Israel, … he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of The Lord”. (Micah 5 2-5)
So for all their apparent lowliness shepherds are associated with Jewish royalty and with prophesies of the Messiah.
Within the Christian tradition the imagery is even richer, for Jesus is not only the shepherd but also the lamb – the sacrificial lamb of Passover
In John’s Gospel when we first meet Jesus he is greeted by John the Baptist saying, ”Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Agnus Dei qui tollit peccata mundi)
In the book of Revelation there are 20 references to the Lamb which themselves clearly reference Christ – “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise” (Revelation 5:11)
And so in Luke’s Gospel we first meet Jesus in a stable as Mary lays him in a manger –
– Jesus is placed in a cattle feed trough
– the manger is where animals are fed, where food is found
– the symbolism is dramatic
– Jesus is the lamb of God – he is our sacrificial lamb – to be slaughtered as our Passover feast –the means of our atonement and our spiritual food
As we prepare to receive the elements of the Eucharist this morning as we enter into communion with our God we prepare to feed on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving
– born in a stable, laid in a manger tended by shepherds
– the extraordinary in the ordinary
– the divine in everyday bread and wine.
A memorial which is very different from the bronze tablets of the divine Augustus, and a lot longer lasting.
In the book of Revelation we read “Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!’” Revelation 19:9. The peace which comes from the knowledge and love of God is better than the Pax Romana which ended long ago – we are blessed indeed.
While we are on the Book of Revelation (in Greek: the “Apocalypse”), many people thought the world was going to end last Friday
Anyone here? I think many people were disappointed that it didn’t – I know my son is one of them as he bet me £100 that the Mayans were right – I stand to collect on a wager which by definition I could not lose
So the bad news is that you will have to complete that tax return by the end of January – you will have to go back to school in January and sit your exams, pay your mortgage, save for your retirement.
So what is the good news? That the world is not going to end – not now or any time soon – but quite the contrary – in fact it is born again, this day and every day
The good news is that life is not simple – it is not a question of easy absolutes, of a deadline from the Mayan calendar and external certainties – there is no easy fix – but instead it is complex and full of surprises – highs and lows – joys and sufferings – shepherds can receive divine mysteries, God can be found in a horse trough and hanging on a tree
– our choices make a difference and whatever we have done, whatever we have been, however meanly we have thought and acted – we are reborn, fresh as a new born baby, as pure as a lamb, as innocent as a child this morning and every morning.
Life begins again each day
This good news is both a comfort and a challenge – as much for us now as it was for our patron Saint, Mary, as she tried to come to terms with what God was asking her to do as she knelt in a stable in Bethlehem – her joy at the birth of a child would be followed by her grief as she would give him up to die – we read that “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
Treasure in the sense of storing up for the future – putting in a safe place where it can be found on a rainy day. Ponder in the sense of rolling it around in the mind so that it makes a difference to us and we to it – like a precious stone in a polisher – getting shinier and shinier, or a favourite pair of shoes that fit us, and only us, like a glove
And for us in the real world today, we who are not sure what God wants us to do, or what his purpose is for us, who do not have the benefit of a star or an angel choir to help guide us on the way to truth, then perhaps that is a good place to start as any – listening to the words and signs of God in the world, treasuring them and pondering them in our hearts.
Storing up the good news from this Christmas Day for the day when illness or misfortune comes, bad exam results or the death of a close friend
Storing up the good news that we are loved and forgiven.
Storing up the knowledge that we begin again each day afresh.
Storing up the knowledge that God has a purpose for each of us – treasuring it and pondering it in our hearts.
That would seem a good way to start this Christmas Day and indeed every day that follows. Amen