Isaiah 9.2–7; Luke 2.1–20
sermon at the Midnight Eucharist on Christmas Eve 2008
in the Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert, Durham
by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright
‘Unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulders.’ Unless you sigh with relief at those words, you haven’t really been listening. What we need just now, more obviously than ever in my lifetime, is someone to shoulder the burden, someone who can get under pick up our multiple problems and carry them for us.
It should be obvious by now that nobody locally or globally has the slightest idea how to address, let alone solve, the crisis that has come swiftly upon us. And I’m not simply talking about the voting methods in Strictly Come Dancing. I’m talking about those admittedly lesser concerns, the problems of global power, global finance, global humanity as a whole.
We have of course just witnessed a kind of secular version of Isaiah 9. The election of Barack Obama has been hailed with wild delight around the world. Desmond Tutu sounded crazy with joy talking about him on the radio – even while being realistic about the fact that the black revolution he helped to inspire has failed to confront Robert Mugabe. Oprah Winfrey said on election night that there had ‘never been a night like this on the planet earth’, which may have been over-egging the Christmas cake just a little. The whole world was hungry for hope, and now Obama, who is indeed brilliant, charming, shrewd and very capable, is being told that the government of the world is upon his shoulders, and we expect him to solve its problems. Poor man: no ordinary mortal can bear that burden. Nor should we ask it of him. The irrational joy and hope at his election only shows the extent to which other hopes have failed, making us snatch too eagerly at sudden fresh signs. And that can only be because we have forgotten the Christmas message, or have neutered it, have rendered it toothless, as though the shoulder of the child born this night was simply a shoulder for individuals to lean on rather than the shoulder to take the weight of the world’s government.
Because this night, together with its senior cousin, the night of Easter, is the real night for which planet earth was waiting and to which it must look back if it wants to know the way forward. We place too much trust in our politicians because we place too little trust in God, and in the self-revelation of the living God in the child who is born to us. And when our politicians let us down, all we can think of is . . . how to find another politician, who will get it right this time. That’s like the non-solution to the present economic crisis proposed by our Prime Minister: let’s all spend some more and then it’ll all be all right! Which means, of course, Let’s all borrow some more, so that the banks can charge us interest so they’ll be happy again and then we’ll all be happy – except, of course, for those who are losing their jobs, those whose homes are being repossessed, those who are lured into the trap of spiralling debt and can’t get out. And that applies just as much globally as it does locally.
Past experience suggests that at this point someone will be thinking, I came here tonight to hear about the baby Jesus, not to have a political rant. Well, all right, let’s talk about the baby Jesus. Why was he born in Bethlehem? Luke tells us: because the then global superpower wanted to raise taxes, so told everyone to sign up and pay up. That’s how the Middle East worked then, and, with minor adjustments, that’s how it works today. This was Caesar’s world, and unless you were fool enough to try to buck the system you shrugged your shoulders and did what you were told.
Yes, says Luke; but watch what happens next. The child who is born is the true king from the house of David. And all the ancient prophecies spoke of the coming royal child from David’s line as the king, not of one small country far away, certainly not of a heavenly kingdom removed from this earth, but of the earth itself, the world claimed by Caesar and taxed by Caesar, the world where the rich get rich at the expense of the poor while telling them they are giving them freedom, justice and peace. The world of empires from that day to this.
Luke’s story digs underneath this typical story of everyday empire and undermines it with the explosive news of a different empire, a different emperor, a different kind of emperor. Jesus isn’t simply another politician on whom everyone can pin their hopes and who will then let them down. His way of establishing God’s justice and peace on the earth was different to Caesar’s, different to the usual power games and money games, different in source, different in method, different in effect. We are today hungry for exactly that difference, and Christmas night is the time to ponder it.
Think back to that wonderful passage in Isaiah and listen to the hunger for hope, the hope of the coming boy-king. ‘The yoke of their burden, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken’, declares the prophet: good news for a people, like so many today, hopelessly enslaved whether by debt or force of arms or a combination of both. ‘The boots of the tramping warriors, and the garments rolled in blood, shall be burned as fuel for the fire’: good news for a people, like so many today, who find themselves caught up in wars they neither started nor wanted. And we, who hear these sorrows far away, are nevertheless implicated, since the debts of far distant people are incurred in the same way that our own credit card bills and big overdrafts are incurred, by rich banks luring people in over their heads and then demanding interest upon interest; and the wars of people far away are fought, often enough, with weaponry manufactured here in the rich countries, and indeed paid for, often enough, with the loans which we have made, on which we continue to charge the victims compound interest.
