Sermon preached on Christmas Eve 2011 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Luke 2:1-20
Later on in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus sends out his followers on their first mission on their own (Luke 10). Go out and do what I have been doing: bring the kingdom of God near to the people you meet. We are told little of their adventures, but we are told that they returned with joy.
Jesus is very pleased, as well as any teacher might be. He “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit,” Luke tells us, and at the end of his bubbling over with joy, he says,
Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. I tell you, so many people—prophets and kings among them—wanted to see what you see, and they were not able.
At that moment, Luke says, an expert on the religious law stood up to test him. Maybe he had heard all this rejoicing and wandered over and was confused by what Jesus was talking about. What were his ancestors not able to see that these people could see now?
“Teacher,” he asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus knew of his great knowledge of the law, and so he used that and answered his question with a question, one of his favorite things to do. “What is written in the law?” he asks, “How do you interpret it?”
The lawyer gives as his answer what had become pretty standard in Jewish teaching over the past few centuries. He quoted Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength.” And then he quoted Leviticus, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Excellent, Jesus says, do these things in order to have life.
Then lawyer blurts out what may be is his chief question in his interpreting the law. It may be something that he and his colleagues argue about all the time. Luke says he asked because he wanted to “justify himself,” in other words, he wanted Jesus to confirm his thinking on the matter. “So who exactly is my neighbor?” he asks.
This time, instead of another question, the lawyer gets a story.
A man was walking on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he’s attacked by a band of robbers, which would not have been unusual on that road. They take everything he has and beat him within an inch of his life and leave him to die on the side of the road.
Not long after that, a priest happens by, but he pretends he doesn’t see the man and passes by him on the far side of the road. Not long after that, a Levite (sort of like our deacons) does the same.
At this point, the lawyer knows exactly what is going on in the story. He knows why the priest and the Levite passed by. If they stopped and handled the man, who might very well be dead, the law said they would be ritually unclean. That would have made their life very complicated. So it was easy for them to choose not to get involved.
Jesus goes on. Now the next person who came by on the road was a Samaritan.
At this the lawyer’s ears would have shot up like my greyhound’s when he hears something strange. A Samaritan was a foreigner, but not just any foreigner. The Samaritans were ethnically related to the Jews and they followed a form of the Torah, the Law of Moses. They, in fact, thought they followed it the right way and the Jews did not. To make it short, they hated each other as only religious people can.
This Samaritan, however, when he sees the man by the side of the road is moved with compassion. He bandaged the man up, put him on his donkey and took him to a nearby inn. He stayed with the man overnight, and made arrangements the next day with the innkeeper for his continued care. “I’ll check on him when I come back this way,” he says, “and repay you anything he has cost you.”
“Which one of these three people who came upon the beaten man by the road was a neighbor to him?” Jesus asks. There is no other answer, and the lawyer gives it, although he must have practically choked on it. He can’t, however, bring himself to say the word “Samaritan.” “The one who showed mercy,” he says. “Excellent,” Jesus says, “go and do the same.”
Now why have I spent so long telling this story from Jesus’ ministry when I am supposed to be talking about Jesus’ birth? Perhaps I just did not have another Christmas sermon in me? No. It is because you cannot understand the meaning of the Christmas story if you do not know and understand the rest of Jesus’ life.
You see one important reality about reading and understanding the Gospels is that you have to remember that they were written backward. They were not written by some who was following Jesus around taking notes. They were written by people who knew the end of the story, and that profoundly affected how they understood and wrote about the rest of the story, including its beginning.
Now I happen to think that the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” may be the most important question in Luke’s Gospel. It is an urgent question for him. He is writing not for one particular community, he is writing for the known world, the Roman Empire. One of the ways the Empire was changing the world was that people were mixing everywhere. Nobody stayed in their own place anymore. There were Jews in Rome, and Greeks in Palestine, Egyptians here and Carthaginians there.
It was clear to Luke that Christianity was not an ethnic or tribal religion, in fact it was exactly the opposite. So what is the first and foremost question every follower of Jesus has to be clear on? That’s right: Who is my neighbor?
The answer? There are two answers, really, each of them as radical as the other, and they are both found in Luke’s Christmas story.
Answer number one. Question: Who is my neighbor? Answer: God.
