Sermon, 12/25/22: Essential Documentation of (Human) Existence

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Psalm 96; Isaiah 9:2–7; Titus 2:11–14; Luke 2:1–14 (15–20)

In those days a degree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  Luke 2:1

We have gathered this evening in this holy place because along our life’s pathway someone taught us to value tradition, and without voicing how or why, we have come to understand that tradition connects us to those very individuals who taught us to value tradition.  So here we are, some as people of faith, some as seekers of faith, some as occasional doubters, and some perhaps out of mere curiosity.  We are here, to observe and to honor tradition, to celebrate the birth of the one sent by an unseen, intangible being, whom we call God.  We are here to remind us of the magnificence of that invisible being, and most of all to give thanks for our own being.

As you have come to know me, I come with questions.  Tonight, nothing has changed.  However, on this holy night I come with a question in the form of an assignment.  In an earlier era, I would ask you to take out your pencil/pen, and your notebooks.  However, a well-known and highly respected academic wrote recently in the Atlantic, a national periodical, that people no longer write, that is to say, no longer use cursive, in order to communicate.  Rather, we reach for our smartphones.  I do not ask you to take out your smartphones.  To do this assignment, I ask you instead to use your mind.

Using the next 10 seconds, write down in your thoughts the single most important date in your life.  Lacking a stopwatch, I will use the traditional boxing ring count.  Next, I want you to write down the name of the individual who has been most significant to you, whose influence has determined your life’s direction.  You may, if you will, substitute in this part of this assignment for person an event or an occasion.  Now, I give you the opportunity to change your response to the first item in this assignment: What is the most important date in your life?

You may relax, for I shall not ask for a show of hands for a volunteer to share her or his “most important date” with us.  After all, we are Anglicans, Episcopalians, and we do not engage in such public displays.  Rather, as did the Virgin Mary, when it was declared to her that she was to be the bearer of the human form of the Eternal Word, ponder your response and guard it in your heart.  My assignment still stands though, now as a direct question:  What is the most significant date in your life?  I give you a teaser.  That date has everything to do with the celebration of the birth of Jesus, God’s Messiah, in Bethlehem and why we are here tonight.  The answer I was looking for is: the date of your birth.

During the Season of Advent, when we hear annually the words of the prophets concerning the birth of Jesus, and hear incessantly piped carols in stores, we can hardly wait to get to the creche, to the barn at Bethlehem.  Tradition causes us to return to the stable, to the manger in Bethlehem.  It is meet and right so to do, because it was in that most unlikely of places that the Divine entered into human history.  Yet, in our excitement and desire to get to the creche, in our anticipation of the joyful celebration of God Incarnate, we give slant attention to a very important element in the birth of Jesus.  Therefore, I repeat it here: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that the world should be registered.”  (Luke 2:1)  As did Mary and Joseph, we must set out on a journey.

Emperor Augustus needed funds to support his kingdom and proceeded to act as rulers, both before and since, have done: he instituted a tax.  However, to levy a tax, a census had to be undertaken. Caesar had to know whom he could tax.  This is the basis for my proposal that the most important date in your life is the day that you were born.

Think for a moment how often and under what circumstance, you have had to prove your existence.  When our nation was still in its infancy, births were entered into the family’s Bible, and our federal and state governments recognized those recordings as valid.  Today, almost certainly, in order to enroll in school, to get a learner’s permit or driver’s license, or a passport, we must present a Certificate of Live Birth, abbreviated ‘birth certificate.’ 

I state the obvious: You and I were present at our birth; yet, we must rely on the accuracy of that Certificate of Live Birth and the testimony of those who have cared for us since our birth, that on such and such a date and at such and such an hour, we entered into a lineage that reaches back to Adam and Eve, as we proclaim by faith.  Our own nation, the United States of America, without announcing it as such, has instituted a personal ID.  Infants may now be given a Social Security Number, which in many European countries, such as in Germany, is called exactly that: Personal ID, a number unique to that individual.

Without objection, we accept those official descriptions from our own Caesar Augustus.  They define who we are: height, color of hair, color of skin, weight, and countless other external attributes, by which we may be identified.  These items, the birth certificate, the personal ID, the physical description—all validate our human existence and are used to distinguish each of us individually from another.  These descriptive adjectives and nouns allow others to define us, to categorize us for their and our mutual convenience.  Such categorization can produce both positive and negative outcomes.  However, do they tell us about our real self, about the real you, the real me, the real Other, in whose face we see the face of God? 

Journey with me further, if you would, to the creche, to that manger in Bethlehem which depicts for us the birth of Christ. The next question which I pose to you is this: why was the birth of Jesus necessary?  Most assuredly it was not because Caesar Augustus expected Jesus to pay any taxes.  My response is direct: You and I are that reason.  My response is not one based on hubris, is not a declaration of self-importance.  Unless I have misread and misunderstood the prophets, the writers of the gospels, and the letters of Paul and others to communities ancient of days, Christ’s birth takes place to reaffirm your intrinsic and undeniable value as a human being.  [And because you singularly are important, God’s Messiah came into the world, to remind us, singularly and collectively of that fundamental truth.]

I present evidentiary materials which can be retrieved from our Book of Records, from materials which are not classified under “secret,” “confidential” or “Top Secret.”  Rather, the evidence, which I now lay before you, is available for all to read:

The writer of the Book of Genesis establishes our indisputable value (Genesis 1:27):
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him: male and female he created him.  And God blessed them.

The psalmist has written (Psalm 139):
O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me!
Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up…
Thou searchest out my path and my lying down…
Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?
Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?…
For thou didst form my inward parts,
Thou didst knit me together in my mother’s womb.

Luke reaffirms our value (Luke 12: 6f.):
Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God.  Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered.  Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Matthew also does not neglect to state the value which the Creator God has placed on humankind (Matthew 6:26 – 30):
Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not of more value than they?…If God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you?

John the Apostle restates the reason for the Incarnation (I John 4:9):
In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.

More evidence could I lay before you, but we have reached the destination of our journey this year.  We have made it to the creche.  We may now celebrate with songs of praise, and by adorning our homes and our house of worship.  Each of us brings to this celebration memories formed out of our individual experiences and unique traditions.  Yet, such differences and uniqueness notwithstanding, no matter our individual starting point, our journey has brought us to the birth in Bethlehem.

Consider this, dear people of God.  The celebration of the birth of Christ is a reminder of the opportunity which is afforded each of us.   As people of faith, at whatever stage we find ourselves, we have every spiritual right to call into question and reject any and all efforts that would diminish our personhood, a being which is created in the image of God.  On this Holy Night, we reconnect, each in our own way, with that Ground of Being who looked at the Creation and declared it good, but saw that we had strayed from the divine precept like lost sheep and there was no health in us, and therefore required a reminder of who and whose we are.  As we stand and glaze with awe before the creche of Bethlehem, we are reminded that our value is not determined by the declared income on a W-2 form or the amount of taxes which our Caesar Augustus levies against us.

Secondly, using as our example the birth of Christ whose ministry then and over millennia has been to restore the love and harmony of God to the created order, we can claim each year on the date of our Certificate of Live Birth, for our individual self, the right and obligation to a personal New Year.  On that day, we can renew our commitment to share the love which God has given us and travel the path to harmony which, as Christ has shown us, will get us there.  The birth of Christ reaffirms a birthright given to us at Creation and embedded in each of us at the time of our own birth.  It is a birthright which resides in Christ, and Christ in us, for he is Emmanuel, God with us.  It is that which we celebrate on this Holy Night.  Amen.