We Need a Savior - Or Not
Matthew 2:1-5, 7-8, 16; Luke 2:8-20
Rev. Doug Van Doren, Plymouth UCC, Grand Rapids, MI
Our theme for this Advent has been, "We Need a Savior." In my last sermon we clarified that we don't need "A" savior, we need The Savior. The problem is people are looking for a savior in all the wrong places - one easier to follow than THE Savior, but those saviors do not free us into the kind of world God intends and Jesus Christ came to bring about.
Of course, if we don't feel like we need The Savior, or if we don't think we are worthy, we will not be looking. Two extremes with something in common - neither are looking for a savior, but for opposite reasons. The Caesar and his elite on the one hand, the lowly shepherds on the other.
For the power elite, the Savior is a major pain in the neck. If you are privileged by the power structure, anything that will disrupt that place feels like a threat. That is a great deal of what has, and is, fueling blatant hate crimes against people of color and religious minorities. Some, who have been in positions of privilege by the circumstances of their birth, feel that unearned place being threatened.
It is as old as Herod, and as deadly. Herod's was an active destruction of the threat. Hopefully, we are not aligned with him. But, if we are more invested in things that serve us well, in how things are, than we are in the just and peaceable realm for all, then we will not see a deep, gnawing need for the true savior. We can destroy, by ignoring a whole group of those for whom the Savior comes! We can treat Advent simply as a time of preparation for a holiday. We can enjoy the anticipation, the change of routine, the festive atmosphere. We can admire the sweet Christmas story complete with a cherubic baby, docile animals, two doting parents, foreign dignitaries, caring, friendly shepherds, and even a chorus of angels. And there it will stay - at enough of a distance so as not to threaten us at any deep level. For this is a threatening story if we take it seriously, so we don't!
But Rome, who thought it was the savior, did take it seriously. It sought to deal with it not by ignoring it, but by actively seeking to destroy this threat to its Imperial Theology of domination.
You remember from previous sermons (of course, you do) that Rome wasn't just a military/political system that occupied Palestine (which in itself would have been enough). It was a domination system supported, and legitimized, by Roman Imperial Theology. It was a system that legitimized its rule with religion. Though it began earlier, that imperial theology was amplified with the rule of Caesar Augustus who was reigning when Jesus was born. Caesar Augustus' birth name was Octavian. He was 19 when Julius Caesar was assassinated and for the next 13 years, he and his legions fought against Marc Antony until they defeated him and Cleopatra in 31 BCE. Thus Octavian became Caesar. As a result, he changed his name to "Augustus." Why? It is because Augustus means, "He who is to be worshiped and revered." Imperial Rome, through imperial theology, was making the claim that Caesar was divine and, by divine right, was the ruler to be worshiped and obeyed. Therefore, Caesar had all kinds of divine titles. One of his official titles was "Lord," as in the ruler of all things. Another title was "Son of God" which appeared on all the coinage and inscriptions throughout the realm. He was also called "Savior of the World," and "Prince of Peace" primarily because he had ended the civil war with Marc Antony thus ending the drain that war put on the wealthy people's assets. This "peace" was through repression, of course, and simply meant the absence of armed opposition to the Roman domination system. It meant peace for the privileged.
Finally, this Roman Imperial Theology was reinforced by the claim that Augustus Caesar was the product of divine conception. He was said to have been conceived in the womb of his mother Attia by the god Apollo. This claim of divine fathering began with Augustus, but the same claim was made by all subsequent Caesars.
The Gospel writers knew exactly what they were doing, and so did Rome. The Gospel writers are saying, it is NOT Caesar who is the legitimate ruler. He is a pretender to the throne. It is THE Savior, Jesus Christ, who is the true Lord of Lords, Prince of Peace, Son of God, Savior of the world. Of course, Herod, Caesar's representative in Jerusalem saw this Savior as a threat.
Worse than not needing the Savior, thus not seeking him and letting him pass us by, is not wanting the Savior because he upsets our world. That is to exercise the oldest sin: usurping God's place, putting ourselves at the center. If we are to truly be followers of Christ, we need to put the "We," the world, the human family above the "I." Which is what Jesus did. To need The Savior is to see the world's need for the Savior, to know that none of us are free until all of us are free. (Which is what Salvation means - Liberation). All of us are diminished when some are diminished. I need the Savior, maybe most, when I don't think I do.
Maybe we have a lot in common with Herod in not seeking the Savior, but from the other end of the spectrum. Maybe we have given up on any possibility of change, so we simply try to get the most we can out of where we are. Maybe we have given up the fight against societal structures and modern imperial theology. Or maybe we, like the shepherds, don't think ourselves worthy of a Savior, that we cannot be liberated from our personal prisons, or societal constraints.
