As we settle down after Christmas dinner on this Lord’s Day I share with you a few thoughts from the last 24 hours. It was a period filled with worship at three different churches with three different styles and about as many theological perspectives. (Full disclosure: the pictures of the three churches below were all taken well before the service began.) Needless to say – considering the season – I heard the second chapter of Luke read three times.
One of the things that has always struck me about Luke’s writing is the historical details. His mention of specific figures outside of Israel lends an authenticity that was certainly intended by the author to give his audience some context for the events he narrates. In this part of the story he gives us the references to Caesar Augustus and Governor Quirinius.
But with the repeated readings I got a bit distracted and a couple of the Greek words in Luke 2:1 caught my attention so I got sidetracked into word studies. The first is the word for enrolled or registered – apographo. A technical term related to the census that conveys the official nature of it. As an interesting side-light, that word is used in only one place out side of Luke’s narrative and that is in Hebrews 12:23 where it speaks of the firstborn being registered with the assembly/church in Zion.
The second Greek word is oikoumene which is translated something like “the inhabited world.” The simple lexicon I had with me conveys the reference to the earlier Greek-speaking world and then the Roman world. The sense certainly seems to be to those considered civilized as opposed to the barbarians or to put it another way – us versus them.
Now I should be clear that I am working off my small lexicon and I look forward to exploring these words more with my more extensive ones. But for the moment I think this is enough to convey what struck me this weekend.
The idea is that Jesus was born into a messy world, in a small province of a big empire ruled from a city far away, with a governor to represent the rulers and a local king (admittedly Herod is mentioned mostly in Matthew and not Luke) who only retains power by the permission of the occupying rulers but has enough latitude to wield that power in horrific ways among the local population. The terms discussed above suggest official control, taxation and a sense of who is controlled, maybe even welcome, and who are the outsiders and not being controlled. Furthermore, we know from archaeology and hints later in the Gospels that there are multiple factions within the region that cooperate with the occupying forces to various extents to keep hold of power. And factions who want to get rid of the foreign powers by various levels of violence and terrorism. Yes, into this messy world God became incarnate in the form of a new born baby.
Why at that time we can not be certain – that is a matter for God’s sovereignty. But at this time, in this world we still have a lot of messy situations. Some of these situations are in places mentioned in the second chapter of Luke. Some of them are where others of us live. Some are messy in the sense of physical violence, some political turmoil, some racial discord, some due to corrupt institutions… the list goes on. The world is still a messy place, and we would be hard pressed to say if it is any more or less messy than the one Jesus was born into.
And yet, into our mess the Word is still with us. Born once in human form and subject to the social, economic and political forces of his time he overcame them not by force or political power as the world expected but by his spiritual and divine power exercised in the context of a messy world.
And so we find ourselves in a similar situation this Christmas: Much pain and hurt, much political uncertainty and frustration, much economic unevenness, and much social tension. And yet, the message of Christmas is that God was and is with us, gave his life for us and will come again.
Even so, Come, Lord Jesus