Sermon "Count Your Blessings"
The Christmas story in the gospel of Luke starts with a very detailed introduction. We hear who was in power in Rome, and the name of a Syrian governor. And most memorably, that the Emperor, Caesar Augustus had decided to conduct a census of all the people in his empire. This census called for every man to be counted in his hometown. This was why Joseph had to leave Nazareth with Mary, and travel to Bethlehem, about a week’s journey.
At Christmas time, we hear these words, and they get wrapped in a kind of sentimental gauze. It wasn’t convenient for Mary, who was 9 months pregnant, to walk across the room, much less from one town to another. And, if you’ve ever been to Israel, you know that this is a hilly country, so it wouldn’t have been an easy trip. Nonetheless, after centuries of carols and Christmas card paintings, not to mention children’s Christmas pageants, there is something quaint and charming about this scene. Mary on a donkey, with a good ending in sight.
But 2000 years ago, when this account was written, many readers would have seen it differently. The New Testament is called “New” because there was already a testament, the Hebrew Scriptures. They contained the stories of Moses, Abraham, prophets, and patriarchs. The early Christians studied those stories and histories very carefully. So, they knew that in those Hebrew scriptures, there was another story of a government that called for a census. It happened back in the time when David was King. David, who was born in Bethlehem. David wanted to know how many men were in his kingdom who could be conscripted as soldiers. In one account, we’re told that Satan put this idea in his head. One of his advisors warns him that there is no need to count men for an army, God will multiply the soldiers one hundred-fold if needed. The implication is that it is an insult to God to try to count God’s subjects, as if the King were really in charge. (1 Chronicles 21; 2 Samuel 24)
But King David does it anyway. God becomes angry and sends an angel to punish David and the nation. The angel appears in the sky, and David repents, filled with remorse over his arrogance in counting the people. To make amends, he builds an altar to God, where the temple will be built some years later. A place where God and humanity can meet.
The people who told stories of Christ’s birth knew that in the Bible, you need God’s permission to order a census. The Roman census that puts Joseph and Mary on the road is not just inconvenient, but it is sacrilegious. Only God is allowed to count the people, because we all belong to God, and no one else. The Romans want to conduct this godless census so people who have been conquered can be taxed. To the gospel writer, this is just a replay of David’s census, inspired by Satan, to further the evil ways of the world. The census at the start of the Christmas story is not a bureaucratic detail, but a way of reminding us that when Jesus came, the world was in the hands of an evil government, which thought it was really in charge of what happened on Earth.
Lately, we have all had a lot of experience with counting people. During these covid-times, every day the newspapers announce how many people have become infected, how many are in hospital, how many have been vaccinated. It seems like our lives have been taken over by counting. And this kind of census is necessary for our safety. Unless we know how many are infected, we won’t know what kind of trouble we’re in, and what lies ahead. In the summer of 2020, people of colour demanded that medical data include racial identity so that they could be counted accurately. When race-based data was collected it revealed that the pandemic had a devastating toll on people of colour. That was an important change in the way we took account of the infected. There is nothing wrong with a compassionate census. That is truly God’s work, when we seek to protect the people.
But there is a risk with this kind of data. We can become complacent. Low infection numbers make it seem like everything will be ok. We trick ourselves into thinking that what we count is all there is. Scientists know better and have warned governments that low infection numbers can jump suddenly. The data only tells us who came in to be tested, it can’t count people who never get tested. Scientists understand the limitations of their census. Politicians don’t, or don’t want to. They want everything to go back to normal as soon as possible, and usually act when the numbers are already rising. Like the Romans, they think they can trust the census data. That they can pin everything down, and really know what is going on just from the numbers. But reality is always much, much more than what can be counted.
None of us wanted to be thinking about infection rates this Christmas. We all wanted a Christmas that could be carefree, where the biggest problem we would have been whether a gift would be delivered on time, or whether there would be enough room at the table. We wanted a Christmas full of laughter and cheer, where we could just kick back and enjoy ourselves, let joy – in. But instead, we have empty churches, cancelled trips and nervous dinner guests.