Unlike the Magi who scoured the heavens in search of signs of The Savior, unlike the religious folks who were in a fever pitch in expectation for the Messiah. Unlike Herod, who looked in order to kill the threat, the shepherd had to be hit over the head with the Good News, so far were they from such hope.
The story in Luke is put together to make a very important point by putting the shepherds in the center of the story, the first to get the Good News. They were out in the fields, keeping watch over the flocks (not their flocks) by night. In other words, they were staying out of the way, minding their own business, keeping their heads down, flying under the radar. You know, those you don't make eye contact with, those you try not to notice.
We likely have a mistaken idea of the status of Shepherds in Jesus' day because of positive images of God as the Good Shepherd in the Hebrew Scripture as in the 23rd Psalm, and language of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
Of course, no Christmas pageant is complete without its endearing little band of gunnysack shepherds, but Randy Alcorn, in Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus points out what it really meant to be a shepherd in Jesus' day. In Jesus' day, shepherds stood on the bottom rung of the Palestinian social ladder. They shared the same unenviable status as tax collectors and dung sweepers. It was only much earlier, during the time of the Patriarchs, when shepherding was a noble occupation. In nomadic societies, everyone-whether sheikh or slave-was a shepherd. The wealthy sons of Isaac and Jacob tended flocks (Genesis 30:29; 37:12). Jethro, the priest of Midian, employed his daughters as shepherdesses (Exodus 2:16).
But when the tribes of Israel migrated to Egypt, they encountered a lifestyle foreign to them. The Egyptians were agriculturalists. As farmers, they despised shepherding because sheep and goats meant death to crops. Battles between farmers and shepherds are as old as they are fierce. Egyptians considered sheep worthless for food and sacrifice. Pharaoh's clean-shaven court looked down on the rugged shepherd sons of Jacob. Joseph matter-of-factly informed his brothers, "Every shepherd is detestable to the Egyptians" (Genesis 46:34).
In the course of 400 years, the Egyptians prejudiced the Israelites' attitude toward shepherding, a once important identity. Jacob's descendants became accustomed to a settled lifestyle and forgot their nomadic roots. After settling in Palestine, shepherding further ceased to hold a prominent position. As the Israelites acquired more farmland, pasturing decreased. Shepherding became a menial vocation for the laboring class. Its status was revised temporarily, at least in the stories of King David, but this may have reflected more literary ideal or a romantic looking back than reality.
Shepherding had not just lost its widespread appeal; it eventually forfeited its social acceptability. Shepherds were despised, they were considered second-class and untrustworthy. The religious leaders maligned the shepherd's once good name; rabbis banned pasturing sheep and goats in Israel, except on desert plains.
The Mishnah, Judaism's written record of the oral law, also reflects this prejudice, referring to shepherds in belittling terms. One passage describes them as "incompetent;" another says no one should ever feel obligated to rescue a shepherd who has fallen into a pit. They were deprived of most civil rights. They could not fulfill judicial offices or be admitted in court as witnesses. To buy wool, milk, or a kid from a shepherd was forbidden on the assumption that it would be stolen property.
Scholar, Joachim Jeremias notes that in Jerusalem in the time of Jesus, "The rabbis ask with amazement how, in view of the despicable nature of shepherds, one can explain why God was called 'my shepherd' in Psalm 23." That did not stop the Rabbis from officially labeling shepherds as "sinners"-a technical term for a class of despised people.
Yet, the first to get the astonishing Good News of the birth of the Savior of the World, are that society's "thugs" and "ne'er-do-wells." (The text is making a powerful statement that we ought not miss.)
If you are at the bottom rung of society as a social class, and all the examples of societal success look down on you and remind you of your despised and suspect state, chances are you have long ago given up much hope in The Savior. Or if you, as an individual, have come to believe that you are not worth much, or always get the bad break, that this is as good as it gets, maybe you too have stopped looking for The Savior. Maybe that is why it took a whole chorus of heavenly hosts to shake the shepherds into a new identity, to see themselves as God sees them, to take their definition and self-worth, not from the demigods who thought they had successfully usurped God's place, but from God though Jesus Christ.
For the shepherds in our society, and for the shepherd part of all of us, may the story thunder to us: Good News and a great joy, for the one who said of himself, "I have been anointed to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. (Luke 4: 18-19)
As Howard Thurman put it,
"There must be in every person's life some place for the singing of angels. The commonplace is shot through now with a new glory - old burdens become lighter, deep and ancient wounds lose much of their old, old, hurting. A crown is placed over our heads that for the rest of our lives we are trying to grow tall enough to wear. Despite all the crassness of life, despite all of the hardness of life, despite all the harsh discords of life, life is saved by the singing of angels... If the theme of the angel's song is to find fulfillment in the world, it will be through common people becoming aware of their true worthfulness and asserting their inherent prerogatives as children of God."
May it be so.