Good News and Great Joy to the World – December 12

A sermon based on Luke 2:8-20 (KJV)

given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on December 12, 2021 *

by Rev. Scott Elliott

After living good long lives three men died one Advent Sunday and were met by Saint Peter at the pearly gates. “In honor of this holy season,” Saint Peter said, “We’re making it easy to get past the gates if you possess something that at least remotely represents a symbol of the Christmas Holidays.”  The first man fumbled through his pockets and pulled out a lighter. He flicked it on. “It represents a candle,” he claimed. “You may pass through the pearly gates.” Saint Peter said.  The second man reached into his pocket and pulled out a set of keys. He shook them “They’re bells.” Saint Peter said, “You may pass through the pearly gates.”  The third man searched his pockets desperately, then sheepishly pulled out a pair of women’s glasses from a jacket pocket and waved it at St. Peter who raised an eyebrow and asked, “And just what do those symbolize?”  The man replied, “They’re my wife’s . . . they’re Carol’s.”

Today we are going to hear a little about finding Christmas symbolism in other sources and that was the only joke I know that came close to fitting. There are a lot of symbols at Christmas. Many have ancient non-Christian origins.  For example, mistletoe was used by the Druids to celebrate the coming of winter long before the birth of Christ. They believed that evergreen had healing powers and hung it up as a winter decoration.  In Scandinavia mistletoe symbolized peace and harmony and was linked to the Scandinavian goddess of love, Frigga, which may be why it’s associated with kissing.  Because it was a pagan symbol the Church originally tried to ban mistletoe at Christmas and suggested it be replaced by holly, so now we have both– and each brings joy to us this time of year.

The date we celebrate Christmas is also symbolic. A Christianity Today article notes that

“The eventual choice of December 25 . . . reflects a convergence of . . . concern[s] about pagan gods and the church’s identification of God’s son with the celestial sun. December 25 already hosted two other related festivals . . . the Roman “birth of the unconquered sun” . . . and the birthday of Mithras, the Iranian “Sun of Righteousness” whose worship was popular with Roman soldiers. The winter solstice, another celebration of the sun, fell just a few days earlier.  Seeing that pagans were already exalting deities with some parallels to the true deity, church leaders decided to commandeer the date and introduce a new festival.” 2

Christ Mass, what we now call “Christmas” was that new joyful festival.

Co-opting symbolism can also be traced to the Christmas stories themselves. The co-opting in the stories is brilliant.  Before Jesus,  Rome claimed Caesar was born of a virgin, associated with a star and the son of a god. He was also called Lord, Prince of Peace, Redeemer, and Savior of the World.  The first Christians took and made all those claims about Jesus–and we still do. At that time making use of such titles for “the newborn Jesus would [have been heard as] either low lampoon or high treason and . . . Rome was not laughing.” 3

You see such majestic claims were reserved for elite born emperors, not lowly born peasant baby boys–and most certainly not for one whom the empire convicted and executed as a lowly criminal.  Giving such a fellow titles and honors reserved for the divine Emperor of Rome was absurd to the Roman Empire, to them Jesus was nothing more than a peasant criminal.

But, of course, Jesus’ followers – then and now–  know Jesus as so much more than that. He lived and loved so well people experienced God incarnate in him– and on His Way– so much so they continued to experience God though Jesus and his Way after he was executed and supposedly disposed of by Rome.  Jesus became God incarnate in the world not just in his life but ever since.

The early Jesus Followers brazenly made it clear that God was decidedly NOT experienced in Rome’s mighty, rich and powerful emperor and deity Caesar. Rather God was experienced in and through Jesus the one who’s entire life from start to finish was the very opposite of Caesar’s. That opposite life created a path of peace and hope and love.  It’s a life that still does that and continues to bring good news of great joy for all people . . . just as the angel proclaims in our lesson.

If we listen carefully to the Nativity stories in the Bible we can hear them as parables where things happen with symbolic meaning.  They all are about venerating the God of Jesus, not Caesar.  Set in a rough and tumble world, they pit Heaven’s empire against the earthly empire, Rome.  Caesar was of elite birth and lived a life of wealth and power imposing violence and injustices on others. Jesus was of humble birth and lived a life of peace and love and joy. Caesar obtained power over his people through violence, oppression, exclusion, hate and war creating bad news of terror and sorrow for non-elites. Jesus obtained power over God’s people promoting non-violence, justice, inclusivity, love and peace. Jesus created good news of great joy for all people . Caesar and Jesus are polar opposites.

There is more than a little irony to Rome’s claims that Caesar was born of a virgin, associated with a star, and called son of god, lord, prince of peace, redeemer, and savior of the world, as those are the very images and titles associated with Jesus for 2,000 years.  We can hear the Gospel’s say “No! Caesar is not god; Caesar is not those things! We reject those titles for him. The One to whom such titles belong to is Jesus whom we experience as God incarnate, THE Christ.”

In our lesson today the followers of Jesus can be heard to be symbolized by the shepherds, people who were rough and tumble outcasts at the time. Because of Jesus’ birth those outcasts – nobodies to most in their time and place– experience God in the form of an angel and the glory of the Lord and it scares them.  But they are told not to be frightened that God’s incarnation on earth in their life is about good tidings and great joy for everyone– for everyone. God incarnated in Jesus is not to be feared, it’s the God we know as Love.

And it’s good news and joy to the world because Rome’s Caesar is NOT Savior and Lord, Heaven’s Christ is.  And peace is not for the world’s elite alone, but peace on earth and good will is for all of humankind.  For two thousand years ordinary people have taken great joy in that. We still do. Thank God.  AMEN

 

ENDNOTES

* Based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2011

  1. The information on mistletoe, holly and the date of Christmas were found on this site:
  2. This quote is from the Christianity Today website: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/news/2000/dec08.html
  3. Borg, Marcus, Crossan, Dominic, The First Christmas.

 

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