Judaism, and our other monotheistic cousin, Islam, have something in common. God is understood to be completely and totally other. That’s why one of the greatest prohibitions in both those religious systems is against making any image of God. You can and should adore God, but do not think you can get anything like close to him.
If anything, Jesus’ principal conflict with his own religious system was that it held God at a distance. “The kingdom of God is at hand,” he said, by which he clearly meant, “God is at hand.” Right in front of your eyes. “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see.”
The whole point of the Christmas story is not that you have to believe every jot and tittle of it as if it were historical fact. God bless you if you do, but that is not the point. The point is to bring us to the place where we not only understand but see that God chooses to be our neighbor.
As John says at the beginning of his Gospel, “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” which is actually a pretty tame translation. It literally says, “The Word became flesh and pitched a tent in our neighborhood.” The Word became flesh and moved in. The occupation of God.
Answer number two. Question: Who is my neighbor? Answer: Absolutely everybody, no exceptions possible at all.
So Jesus is born in obscurity, not in Jerusalem, but in a little town called Bethlehem. Sure, that was where the great King David was born, but nobody in Jesus’ day thought Bethlehem was a particularly important place, and they certainly didn’t call it “the city of David,” as Luke calls it. Jerusalem was the “City of David.” God did not choose to pitch a tent in Jerusalem. That would come later, and the consequences would be…well that’s another story.
And who are the first witnesses of this remarkable birth? Who gets to hear the angels sing? Who receives the amazing news of peace among those whom God favors, as if they were among those kind of people. Shepherds.
We can miss the radical nature of this, because the Bible has many good images of shepherds. “The Lord is my shepherd…,” and all that. The Bible seems to like shepherds very much. But people of Jesus’ day did not like shepherds. They certainly did not think them at all important or honorable or worthy of God’s favor. It was a hard, mean life dealing with the dumbest animals on the face of the planet. Yet they were God’s first neighbors on
The message is clear from this story to the end as news of the resurrection spreads throughout the world. Love God, the God who is your neighbor. Love one another, and that means absolutely everybody. So the first Christians were thought of as “those people who turn the world upside down,” because they actually thought God was with them, not theoretically, but really, and they created communities that broke every boundary that existed in their world.
“Blessed are the eyes,” Jesus said, “that see what you see.” To see God in the neighborhood, and to see neighbors everywhere. To know you yourself are neighbor.
In Tattoos on the Heart (from which I have quoted several times recently), Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest who has worked for many years with Hispanic gang members in Los Angeles, tells about the time 60 Minutes came to interview him. It was 1990. Mike Wallace was the interviewer. Father Greg writes,
Wallace arrived at the poorest parish in Los Angeles in the stretchest of white limousines, stepped out of the car, wearing a flak jacket, covered with pockets….
For all his initial insensitivity, toward the end of the visit, in a moment unrecorded, Wallace did say to me, “Can I admit something? I came here expecting monsters. But that’s not what I found.”
Later, in a recorded moment, we are sitting in a classroom filled with gang members… Wallace points at me and says, “You won’t turn these guys in to the police.” … I say something lame like, “I didn’t take my vows to the LAPD.” But then Wallace turns to a homie and grills him on this, saying over and over, “He won’t turn you in, will he?” And then he asks…, “Why is that? Why do you think he won’t turn you over to the police?” The kid just stares at Mike Wallace, shrugs…and says, “God…I guess.”
Father Greg reflects on his experience,
I was brought up and educated to give assent to certain propositions. God is love, for example. You concede “God loves us,” and yet there is this lurking sense that perhaps you aren’t fully part of the “us.” The arms of God reach to embrace, and somehow you feel yourself just outside God’s fingertips.
…Then who can explain this next moment, when the utter fullness of God rushes in on you…You see, then, that it has been God’s joy to love you all along.
Father Boyle is able to do the ministry he does because he not only knows that it is God’s joy to love him, but he believes that to be true of absolutely everybody.
God became our neighbor so that we might see and experience this very thing about which the angels sang: Glory to God and peace to those in whom God delights. That’s you and me and absolutely everybody, the ones who God has chosen to be neighbor to.
Tonight all I ask is that you let this story of Jesus’ birth help you answer the question at the heart of everything: Who is my neighbor? Be ready when a Samaritan crashes the Christmas Party.