Delivered at Ames UCC.
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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heard, rather than read.
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HUBRIS AND HUMILITY
Christmas is a story of hubris and humility. It is also the beginning of a dare.
The hubris is Rome’s. The Emperor, it says, wants a census of the whole world. Rome does not control the whole world, but clearly Augustus understands his holdings to be the entirety of the relevant world. This story describes how, by his desire and decree, Augustus inconveniences whole populations, regardless of circumstances.
It his hubris, that pride and out-of-proportion sense of self-worth, that put the lives of the vulnerable, including the pregnant, at risk.
But, humbly, a very pregnant Mary complies. Maybe also fearfully and resentfully, but humbly she and her husband Joseph do as they have been told.
And it is a mess. The baby comes before they can reach safe harbor. Rooms are filled. The pains are hard. A barn of some kind must do.
What must Mary have thought? When her pregnancy outside of marriage was announced by an angel, she sang for joy. She’s married now, but in the straw and dark, did she think the angel’s visit a lie, a trick by something other than the divine?
Once Jesus is delivered, Mary is quiet. She will receive unexpected guests who will confirm everything about her son that the angel had described, but she will not sing again. A woman given every cause to brag will instead simply “ponder…in her heart” (Luke 2.19b) all that has happened.
The contrast between Augustus and Mary is enough to feed a lifetime’s ponderings.
The man who thinks he controls the world and would boss everyone in it around on one hand. And on the other a woman, whose openness to holiness means that not even the world’s proprieties can control her. Just one more human who thinks he is entitled to more than other humans. And one rare human who is grateful to be asked to give and remains without boast when she delivers beauty. Augustus, who has made himself into a god, and Mary, who gives her every fiber over to God.
The contrast between hubris and humility never ceases to edify.
But there’s something more emerging in tonight’s story, something that takes breath and bawls with Jesus: the beginning of a dare.
At Christmas time, I think that many of us who have had access to basic cable television in the last ten years, may now be thinking of the moment in A Christmas Story when the boys on the playground “double dog” and then “triple dog dare” each other. In that case, the dare is to lick a flagpole in freezing weather. The dare implicit in Christmas is not nearly so, uh, ill-informed and is far more powerful. It is a dare to believe that our lives are important.
Let me explain: With a story like that of Christmas it would be easy to believe that there are only a chosen few, or a chosen two—Mary and Jesus—who have the power to change the world. An angel came to Mary and Jesus, lived for love beyond a cross, but we are just ordinary people.
We are just people buffeted by the hubris of humans in power, inconvenienced and put at risk by their greed and their disregard. We haven’t been given the strength of an angel to “be not afraid,” nor does our touch heal the sick.
And yet. And yet Joseph stands by Mary, a woman of scandal. And yet the innkeeper makes room in his outbuilding. These two ordinary people made choices that help the extraordinary occur: hope amidst hopelessness, peace that rebukes war, joy despite sorrow, and love between all.
As from the beginning, God once again does not simply fix the world. Once again, God relies on ordinary people to make choices born of humility rather than hubris.
We can do that.
We can stand beside those who the world would reject for being improper. We can use our resources to keep each other sheltered and alive. We can take hope, peace, joy, and love to resist the temptations of empire and choose the Way of Jesus Christ.
Those choices may not feel as magical or grand as the angels singing in the plain, but they are just as consequential. They are just as important and holy and God-blessed.
I do not know how much of this story, if any, is factually accurate. But I know it tells the truth. Our ordinary lives are is more important than we dare to believe.
Take that dare tonight. I guarantee you will look as foolish as a kid with his tongue on a flagpole. But do it anyway. With the humility of Mary, dare to believe that even right now, God is once again relying on and working through ordinary people like you and me.
Ponder in your heart what good news you have received from God, feel the weight of love newly born in your arms, and let us all make room in our lives for what that love requires to thrive and grow.
MERRY CHRISTMAS AND AMEN!