A sermon on Luke 2:1-7 (Prepared for 96.5 Family FM)
By Peter Lockhart
In my experience one of the things that seems to be common amongst the people I meet is that they want their lives to mean something, to have a purpose. More than that many want to be remembered, they want to carve their niche on this world. People want to know that their life matters that it counts for something.
It’s interesting this idea that we want to make our lives count especially given that earlier this year we had a census in Australia in which we were all counted. For me this census was made far more impersonal than previous ones and made me think I counted even less because like many things these days I did it online.
I wonder how you felt being counted by the Australian government, did it make you feel like your life really mattered any more or less. Did you feel like your life counted for something?
Realistically the bureaucrats and powers that be of our day really can’t make our lives count anymore simply by counting us and nor could they in times past.
The opening words of the second chapter of Luke’s gospel tell us that a seemingly insignificant couple from Nazareth were about to be swept up in the bureaucracy of their age.
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”
The registration spoken of in this passage was of course a census, a census being conducted by the ruling power of Rome under its first Emperor, Augustus.
Now mentioning Emperor Augustus may not mean much to us but to Luke’s community this would have been really big. Luke wrote his gospel just over 30 years after Jesus’ death, which means it would have been nearly 50 years since Augustus’ death.
During his life Emperor Augustus had been understood to be the son of a god, in as much as his adopted father Julius Caesar was hailed as a god after his death. Whilst after his own death Emperor Augustus was also declared to be divine by the Roman Senate.
So, it was this god-like figure of Emperor Augustus who called the census. In doing so he had set Joseph and Mary travelling the road to Bethlehem and to a not insignificant event: the birth of their first son.
Now as I was thinking about Mary and Joseph and the census the question kept coming back to me, “what really makes a person count?” Mary and Joseph had gone off to be counted by the Romans. In terms of their lives did it make them count anymore as people to be counted by the Romans?
If their experience of a census was anything like ours simply an inconvenience then I would expect the answer would have been no. The contrast between the story of this seemingly insignificant couple and the story of the Roman Empire under possibly its most significant Emperor Augustus is immense. But what is interesting is that it is the story of Mary and Joseph that really should cause us to pause to consider what it is that makes a person count.
Does being counted by a government, Roman or Australian, really make you count any more in the big scheme of things? The answer is obviously no but as I suggested at the beginning we all like to be ‘counted’.
We would rather be counted in than counted out. But what does this mean? And how do we work out who is counted in and who is counted out? We all have our ways of thinking about this that we apply all the time. We count some people in and we count some people out. Every time we do this we draw a line around the community we are part of and in doing so try to make sure that we are counted in. In building our human communities we usually build them by excluding others as much as by including others.
But if we go back to Mary and Joseph and the story of the birth of Jesus the whole Christmas story revolves around not that the Romans, under Augustus reign, counted Mary and Joseph but that in God’s eyes Mary and Joseph, and might I say all people of all times and place, count because God loves us.
We know we count precisely because Jesus was born in Bethlehem during the reign of Emperor Augustus. Why? Because Jesus not Augustus is God among us and the historical backdrop that the Bible gives to us helps us to know and understand that Jesus was a real person at a real time in history.
The story of Jesus birth let all humanity and the whole creation into the good news that we count so much to God that Jesus, who is God’s Son, comes to be one of us so that we might have peace with God and live our lives knowing that we count.
In this one small child God shows to us that we all count.
In this one small child God counts us in rather than counts us out.
In this one small child a new future for all of us, and the whole creation, is born.
This is what really counts at Christmas time, remembering that no matter whom we are, regardless of whether the bureaucrats have counted us, regardless of what others might say, regardless even of whether we’ve been naughty or nice; God wants to count us in. God wants to include you and me in a life that matters and Jesus presence in the world points to a hope that we can all share in – we do count, we do matter to God, the one who made us.
This has implications for how we live: living with the knowledge that not only does my life count but so does everybody else’ life. This leads us to include others rather than exclude them, knowing despite any differences or faults or foibles we might with each other have we all matter to God.
I must admit that I find it somewhat ironic that our Christmas celebrations are filled with counting things other than this good news of how much we count to God.
For example, if you were to reflect on the past week I wonder how much counting you have done:
Counting the days left until Christmas;
Counting the hours in a day;
Counting the dollars in your wallet or purse;
Or more likely counting the dollars on the rising credit card bill;
Counting the Christmas cards that you have received;
And, counting people in as you send them a card in return or maybe counting people out because they did not send you a card this year.
And the counting won’t stop:
Counting the number of presents that you receive;
Counting the number of prawns or serves of turkey that you have eaten;
Counting how many drinks you have had;
Counting the calories that you have consumed;
And, so the counting goes on.
But this morning, in this moment, gathered together as we are, listening again to the story of Jesus’ birth we remember that what really counts at Christmas time is that this story of Jesus’ birth lets us know how much we count to God – that in this one small child Mary, Joseph, and all of us – and maybe even Augustus and Quirnius - count far more than any of us can fully comprehend.
The God who can count the very hairs on our heads took the time to visit with us on earth, to live among us and share in our life. And more than that by sharing in our life and our death as human beings Jesus carries us through from death into new life where we can know and celebrate forever just how much we really count to God.
So as we hear that good news again this Christmas let us celebrate that you and I really matter, that we count to God because once long ago for a woman named Mary:
the time came for her to deliver her child.
And she gave birth to her firstborn son
and wrapped him in bands of cloth,
and laid him in a manger,
because there was no place for them in the inn.