Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, December 24, 2016
Taken from Luke 2: 1-19
Ladies and gentlemen, skinny and stout,
I’ll tell you a tale I know nothing about.
Admission is free, so pay at the door.
Come pull up a chair and sit on the floor.
One bright day, in the middle of the night,
two dead boys got up to fight.
Back to back they faced each other;
drew their swords and shot each other!
A deaf policeman heard the noise.
He came and shot the two dead boys.
If you doubt my tale is true,
ask the blind man—he saw it, too!
Perhaps you delighted in that poem when you were a child, as I did. I still enjoy reciting it.
We call it a “nonsense” poem. Yet on the surface, it’s a very sensible poem. The grammar is correct. The syntax is correct. It has a nice rhyme scheme to it. There’s nothing wrong with any of the words; they’re all perfectly sensible, common words.
The problem comes though when you put all those words “back to back and facing each other” in the same sentence. Everything’s correct but nothing is right; from our own experience, we know, this tale just makes no sense.
We know, don’t we: there is no world in which a bright day shines in the middle of the night, nor is there a world in which “two dead boys” suddenly get up from the grave nor where a deaf policeman hears and a blind man sees. Those things make no sense, and we dare not pretend so.
In the world to which Luke wrote, his tale of this first night we call “Christmas Eve” may have sounded rather nonsensical as well, somewhat like our poem. Now, that may seem a fairly strange thing for me to say.
Christmas has a very definite order to it. You have Halloween and then Thanksgiving, and then, as soon as you’ve cleared out the Thanksgiving leftovers, it is Advent. You put up your Christmas tree, decorate the house, get down to business making your Christmas list and shopping. You may even go so far as to actually get your Christmas cards or newsletter out before Christmas.
That’s why we get so upset with the stores…they’re violating our sense of the proper order of things for Christmas. Good grief! Pull down the Halloween pumpkins and the costumes off the shelves at the stroke of midnight, October 31, and out comes Christmas stuff on the shelves. It’s not right, is it? It violates the sensible and correct way of preparing for Christmas!
You’ve got your little manger scene; a very organized and orderly place There’s old Joseph looking down lovingly on his young not-quite bride, who’s kneeling by the side of a crib, looking at their newborn infant Jesus. It’s a little odd, on this point: I’ve never seen a manger that actually swaddled the little baby Jesus. Usually he’s laying there with his cute little loin cloth, looking up at Mary.
Working out from the Holy Family, you’ve got to have a shepherd, preferably with a lamb across his shoulders; a sheep or two; a cow, maybe a donkey. It’s permissible to have a trio of Wise Men off to one side. An angel on the roof is of course a nice touch.
Some folks have gone to adding a kneeling Santa Claus there in the manger…that’s a bit of stretch, I think. That’s starting to introduce a bit of nonsense into this otherwise sensible observance. Keep your history straight–we all know it was years and years before Santa Claus started doing his Christmas Eve work.
Putting aside the kneeling Santa in the manger, everything else springs from the orderly and sensible story as originally told by the Gospel writers, such as Luke.
But, we fail to include all the elements that Luke shows us in his account. No one, it seems, thinks to include a little plastic Caesar Augustus in or around their manger. Yet, that is precisely how Luke starts off. Luke has Caesar Augustus and the little baby Jesus, there, poised “back to back and facing each other”, lined up and prepared for a deadly duel.
Luke begins, In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment—by the way–when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
We read that and think, “Aha! Luke is sort of flipping back through his calendar, and researching the precise date on the calendar when Jesus was born. How very sensible of him.
Well, Luke is trying to inform us of the times into which Jesus was born, but it’s not about a precise date on the calendar; it’s about Caesar Augustus: in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus and it affected everyone in the world.
Caesar Augustus, himself, in his own person, was the power behind the peace and prosperity to all the world. It was indeed a good time to be alive in the Empire, at least among those with whom Caesar was well-pleased.
Caesar Augustus’s full, official name was: “Victorious Commander, Caesar, Son of God, the Most Illustrious One”. The first Emperor of Roman Empire; in fact, the Savior of the Roman Empire. It was Caesar Augustus who had finally ended years of bloody civil war. It was Caesar Augustus who renovated and restored the city of Rome to its urban grandeur.
A common term to describe this period in world history is “pax Romana”, the peace of Rome. But, first, it was known as “pax Augustus”…the peace which Caesar Augustus brought to the world.
Caesar had accomplished all this peace and order and prosperity through clever political maneuvering, to be sure. He had most especially brought about that peace and order by waging war against his competitors and by assassination and by asserting his claim to the position and wealth held by others.
To keep it all going, Caesar needed revenue. He had the authority to command that all the world should be enrolled so he could better tax everyone. Including, Palestine; that backward yet essential component to his Empire.
Luke does not begin his tale with Caesar Augustus so we can peg these events to a particular day or year on the calendar. Instead, Luke wants us to appreciate the audacity and the plain nonsense of what he is about to tell us. For everything Luke proceeds to describe, is foolishness when set in the reality of that time.
The world is Caesar’s; the peace is Caesar’s; there is but one, Most Illustrious and Victorious Son of God, and it is Caesar. So, go on and tell us, Mr. Luke, about this peasant couple who have their lives disrupted at the whim of Caesar Augustus, who sits high and mighty on his throne off far across the Sea in Rome.
Go on and tell us, Luke, about this couple and their infant son born in stable and laid in a feed trough. Tell us again, Luke, about that crew of shepherds who came to town late one night, claiming a heavenly vision, that one of their own would become the guarantor of peace and prosperity for all the world. In form and structure, it is a well-told story. But, in fact…in meaning…it is nonsense.
Except for this: it is a true story, still being told and still being understood, even to this day, right up to this very Christmas Eve night.
Ladies and gentlemen, skinny and stout—and all shapes and sizes in-between,
I tell you a tale I know a little something about—though, honestly, weeks can go by when I’m not sure I understand any of it really. But that’s o.k.; because reality never has depended on me grasping it fully. Plus, I’ve got you, the community of Christ, who carry one another through the hard and confusing times, till one’s own peace can be reclaimed.
Admission is free, that is true, for the blessings of this tale are pure gift. Though, honestly, hearing and receiving this tale into one’s life can exact a price.
There is a chair and a place for you and for every one of us. You may not think that’s possible, but it is.
This is a tale of a bright day that shone in the darkest of night. A tale of a world where the dead live, though they no longer need fight. Witnesses to this tale heard good news that pierced their deaf ears; a vision enlightened their once-blind eyes to see past human foolishness, both their own foolishness and the folly of others.
They spoke freely of peace. Their peace confronted and rejected the wealth of Rome and the brutalities of its leaders. This peace came through the healing word of its most Illustrious One, the child of Mary and Joseph, this Jesus whose birth we celebrate tonight. This is the gift of God’s own Self, for all who hear the tale and discover its good, good sense for themselves.