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Christmas Day Sermon: No Room in Power (Luke 2: 1-7)

December 25, 2009

“she … laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn”

Those who have heard the last few sermons I have preached will know that I have, on a couple of occasions been critical of the Constantinian revolution – when the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire. Today I want to link that criticism to the story of Christmas… But for those who haven’t heard those sermons let me recap.
What happened when the Roman Emperor became a Christian was that Christianity went from being a persecuted group hiding in the dark corners of the empire to being the official religion of the empire. They formed an alliance with power… a very understandable alliance with power considering the persecution they had suffered. Perhaps it’s hard to imagine any bishops resisting it… they tended to come to the conclusion that God had a change of plan. That God was now at work through the government. Where once they refused to take up arms and kill their enemies as a matter of principle and as the essence of following Jesus, now they formed an alliance with a state that operated on the basis of the threat and use of force. Modern politicians like Barack Obama in his Nobel Peace Prize Speech. would say they entered the real world, but lets leave aside for the moment that question about which world is real and which isn’t.

Where once they refused to engage in violence and warfare, believing it their duty to love their enemies instead; where once they followed the man who said those who live by the sword will die by the sword, now little by little they joined the armies of the so-called Christian empire. Once they followed the one who resisted the temptation for domination and control of the world (encapsulated in his temptation stories). Now they dominated the world. The temptation to be what we nowadays call ‘practical’ and ‘effective’ and ‘realistic’ was just too much. And they fell for it. The church became the establishment. In a very real sense they stopped following Jesus.
That was Christendom. My how things change!
Last week I read a letter in the ODT by a business manager called Jo Brunton… she wrote…

“I cannot believe the opinion of Joan Berry’s “Where’s the baby?” letter (17.12 09). I gather she is of the few left in the country who believe all business owners and managers are predominantly Christian and that the multicultural element of our society is uneducated and ignorant.
We have a Christmas-style display in our shop-front but do not feel the need to display a baby who was made to sleep in a feeding trough as we feel this does not reflect what our business is about. We are first and foremost a business.”

She continues…

“Christmas did not originate around the birth of one baby as it was the winter solstice celebration for the pagans long before it was hijacked for convenience.”

A bit further down she concludes:

“By all means believe in what you believe in as faith is an important part of who we are, but maybe just realize that Christmas can also be about family and charity and generally being nice to those around us.”

I did a sort of a wry grin when she talked about the ‘baby made to sleep in a feeding trough’… that sounds dangerously messy (unhygienic?)… hint of child abuse perhaps… hardly good for business. Jo Brunton, seems to realise at some level that the Christmas story is messy and dangerous for business… the night was never a silent night and the baby was born like any other baby with tears and blood and yelling and screaming and exhaustion and delight. And no tinsel! All of which is not good for business, when people just want a break in the fantasy world of shopping. It seems for Jo Brunton the business of business is to keep away from such messiness.

This, to my mind is understandable. My main response to her letter is one of sympathy. I sympathise with what she is saying. Why do Christians feel they have to tell other people off for not celebrating Christmas correctly? Why do Christians feel they have ownership rights on the season?

Perhaps we feel it because we still want to be in control of the world, even if it’s only at Christmas time. Perhaps we want to bring back Christendom. But whose job is it to worship and celebrate the birth of Christ, the incarnation of God in history and in flesh?
Is it the shop owner’s job? Or is it our job? Celebrating Christmas is not just a seasonal mood or even a ritual, it’s an act of worship. It’s an act of witness. Why do we expect this of the shop owners?

The problem of public space for God was there from the beginning. It is no accident that when we tell the story we remember that there was no room for Jesus at the inn. After all at the end of his life there was no room for him in the public space either. He was thrown out of the world onto a cross. And it is almost as if when we want to take over again it’s like we think he should have been born in the inn (rather than the stable), and perhaps he should have come down from his cross.

I’m not trying to say that the cross was a good thing… or that the messiness of the stable was somehow lovely, like in all the romantic Christmas cards. The point is that the way of Jesus was, from the beginning, the way of dispossession. The ‘no vacancy’ sign at the inn points us towards the cross. And it points us towards our own way of being in the world, taking up our cross and giving ourselves for a world that has no vacancy.

To worship in wonder at the birth of Christ is to catch a glimpse of the hidden history of God in the world. It is to stand at the threshold of God’s way of dispossession, of non-violence.

Phil 2 – one of the earliest pieces of extant Christian writing says this of Jesus (and also of God): “because he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born of human likeness, found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death even death on a cross.”
At Christmas we are not just talking about the fact of a birth, we are not just talking about some random incident in the history of God’s relating to us, we are talking about the very form of God, God’s dispossessive way of life. God-with-us to the death.

No room at the Inn, is not so much a mistake as it is a sign of things to come, a sign of the very form of God’s incarnation. Today we gaze in wonder at the first steps of the outpouring of God in dispossession and vulnerability into a violent world. Today we adore this God and no other.
Bruce Hamill (Christmas Day 09 at St Clair)

One Comment leave one →
  1. horatiox permalink
    January 3, 2010 8:52 pm

    Where once they refused to engage in violence and warfare, believing it their duty to love their enemies instead; where once they followed the man who said those who live by the sword will die by the sword, now little by little they joined the armies of the so-called Christian empire.

    Did Paul refuse the power of the Empire? I am not sure, considering Romans 13 and other passages. And while I respect St. Aug., I don’t think he was a bleeding heart liberal either (and Aug. argues for something like a Divine right of kings at times). The message of the Beatitudes does seem fairly anti-statist, and one might say liberal (and there are quite a few anti-usury passages, overlooked by most fundamentalists)–but is the entire New Testament? I’m not sure.

    (btw, Kotzko has nothing to do with theology, at least of christian sort—any mo’ than Lacan did).

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