Christmas Day (9:30am): Vulnerable God

25 Dec, 2023

By the Rev’d Andrew Coyle

Season: Christmas Day

Readings: Isaiah 9:2-7 | Titus 2:11-14 | Luke 2:1-20

So today, we celebrate the birth of Jesus. Today, we celebrate God coming into the world as a human infant. And although that child is helpless and dependent, unable to walk or talk, that child yet speaks to us of God’s presence and God’s power at work in the world.

Consider how the story begins. After the angel Gabriel has been and gone and Mary’s pregnancy is well-advanced, the Roman emperor Augustus decrees a census. Now, at that time, the borders of the Roman empire virtually defined the borders of the known world. And the emperor Augustus was the most powerful person in the world. So, straight away, in this story, we have the naming of the powers that be. We know right from the start who is in charge.

Such is the power of the emperor and the power of the imperial ideology that surrounds him that he is hailed as the “son of God” and “Saviour of the world”. Both those titles are firmly grounded in and bolstered by the power of Roman military might. So, the lands of Jesus’ birth are under Roman occupation. When the emperor decrees a census, everyone has to get moving. They have to return to their hometowns to be registered. So, Joseph has had to make a long journey with Mary, his heavily pregnant fiancé, to Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral home. It’s about 145km from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and by foot, that could have taken them over a week of walking. They did not have any choice in the matter. This is the power of the emperor. It is coercive, resting implicitly on the threat of violence. So Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem and it’s while they are there that Jesus is born and laid in a manger.

Now, giving birth is a pretty normal human occurrence. It’s how we all got to be here this evening. But, even now, it is not without its dangers. And things were a lot more perilous in ancient times. Life expectancy in the time of the Roman Empire was between twenty-five and thirty years of age. Now, that didn’t mean that most people died in their twenties, but that many children died as infants. 30-35% of newborns never survived beyond the first month of life, and only fifty percent of all children reached the age of 10. (i) It is partly due to the tenuous nature of a child’s life that children held such a low status in the Roman world. At that time, children were primarily valued for what they would become: a male citizen, a married, child-bearing female citizen woman, or an enslaved male or female adult. (ii) I do not think that this means that children were any less loved or cherished by their parents and families, but certainly, parents must have lived with an awareness of the fragility of human life and all its attendant fears.

Yet, it is fragile and vulnerable that God comes to us as a child, utterly dependent and at the mercy of the world. This child, Jesus, is named as the Son of God and Saviour of the world, as, of course, is the emperor Augustus. But there is such a vast gulf between them both in terms of power and social status and circumstance, that it seems almost comical that Jesus should be named this way. Yet, this is how God shows up in the world, born a peasant child to peasant parents.

The first news of his birth is trumpeted not in the corridors of power, but to shepherds out in their fields. Shepherds in those days were a pretty rough and ready lot, themselves occupying the lowest rung of the social hierarchy. So why is it that God should come to us this way among those who are the least and the lowly in the eyes of the world? I think it is because God does not see the world through such eyes. Nor does God act according to the ways of the world. God’s power and God’s presence in the world are not embodied in the coercive and controlling power of the emperor Augustus. God’s power and God’s presence in the world are not upheld by or expressed through the threat of military violence. Rather, God comes in fragility and vulnerability to meet us in our own fragility and vulnerability. God comes not to lord it over us but to be with us so that we might know the depth of God’s love for us and know that God’s power of love is for us, not over us.

God coming among us in Jesus is God’s act of solidarity with us in our human struggles and it is also a declaration that God desires a world ordered not by coercive control but by love and compassion and the deep peace that comes from the knowledge that we are loved. The angels’ words to the shepherds are a promise of peace: “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people”. “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace to all of good will!” It is peace that is God’s greatest gift to us. In another gospel, the adult Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; the peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid”.

It is God’s peace that is both our greatest comfort in times of trouble and the wellspring of our action for a more just and peaceful world. May the peace of God be born anew within you this night/day.

(i) Christian Laes, Children in the Roman Empire: Outsiders Within (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 26. See also Sharon Betsworth, Children in Early Christian Narratives (London: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2015), 13–14.

(ii) Christian Laes, Children in the Roman Empire: Outsiders Within (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 26. See also Sharon Betsworth, Children in Early Christian Narratives (London: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2015), 13–14.

Back to All Sermons