The way to Bethlehem

Adapted from the December 5, 2010 sermon “Whose peace?” by Rev. Rich Lang, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Seattle.

The way to Bethlehem is not an easy path. It is not a safe journey.

Luke’s account of the Advent tells us that the child in Mary’s womb would be a threat to the peace of Rome, a threat to collaboration between Jewish elites and Roman power. Mary knew. She sang of the mighty being dethroned and the wealthy being sent away empty. From the beginning of Luke we hear that conflict was coming. We hear that in Jesus a new creation was at hand, something new replacing something old. God was bringing an insurrection. God was birthing hope.

“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 Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem.” Luke 2:1 & 4 (KJV)

Caesar Augustus was called the Lord and Savior of the world, the bringer of peace, of law and order, the emperor whose legend had it that he was born of a virgin, that he was a son of God. This same Augustus decreed that an accounting of the Roman world would take place. Even then it cost a lot of money to have full-spectrum dominance to maintain the peace of the world.

The Peace of Rome was a militarily-imposed peace. It benefited a privileged elite with prosperity and it had trickle-down benefits for common folk who could now travel in relative security. Both then and now a National Security State has benefits and oppressions. Even today, living as we are in the belly of empire, the benefit of our military is that we think we are secure from terrorist attacks. We warm ourselves around the fires of mindless jingos. “We’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.”

But there are costs. We readily sacrifice our privacy and dignity at the altar of the illusion of security. To maintain empire we must continually increase the military’s budget, even if we have to neglect education, social security, infrastructure, public welfare, our civil liberties – these are the costs of America’s peace. Jesus’ world was not much different than our own, except that Jesus was much more like an Iraqi or an Afghani or a Palestinian. Jesus was much more like a Native American or a child of the working poor, or an immigrant. He was not much like we Americans who eat well at the table of Empire’s peace.

This was the peace that Augustus brought after years of revolutions, revolts, insurgencies, after years of political chaos and gridlock. With his victory at Actium, the Gospel (the good news) of the empire was that Augustus had finally established salvation, and he was the savior. The Emperor began to be worshipped as divinity, the touch of Heaven on earth.

Such was the propaganda Augustus used to maintain his imperial peace. In our day, that translates as sports partnered with omnipresent advertising of the armed services. In our day, think of the adoration of celebrities. Think of dancing with stars, and American idols, anything to keep us focused on anything other than how our public treasury is publicly plundered. In our day, think about the constant jawboning between Democrats and Republicans, as if they are not funded from the same corporate trough. Augustus had his mechanisms of public control, and we have ours.

Luke’s account does not domesticate the birth of Jesus. Luke puts politics front and center. A question for us to ponder is why has the Jesus story been so de-politicized in our time? Who benefits from a domesticated sweet baby boy? Who suffers the loss of a revolutionary, restored kingdom? Whose peace is protected when Jesus is only a therapeutic consoler of our broken hearts? Who suffers when plain-spoken prophecies are explained away? “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, anointing me to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to set the prisoner free and to proclaim God’s Jubilee … the forgiveness of financial debt.” Who benefits when the peace that is proclaimed does not result in liberation of those bound up by burdens that crush their spirit?

The birth of the baby in the barn was narrated in the context of a tax census initiated by Augustus. But in the midst of occupation, this act of imperial dominance, this oppressive tax policy, the Creator implanted hope of a new world coming. Even as Empire imposed a new form of oppression on its people, God gave birth to an obscure, off-the-radar event that would eventually threaten the great Pax Romana. This is the Christmas story, “O little town of Bethlehem … the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

Really? Really?! Is that the story? Is that what Christmas is all about today? Are we celebrating political hope? After all, we could sure use some hope:

Trillions of dollars have been lost in speculation but no one is held accountable. Billions are lost in the Pentagon but no one is held responsible. Millions of families have been foreclosed out of their homes. 27 million people are in need of work. 44 million are on food stamps. 52 million are in poverty. And this is happening at a time of record corporate profits, at a time when one-tenth of 1% of the population is sitting on $39 trillion!

Safety nets are breaking down. Austerity measures are increasing. Everyone knows the stock market is rigged, the tax system is rigged, revolving-door government is rigged, the two-party oligarchy is rigged, campaign finance is rigged, the rule of law is rigged, and mainstream media is rigged. We are at war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. We are close to war in Korea, in Iran, in South America. THIS is America’s peace and we are in desperate need of hope. The public proclamation of a domesticated Jesus who consoles us with warm-fuzzies in our heart is of no earthly good. What we need is a savior! We need God’s insurrection. We need a new path towards peace.

We need the courage to feed the hungry, to give drink to the parched, to embrace the stranger and the foreigner, to clothe the naked, to offer health care for the sick, to visit and release those in prisons. We need the courage and passion and vision of Mary’s son, to see the world as it is, and to dedicate our time, talent and treasure to help God bring the world into what it ought to be! THIS is the Christmas story of authentic Christian faith.

But the empire wants us to dumb it down, to not see the consequences of the peace it tries to impose. This is Advent, the season of light piercing the darkness. And we are once again on the way to Bethlehem. But this time it’s by choice. This time it is pilgrimage. We are going to Bethlehem to be renewed, to be restored, to be resurrected. We are going to Bethlehem to be near the baby born in a barn. We are going to Bethlehem to see things from the baby’s perspective – the perspective of the poor, of the oppressed, of those who face the imposed, destructive peace of empire.

From that perspective we are trying to learn to see light that pierces darkness, to see a way towards a future when our own nation can reclaim its heritage as a city on the hill, a beacon of hope to poor, tired, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Our own heritage and our own sacred covenant with God that says, “We hold these truths to be self evident.” We’re going to Bethlehem to learn how to restore the hopes and dreams of our people, the idealism of what we once were, the promise of what we still might be.

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