I preached an earlier version of this sermon on the Sunday after Christmas in 2015. I wasn't entirely satisfied with it then, but realized the sermon was just as pertinent this year. -Rev. Ryan
Christmas Eve, December 24, 2016
Sermon: “Keep the Quirinius in Christmas”
Preacher: Rev. Ryan Slifka
Scripture: Luke 2:1-20
Last November, my family and I had attended the annual Courtenay Holiday parade. We always have a great time. And, like any other parade there are people running along the sidewalk. Handing out candy, stickers and brochures to the crowd.
And so this one float comes around the corner, with a pre-teen girl with a huge smile on her face running down the side of the sidewalk. She’s handing out stickers, and she reaches out to hand one to this little boy beside us. He’s all excited. Maybe five years old, too young still to read. His mom is excited, too. “What’s it say?!” she asks, big smile on her face. He hands it up to her. She takes a couple seconds to read it. And that smile just sort of drops off her face. “Oh,” she says. “Keep Christ in Christmas.”
And you know, I’m sympathetic to the message. Christian minister, church, lover of the Bible and all. But I could tell that the whole “keep Christ in Christmas” bumper-sticker thing probably didn’t win this person over. It may have even pushed her further away. And the sticker probably ended up in the garbage. In fact, I think that short slogans and bumper sticker phrases—whether political, religious or otherwise—generally don’t change people’s minds. Sure, we may tell someone to “keep Christ in Christmas.” But it does nothing to convey the meaning of Christmas. The good news that we celebrate with deep joy. Every single year.
So I have an alternate proposal that’ll help. Instead of tossing bumper stickers altogether, how about a different one. How about “KEEP THE QUIRINIUS IN CHRISTMAS.” No?
You see Quirinius is a big part of this story. Because the nativity story in the Bible’s book of Luke always begins the same way:
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”
We hear his name every single year. It seems like a really small, strange detail. But this is how the Christmas story begins. With Caesar Augustus, a Roman Emperor. And Quirinius, a governor. For the first hearers of this story, the Romans were the largest empire in the world’s history. The Romans occupied their home and ran the whole world. The Emperor stands at its head. Quirinius, the governor, officially represents the empire in occupied territory. The world’s story at this point is a story of power. A story of wealth. Of influence. The world’s story at this point in time is the Roman story. And so this is why the story begins with the opening camera shot on Rome. Focusing on an Emperor and a Governor. People of power, wealth, influence. People of significance.
And this is the same story that our world lives by, too. One that we don’t notice because it’s so deeply embedded within us. We have been told that the way to live a life of significance is to have enough money, the right house, the right stuff. That the way to live a life of significance, a life that truly matters in the world is to have enough power—whether it’s in the realm of politics or climbing up the corporate food chain. We’ve been told the way to live a life of significance means to have influence—either through celebrity, or the right friends and the right job. And if we don’t have these things there’s something wrong. And we need to get them. We still live by this story. It may not be the Roman story, exactly. But we still live in the same world that Christ was born in to. Where to be significant, you have to fit the world’s criteria for significance.
But the Christmas story challenges all that. The story begins in a world driven by Emperors, Governors, CEOs, financiers and celebrity cults. And yet… as fast as the story begins, the camera pulls back. It pans way off to the side. Away from the city to the countryside, to the hills. Away from the palaces and stockmarkets in Rome, and towards Bethlehem. From the center of the world economy to an insignificant town in a way-off, insignificant part of the world. And this is where the angel appears. Away from where the most significant people set the world’s agenda, to a place where shepherds, some of the world’s least significant people care for their families by feeding their flocks. So, in order to understand this story, in order to understand our story, we need to keep the Quirinius in Christmas.
The truth is that the angel comes to shepherds, poor working people. Just like how the baby comes to Joseph, a carpenter, and Mary, an unwed, pregnant teenage mother. God becomes fully present to these people. And this is where the real story is. The story of the universe isn’t about Augustus or Quirinus. Or Donald Trump. God isn’t found up in the lofty places of privilege and power that can be accessed by a select few. But God’s found deep in the dirt, God comes among ordinary people who are trying to make a living. And despite the seemingly insignificant circumstances of their lives, they are the ones who are going to experience this incredible moment, this deep joy, first hand. God is found right here.
God is found right here. We don’t have to do something we haven’t done. We don’t have to have something we don’t have. We don’t have to be someone we aren’t. God comes to us and invites us to a life filled with deep joy. A life of true significance. Here and now. God is right here and right now. All those things that the world tells us that we need to be important, successful, significant. All are irrelevant. When we stand before the manger. It’s so much more than a bumper sticker can say.
So, then, think of this day as a sign for you. Though it’s another Christmas season. One that comes year after year and seems insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Remember this truth (this gospel truth, if you will): is that no matter who you are, how much money you’ve got, or if you think you’ve screwed everything up, you can live a life of significance. No matter how low you are on the rungs of life’s ladder, you can live a life of significance. Even if nobody remembers your name when you die, you can live a life of significance. Because you already are significant. Because you stand at the center of the heart of God who has come for you. You, we, all people can experience this good news of great joy. Right here. And right now.
So keep Christ in Christmas for sure. But make sure you keep Quirinius in Christmas, too. Otherwise you might forget what this story, your story, is all about. AMEN.