That sense that things aren’t right, that the world is out of kilter is what that first Christmas felt like, too. Joseph didn’t want to put Mary on a donkey for a week-long ride through the hill country. This was no time for her to go on a trip, and certainly not because the Romans wanted it. Pretty soon, their soldiers would be coming door to door. To count the men so they could be taxed for some emperor in Rome who would never visit but take their money anyway. This was as bad as telling your family you have to work through Christmas. This was a pain, and quite possibly dangerous to Mary’s pregnancy. That first Christmas started out as a big, inconvenient pain. Just like this year.
But look what happens. God takes that mess and makes something new and wonderful happen. At a time when the Romans want everyone to know they are in charge, down to the last man, another kind of government shows up. One that reveals itself in the sky. Not to rain down violence, but to pronounce peace to people of all nations. Think about that for a moment. While the government is going door to door to get money from a conquered people, angels are singing above the shepherds that a savior has been born, one who will bring a message of peace and love to all nations. The scripture tells us that it was a host of angels who appeared in the sky. The word “host” is a military term, it means a large army. So, we are being told that an army of angels appeared to the shepherds. We’re meant to see the contrast – Caesar has his armies on the ground, but there is a greater, more powerful army in the sky this night. But instead of counting people to get money, which will be used to fund wars and invasions, this angelic army has come to wish peace. God’s way is one of peace and goodwill, not extortion and violence.
But more than goodwill, the angels come with a specific message. They tell the shepherds that they should go to David’s city, Bethlehem, to seek out the Saviour, who has been born among them. But how will these poor shepherds know where to find him? They are told to look for a child wrapped in cloth. He will be lying a manger, in an animal’s feeding trough. That sounds clear enough. But at a time when almost everyone had a donkey or a cow, Bethlehem would have had dozens, perhaps hundreds of mangers. So how did the shepherds find Jesus? The Bible doesn’t say, but we can guess. The shepherds must have knocked on some doors, peeked into stables. They must have been like census takers, going door to door.
Yet, this is a census not of many, but of one. One child is all they seek, a child like no other. A child who has God within him. This is the part of Christmas that we have a hard time getting our heads around. That’s ok, this is the challenging part. The Messiah is God the infinite inside a finite human being. It is a paradox. Jesus is the coming together of two realms, the earthly and the heavenly, the human and the divine, the weak and the strong. The shepherds were told to find the one, but really, Jesus was the two in one. The power of the cosmos, wrapped up in cloth, laid in the trough where animals eat their meal of straw. xJesus comes not as a man the Romans can count, but as a baby they will ignore in their census. The one person they should notice the most will be ignored. The Christmas story tells us that the real power in this life is a sacred one, but who is not even noticed by the people who are in charge. The government won’t count this baby, whose faith will one day take over and even convert Roman emperors. The Romans will send out their armies to take count, but they will miss what really counts.
Often when we think of Jesus, we think of one man, at one time, who did great things, but that was then, and this is now. Jesus is over there, we’re over here. Jesus is in a book, but we’re living real life. But that’s not the Jesus the shepherds saw. They met God who had become a vulnerable baby. By appearing as a baby and not an adult, God was saying – I get you. I get what you are going through because I am going through it, too. God didn’t hover above the people but got right inside us as a child. This is God’s way of saying; I love this world. I want to be in it, not above it. And, most important, if God can fit inside Jesus, God can fit inside of you, too. Not to take you over, but to be your companion. To give you solace when everything seems to be going wrong. To give you reassurance when you are worried, to be with you when you’ve reached the end of your rope. God became a human being to show us that God wants to be with us, everyday, not just for Jesus, but for all of us.
So, on this Christmas Eve, when it all seems to be going wrong, let us remember that God sees possibilities and wonders beyond counting. While the powers that be go door to door counting the world they can see, let us remember the hope of the world cannot be counted on any clipboard or excel spreadsheet. The census is always incomplete, it will always miss what really matters. God has promised to be at home inside us, even those no one counts as important. God yearns for each of us to open ourselves to love and compassion, even when that seems like the most unlikely path. As unlikely as angels proclaiming peace. As unlikely as finding a saviour in a manger. As unlikely as being hopeful in a time of disease. Yet it is that daring to say that there is more than can be counted which will get us through this week, this year, and this life. For when God is with us, in our manger, then we will have the strength to get through anything.