Let me begin with a word of welcome. Whatever or whoever brought you to church this night, welcome. Whether you are a regular in our pews or if all this standing up and sitting down and crossing yourself is making you a bit nervous, you are welcome here. We know that at Christmas folks come to church for all sorts of reasons, to build political capital with parents is never a bad idea. Coming to hear a choir member sing is another great reason. If you are looking for comfort on a cold dark night, when maybe the world seems off kilter, welcome, I pray you find a glimpse of what you are seeking.
Is Jesus King?
Tonight’s sermon is on just one word. Hopefully that means the sermon will be short. The word tonight is “King.” “Joy to the World,” we’ll sing at the end of tonight’s service. “Let earth receive her king.” The question I have tonight is both simple and not, how is Jesus king?
What does the title “King” mean? Luke’s story begins with another king, Caesar Augustus. Augustus was great-nephew of Julius Caesar, and his adopted heir. Augustus rule marked the real end of the Roman Republic. Augustus dispensed with democratic institutions. This caesar centralized power. It was Caesar Augustus who became the first autocrat. Is the King simply the one with the most control?
A few of you were here for our pageant service earlier. If you’ve ever been to a pageant like that you get the sense Jesus’ birth was not under control. Frankly the Gospel tells us the same. Remember the birth took place, “in a lowly manger.” Jesus’ family, Luke tells us are not given an extension on their tax registry, even though Mary is pregnant. There is fear in this story, fear of the Caesar, fear of the king and his military might. This is a story that has gone out of control.
Jesus’ Birth in an Out of Control World
Christmas is the story of a child born without a roof, to an unwed mother far from home. And this is the story into which we sing “Joy to the World. Let earth receive her King.” To call Jesus “King” is an act of rebellion, a protest against the powers and principalities, against all the small men with big egos who purport to rule our world. To call Christ “King” is to commit ourselves to look for God amidst all the suffering, the cold, the poor. If earth is to receive her king this Christmas, it will start with some of us going out from here to ensure there is room for all. The earth will receive her king when no human being lacks for shelter, for healthcare, for food.
Calling Christmas a protest might sound strange to you. We like to clean up the history, try and make it more acceptable. Can I share a funny story? I ask you that, and then I realize I have the microphone and you’re sort of stuck so here goes: This past Sunday we held the service of Lessons and Carols. We had maybe our youngest lector for one of the readings, he’s 8. I was looking for a lesson without a lot of tricky names in Hebrew. I settled on the announcement from Gabriel to Mary in Luke’s Gospel.
I didn’t read closely enough. The translation we have been using is called the Common English Bible, because it tries to use words and phrases with a plain meaning. As we were preparing for Lessons and Carols, I got a text from a worried parent. They were excited their child was going to read, but “can we not have him read Mary’s phrase, ‘how can this be, since I have never had sexual relations with a man?’” Indeed, so we reverted to the former translation, “how can this be, for I am a virgin.” Sometimes I think we think of that word “Virgin” more as a title for Jesus’ mother, and less a descriptor for just how strange and scary this whole situation around Jesus’ birth must have been. Still, the parents were comforted when we used the old language.
Speaking of language, the womanist scholar Willa Gaffney wonders about our use of the word “king.” There’s a book of the Bible called the Book of Kings, but Gafney points out, at least a couple of the rulers the book lists are women. When we say the word, “king” we are more likely to think of a European conceptions of power than semitic tribal understandings of ceremonial headship. King is a tough word to translate in Scripture.
Calling a Refugee Child “King.”
So is Jesus a King? What does it mean to call this child a king? This Christmas, I can’t give you a full answer. I think it is worth asking: “Are you the king?” After all, the question will be asked of Jesus through his whole ministry and even at the end of the Gospel by another Roman ruler, Pontius Pilate asks Jesus “Are you the king?”
What does it mean to call Jesus “King?” Calling this refugee child a king, naming that in particular this life, God came to be fully known, breaks open our conceptions of power, of authority, of control.
Jesus’ kingship can be good news for us, especially if, like me sometimes struggle with anxiety about control and perfection. The Christmas story invites you into a divine paradox. The perfection of God came to dwell in the messiest of human circumstances. Christ wasn’t born in the halls of power. He wasn’t a King by any normal human measure of the word. The angels of heaven came to tell the shepherds, the edgiest of characters, the least and the last and the animals witness the coming of the newborn king. If that’s true, then you can’t control and manipulate your way to godliness. Goodness and love might be best known in situations which have gone fully off the rails.
We are All Meant to be Mothers of God
The mystic Meister Eckhart tells us that the story we celebrate this night is not just about what happened two millennia ago. Eckhart said, “we are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always trying to be born.” In each moment, but especially the frantic and fraught, God is trying to be born.
What does it mean to shout, to sing, that Christ is Lord, that Jesus is King? Friends, could it mean surrendering all our illusions of control, all our lusts for power? Our faith isn’t meant to be about perfection. If a religion of control is the only Christianity you have known, if you have been told by religion that you don’t count because you are queer, or disabled, or divorced, or an immigrant. If you’ve been told by religious authorities that you are wrong because of who you are, I am sorry. I am. I hope this night, you can listen past the ugliness. The Christmas story is a story of a God who is born among, a God who chooses and loves those society pushes to the edge. Christmas tells us that all of God’s perfection, Gods’ majesty, Gods love was pleased to dwell among those society calls imperfect. God’s kingship is found in the healing and beautifully out of control life of Jesus of Nazareth.
Calling Christ “the King” is about surrendering our need to be right, to be in charge. Naming Jesus our King means letting go of our radical independence. God entered the world totally dependent and vulnerable. Naming Jesus the King means following the Christ-child out to all those places and people who make us nervous. Christmas dares us to be vulnerable for the sake of Love. The Incarnation is an invitation to widen our hearts, to embrace the people we find difficult to love.
Let Earth Receive Her King
What does it mean to shout, to sing, “Joy to the World, let Earth receive her king” about this particular story? It means flipping the world upside down. Caesar Augustus may start out the story, but he doesn’t finish it. God comes to the most vulnerable people, in the roughest of circumstances. God chooses to rule from the bottom, and invites us to do the same. The power to change our world does not finally rest with those who are elected or appointed to govern. Rather, God’s power is with those who are living on the edge.
God did not come as a King with great might. God didn’t raise an army. God simply broke in, and asked to be held, to be nurtured. God chose to be born by an unwed mother, at the edge of an empire. If God can choose her, can choose there, God can surely choose here, choose you.
So this Christmas, in your own heart, and in your world, as much as you can: Let earth receive her king. Alleluia. Amen.