I always find it interesting how specific Luke is about his historic context when telling the story of the birth of Jesus. He goes into some detail and says this guy was the king and this other guy was the governor. The government was doing that. The people had to respond by doing this. And by the way, Joseph needed to go to that city because he was of this blood line going back to a particular person, David.
What Luke does is to locate the story for us. By putting everything in its historical context he says something important. He insists that when you say something about God you also have to say something about where God is going. It’s not beside the point.
If we were the Gospel writers telling the birth of Jesus today we would include all the coordinates that mark our own time.
We just had an election and these people are in office. People have been wondering if they are going to fall off the fiscal cliff or, according to the Mayan calendar, there won’t be a cliff to fall off of. There has been another slaughter of the innocents by a madman and Rachel is still weeping for her children. There are wars and rumors of wars.
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus. Polarization was stronger than ever in the U.S. congress. This was the first enrollment when Quirinius was governor of Syria. The troops were drawing down from Afghanistan.
When Luke says Jesus was born into the world it was into the actual world, not an imaginary one with a pretend stage. When God showed up in the flesh it was real flesh rubbing our flesh. And that’s the only way, really, to catch the flavor of this radical story.
Jesus was born into the middle of the mess, not alongside it, not into a Christmas program or a carol or a crèche.
Jesus was born into an actual world were people suffer and have great triumphs, where tyrants rule and the conflict du jour lines up to take the place of the one that preceded it yesterday. Christ is born here, not somewhere else, in a place that often has little room for him.
By coming to the real world, all the way down in the muck, it becomes possible for the world not only to contemplate a creator but connect with one. And it’s that connection that is the thing. Without connection, things are just things, lives are lumps of clay.
One time John Oliver (Giver of Life, Paraclete, 2011, 83) asked his readers to imagine receiving a huge box that has been delivered to your house. Inside of the box is an appliance that either you or Santa ordered. As you feverishly remove the appliance and pore over the owner’s manual, you discover all the nifty things your new appliance can do. You’ve educated yourself on all its features.
Then you just sit and look at it because you are so proud: It’s so shiny, powerful and just perfect for what you’ve needed.
Now, Oliver continues, just imagine that you never plug your new appliance into the wall socket. There it sits, disconnected from the source of power that can make all those features and directions mean something. So it just sits there, taking up space, unable to perform a thing it was designed to do. And why is that? Because it’s not connected. That’s the first question that the IT support people ask you on the phone when you can’t get your devise to work, right? “Is it plugged in?”
Jesus is about making sure the appliance is plugged into the power source. And he does that by being becoming the appliance and power at the same time and connecting the two in his life. You’d never imagine it by looking at a little birth coming into the real, big, bad world. But that’s exactly what we say happened and happens.
Christians have always understood ourselves to be something like those appliances. Authentic Christian life is not possible unless we are connected, plugged into the God who created us. Without that we just take up space on the counter. This connection doesn’t happen automatically any more than the plug of an appliance finds its own way to an outlet. Somewhere in the mystery of Christ, God with us, a hidden hand of grace draws together the two, appliance and source, so that we might become what we were created to be in the first place.
The thing about that particular connection is that it only happens heart-to-heart according to the invisible cords of love. God comes in such a way that our hearts are broken, the armored plating falls away, and we fall in love. We fall in love through a veil of tears, or laughter, or silence, through the incredible discovery that the beating of this little child’s heart in the manger causes ours to come to life until we sing like angels.
All of that takes place in the year of Caesar Augustus or when predictions of the Mayan Calendar proved false or tragedy came to an elementary school. It always comes into the real world where life is underway and has been, and when it arrives it always finds the same need on parade, the need for the beloved to return to the Divine Lover.
You can second guess God if you like, question the efficiency of such a move, or try to devise a better plan yourself. But when it comes down to it the things of God that last and change the world are like the proverbial butterfly wings: they beat in one corner of the universe and cause storms to rage thousands of miles away. God majors in the incredibly small things, like an atom, for instance. It’s small, like a baby’s cry, but when released, its potential lights up the sky with a thousand suns.
Jesus is born in Bethlehem and wherever the mess of life is happening, and love is let out to prowl around and do its work. And when it finally finds your heart you don’t have a chance. He’s plugged in the toaster and nothing will ever be the same again.