And Isaiah cries out, and Luke in his spectacular Christmas story cries out too, that it’s time for a different kind of world, a different kind of empire. What we need is a new economic system, a new way of doing global politics, a new style of leadership. That’s what the Christmas message is all about: ‘Unto us a child is born, a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulders. And his name shall be called, Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’ Christmas is all about the coming of the world’s true king, the one who stops wars, who forgives debts, who establishes true justice and judgment in the earth.
But how does he do this? How do those four astonishing titles take effect? How can we prevent the Christmas message, whether of Isaiah or of Luke’s angels, being more than just whistling in the dark, a fantasy to help us forget the dark reality for a day or two?
The story the gospels tell is not whistling in the dark. It’s about this child growing up and starting to put God’s kingdom into operation, close up, wherever he goes. This is what it looks like, he says, when God is running things. The world gets turned the right way up. Watch, in the gospels, as the Wonderful Counsellor goes to work, dealing with individuals but also confronting the systems which had enslaved them, and upsetting the slavemasters. Watch as the Mighty God strides through Galilee feeding the hungry, healing the sick, rescuing people and restoring creation itself. Look on in awe as the Everlasting Father is seen mirrored in the incarnate Son, giving himself totally to his beloved world. And, if you dare in the light of our culture where war, the way of death, is the way of life for so many, watch as Jesus, from his earliest beginnings with a price on his head through to his riding the donkey into Jerusalem, shows what it looks like when the Prince of Peace is on the move. He comes to get God’s kingdom off the ground – or perhaps we should say, precisely on to the ground, the real life of real people. And that involves taking upon himself the full force of the world’s cruel systems, the political and economic enslavement from which we still suffer, so that the power of evil can be broken and something new may take its place. That was true at Jesus’ birth, as it was true at his death. This is what the alternative looks like. Some mock it as if it were irrelevant, but the truth is that it is all too relevant, a rumour of hope that the powers of the world do their best to hush up. Hence the present push towards disestablishing the church: let’s get God off the public square in case he upsets our business as usual.
But, my friends, it is ‘business as usual’ that has got us into our present mess. We need to think of different ways of ordering our world; as the fish-and-chip signs say, We’ve tried the rest, now try the best. And the best way is the Jesus-way, the baby-in-the-manger way, the way of putting the vulnerable and the poor first and working out from there, instead of hoping that if the very rich can only help out the very rich then the poor . . . will somehow benefit in the long run. We need new economic principles, and for and with that we need new social and political principles. Now is the time to be working on them, instead of assuming that we know the answers already and only need to iron out a few accidental glitches. And into that debate we who worship the Christ-child need to be ready to speak up, and like Jesus himself to speak up out of a context where we are already at work, doing the kingdom on the street, in our families and schools and offices, in local and national government, education, business, administration and, yes, even in church.
‘The government shall be upon his shoulders’: that is the good news of the gospel. But the way Jesus Christ exercises his authority, consistent with the nature of that authority, is always through the healing and renewal of human beings, calling them as he called his first followers to the dangerous, difficult but glorious task of working as his agents, growing the kingdom as we say, making it happen for real people in the real world. Hence the to-and-fro between worship and witness, between what happens here at the altar and what happens down the street. With the story of the Christ-child in our hearts, and the Spirit of Jesus giving us energy and direction, we are called to be kingdom-bringers in whatever sphere we can. We have to think globally and act locally, campaigning for the big issues like debt remission and climate change, and working on the local issues like housing, asylum and unemployment. Isaiah spoke of the authority of the child growing continually, spreading justice and peace throughout the world, and it is through the work of Jesus’ followers that this is to come about, upheld and directed by what the prophet calls ‘the zeal of the Lord of hosts’.
How does that zeal work in us and through us? Not by just another political dream, with Jesus substituted for Barack Obama or anyone else. It’s a different dream and it works in a different way. The kingdom of the Christ-child gets to work when we stop, and pause, and look in wonder once more at the baby lying in the manger, and like Mary ponder in our hearts what it all means. Only through deep devotion to the child who is born to us, the son who is given to us, can we make sure that the government really is upon his shoulders, and so prevent our good intentions being misdirected to serve our own ends, real or imagined. ‘O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing’: we come here tonight, aware that the kingdom Jesus came to bring needs to be worked out in the real and tough challenges that lie ahead of us globally, nationally and locally but aware, too, that if it is Jesus’ kingdom we are working out we cannot get enough of Jesus himself, cannot worship him enough, cannot ponder him enough, cannot invoke him enough, cannot love and adore him enough, cannot taste him enough. That’s why we’re here tonight. ‘O come, let us adore him’; yes, and then, with that adoration opening our eyes afresh to his way of doing things, putting into our minds and hearts a new vision of how things could be, let us celebrate the fact that the government is upon his shoulder, and let us go out into the new year to face the much-heralded darkness with the news of a great light.