“This Christmas gospel is so familiar that many of us know it by heart,” said the Rev. Barbara K. Lundblad at the 9:15 a.m. Tuesday Ecumenical Service in the Amphitheater. “Even if you never go to church, you could not shut it out if you go shopping in December. You hear about a baby boy and angels and shepherds, and even a drummer boy who made his way into the Bible.”
Her sermon title was “Grace: A Surprise in Bethlehem.” The Scripture reading was Luke 2:1-14, and the church season was Christmas.
Lundblad called this story of Jesus’ birth “so familiar, but very strange. It is not a story you want to tell if you want to show that the baby would amount to anything.”
She quoted from an ancient inscription.
“This is the most divine Lord, the beginning of all things … savior … he will put an end to war … he has fulfilled the hopes of Earth … this is the beginning of the gospel concerning him … the new era from his birth.”
The person referred to in this inscription was Augustus Caesar, emperor of the known world in Jesus’ time, the Roman Empire.
“Luke takes the words about the emperor and turns them inside out and upside down,” Lundblad said. “This is a deeply centered story, not in Rome or Jerusalem, but in Bethlehem.”
The baby’s parents were nobodies — a man named Joseph and his fiancée, Mary.
“I have second cousins, twins, who were born on Christmas,” Lundlbad said. “Guess what their names are? Mary and Joseph.”
Although Joseph traced his lineage from King David, if he hoped to stay with relatives in Bethlehem, he was out of luck. There was no room.
“In Christmas pageants, we always add an innkeeper, probably for a boy who needs a part, but there is no innkeeper in the story,” Lundblad said. “ ‘Inn’ here means a guest room, much like the upper room where Jesus and the disciples had the Last Supper. If you go home for Christmas, you might feel like there is no place for you. You might feel the same in church.”
In the story, angels appear to shepherds.
“Shepherds were pretty lousy witnesses to anything,” Lundblad said. “Although the angels echo the words of the emperor, they insist those words belong to the child.”
A host of angels is the same as an army, and Luke had to be careful how he wrote the story.
“The angels were singing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers.’ No, they were singing ‘Glory to God in the highest and peace on Earth to all,’ ” she said,
This is not a story to tell if you want assurance of victory over an enemy.
“God is different,” Lundblad said. “God is no longer so strong that life always goes right, not so infallible that you can say, ‘It was God’s will,’ not so holy that God’s people are alien, untouchable or illegal. We would not tell this story if we believe that the emperor has a better story, knows how the world works or how to get ahead.”
Emperors have come and gone, and today, we have presidents and chancellors and prime ministers.
“The emperor says terrible things about the conquered people, and then tries to send them back where they come from,” Lundblad said. “The trouble is that they were brought to his city by his armies, and now he wants to send them back to the places those armies conquered.”
If today were Dec. 25, Lundblad said to the congregation, “You would not be embarrassed to say ‘Merry Christmas,’ you don’t have to say ‘Happy Holidays.’ This is a Christian nation, so is Canada.”
But when people want to put Christ back in Christmas, she asked, what Christ will that be?
“It is not enough to have a manger in the mall or on the courthouse lawn,” she said. “This child is not aligned with shopping or government. This is a decentered story, an odd story.”
When one of Lundblad’s friends first preached on the radio show “The Protestant Hour,” (now “Day 1”), he talked about Jesus from John’s gospel as the Word, the Logos or logic, the wisdom behind all creation.
“All the philosophers nodded and waited for him to say more about the Word,” Lundblad said. “Then my friend said the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The philosophers said, ‘No, this can never be.’ John’s story is as odd as Luke’s.”
Her friend continued his sermon, saying the Word came as a child because a child can’t hurt us, a child can’t make us afraid.
“We are prepared for the anger of God, but we are surprised when God comes not with violence, but as a child that we receive rather than fear,” Lundblad said. “Dare to be as odd as the Christmas gospel.”
The Rev. Scott Maxwell presided. Mary Giegengack-Jureller, a member of the Chautauqua and Motet Choirs and a retired professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, read the Scriptures. The Motet Choir sang ‘Noël Nouvëlet,” arranged by Stephen Jackson, for the introit and the anthem. Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, directed the choir. The Robert D. Campbell Memorial Chaplaincy provides support for this week’s services. Thanks to the magic of Chautauqua and a few generous souls who connected here, braille worship service books and hymnals are now available for those who are sight-impaired to participate fully in the weekday worship services. These worship books will be available at Gate 4, the Ralph C. Sheldon Foundation Gate. Please ask any usher for assistance.