Here is the sermon I preached on Christmas Day last year. It points out the great contrast between the king who slept in the animals’ trough in Bethlehem and the king who slept in luxury in the palace in Jerusalem.
A Sermon on Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 1:46-55, Luke 2:1-20 and Matthew 2:1-15
One of King Herod’s palaces towered above Bethlehem. One of his many massive and opulent building projects, which included the Jerusalem Temple, this palace was called the Herodium. He it named for himself. You could see it for miles around, and it was a feat of architecture and engineering. Herod literally removed the mountain that was next to it. The Herodium was taller than the Egyptian pyramids. Among its marvels was a huge pool in the midst of dry, dusty desert. There’s a drawing of what the Herodium probably looked like in the book that the Fellowship Sunday School class read during Advent. (See The Journey by Adam Hamilton.)
Herod wielded the power of wealth, and he wielded the power of fear. To get rid of all possible challengers, he spilled blood and more blood. He even had several members of his own family executed. Fights went on over who Herod’s successor might be, but of course there could be no successor except the one he chose.
As powerful as Herod was, an even greater power loomed above him. The Roman Empire had put Herod where he was. The emperor could flick him off like a flea, but he proved useful. Rome extracted resources from all the peoples it had conquered and controlled its holdings through threat and fear. Herod was part of that enterprise. And one of Rome’s weapons against any who might rebel was the cross.
Down below Herod’s palace lay the little town of Bethlehem. Its name meant “house of bread,” and its bakeries may have supplied Jerusalem a few miles away. It was a town of ordinary, working class people who lived in simple dwellings. Up in the Herodium, Herod had lots and lots of rooms, including a 900-seat theater. But most of them had only two or three. They kept their animals in shelters attached to their homes. Sometimes these were caves down under the main living quarters. The people of Bethlehem were doing their best to get on with living under the shadow of the Herodium, and of the cruel King who built it, and of the empire that stood over him. And they were longing for something better.
Longing for something better just like the prophet Micah and the people of his day, when it was the Assyrian empire extracting money from Judah. And the rich and powerful passed the cost right on down to those who could least afford it. Sounds familiar. Micah declared, “Out of you, Bethlehem, yes you, shall come a ruler who will feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, and they shall live securely, and he shall be the One of peace.” What a contrast this ruler would be! And he was on his way, Micah said.
A young woodworker named Joseph who hailed from Bethlehem had recently returned there to be registered for a census ordered by the Roman Emperor. Once again Rome was jerking the chains of the people it held. It was the worst possible time to make this trip. Joseph’s fiancée, Mary, was in the final stages of pregnancy. It is hard to imagine a more miserable journey. Nine days of hard travel on top of the many late pregnancy discomforts Mary was coping with. When they arrived, the town was full of extra people there for the same reason they were. It was a struggle to accommodate everyone. When she went into labor, it was a struggle to find a place for Mary to give birth. The only available space was in the animals’ shelter.
On the night after Jesus was born, Bethlehem’s lowliest citizens, shepherds, were out doing their job, when an angel, a messenger from heaven startled them with the news that the longed-for ruler had arrived. “Don’t be afraid,” the messenger said. “I’ve got good news for you and for everybody. Unto you is born this day a Savior, Christ the Lord. You will find him swaddled and lying in a manger.”
The power above all powers had arrived, but he had slipped into the world in a very small way, a downright weak way, a human way. God himself was born, just like each of us. But not in Caesar’s palace in Rome. Not in Herod’s palace above Bethlehem. Not even in the biggest, most famous, most visited worship place around, the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus was born in the little town called House of Bread. Already God was turning things upside down, just as Mary’s song says. And while Caesar and Herod and their cronies were feeding off of other people, the newborn bread of life slept in a feeding trough. Nobody much noticed, though. Just a few from the lowest class, a small congregation of shepherds who glimpsed the glory one night when they were at work. And a few foreigners who noticed the star. Nobody who was anybody.
What a contrast! Jesus was born with an agenda that was upside down from Herod’s. His agenda was not to serve himself, but to serve others. Not to curry favor from the powerful, but to lift up the lowly. Not to feast with the affluent, but to feed the hungry and bring good news to the poor. Not to protect his own life, but to give it so others might live. What a contrast to Caesar or Herod. He reigns by love. He feeds the people with the strength of God. He brings the peace that really is peace.
Human wisdom says that power lies in money and in might. But Christ, the power above all powers, still makes his power perfect in weakness. He slips in where there is pain and sickness and hunger and poverty and injustice and oppression and death and starts turning things upside down. Those who adore him follow him in that same direction. No big fanfare necessary.
The first Christmas was not marked by a big, loud, expensive party up at the palace. Instead a small congregation of weak people gathered and wondered at this thing that God was doing.
Christmas arrives in small, humble ways, in simple stories of people trying to be faithful to the Lord who loves them. We’ve heard a number of these kinds of stories this Advent. There was the story we heard last week of a small congregation that did the very best it could to adopt a child with autism and his family into the church family. There was also the story of the pastor who visited people in the nursing home on Christmas Eve to read the Christmas story to them and visit with those who had no one to visit them. That’s the place to look for our king.
And as I saw a few nights ago, he is born when a small company of messengers goes out into the night on a mission to encourage struggling people. They go to sing, and to remind others that Jesus really is born. He is here. He loves us. He loves you. And he always will.
To use Mary’s words, God certainly does lift up the lowly and the suffering and does great things for them.
In small places like Bethlehem, God can do great things through small groups of people who seek him and seek his will. He slips in and operates in the power of weakness, and starts turning things upside down. In Bethlehem. And in this little town called Morton.
Christmas Day is the dawn of the greatest reversal of all. We call that Easter.
Art by Laura Todd, age 8 or 9