A Sermon by Bishop Wright:
Emperors and Angels
Isaiah 9.2–7; Luke 2.1–20
sermon at the Midnight Eucharist, Christmas Eve 2006
"Sing a song of Christmas, of emperors and angels;
And don’t we just want it? You can’t hear the song of the angels, or the prophecy of Isaiah, in today’s dangerous and chaotic world without thinking, with a sigh, ‘Yes! That’s what we’d like as our Christmas present: all the multiple debts, all the hard and unrewarded labour, all the soldiers’ boots and the bloodstained clothing – let’s do away with the lot of them!’ But, like the angels going away into heaven, the vision fades; and we go back to thinking of Christianity as a private religion, as a once-or-twice-a-year thing, all right for old ladies and young children but not much use when it comes to the real problems we face in the real world. And though I (and I hope you) have been thrilled by what the Archbishop of Canterbury was saying from Bethlehem last week, lighting a flickering candle of hope in that dark place, we hear the reassurances of our politicians and with a sinking heart we wonder if anything will ever change, as the bland lead the blind and all of them end up in the ditch. I’ll tell you something: if it was our country that was reduced to chaos by someone else’s inept and money-driven warmongering, we’d be getting to grips with the promises and prophecies of peace quite quickly. We wouldn’t be content simply to read Isaiah 9 at Christmas and forget about it for the rest of the year. We’d want to know, How can we turn this into action? What have we got to say, at Christmas or any other time, to the rulers of this world?
Well, you may say, I didn’t expect to be told about empires and money and wars when I came to church tonight. I expected to hear lovely things that would make me feel good inside. But that’s the trouble with how we’ve treated Christmas these many years: we’ve screened out the emperors, and so we’ve missed the point of the angels. The Christmas story, like Isaiah’s prophecy, isn’t about an escape from the real world of politics and economics, of empires and taxes and bloodthirsty wars. It’s about God addressing these problems at last, from within, coming into our world – his world! – and shouldering the burden of authority, coming to deal with the problems of evil, of chaos and violence and oppression in all their horrible forms. And only when we look hard at those promises and come to grips with what they really mean are we able to grasp the real comfort and joy that Christmas does truly provide. Otherwise we are purchasing a spurious private comfort at the inflated cost of allowing the rest of the world to continue in its misery.
You see this clearly in Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus, which we heard a moment ago. Luke takes the trouble to tell us about the Roman emperor Augustus, and his desire to take a census of more or less the whole known world. This isn’t just background information, or local colour to spice up the story. Empires, censuses and taxes were hot topics in the Middle East in the first century. When we have a census, we just fill in a boring form and send it off. They’re going to tax us anyway. Every time they had a census there were riots and people got killed: censuses then raised the sharp and dangerous questions of who runs the world, how it’s run, who profits by it all, who gets crushed in the process, and, perhaps above all, when is it all going to change? And what should we be doing about it? Luke has placed his story of Jesus’ birth and the angels’ song within this everyday story of Imperial behaviour because he wants us to know that Jesus’ birth is not an invitation to a private religion into which we can escape and feel cosy, but a summons to us, as it was to his first followers, to sign on under his authority, to celebrate the birth of the Wonderful Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace, and to work under that authority for the growth of his promised kingdom of endless peace, of justice and righteousness. And, my friends, we have made a singularly bad job of all this of late, and it’s time to get back on track."Read more here.
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