Luke's Original Christmas Pageant
by the Rev. Edward F. Markquart, Grace Lutheran Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Des Moines, Washington
This past week, I have been thinking about my experiences with poverty and poor people. The first image of poor people that jumps into my mind are the men living down on First Avenue in downtown Seattle. They are often labeled the winos, bums, transients, and other things. If we visit Pioneer Square in downtown Seattle, we will see
several of them sitting on benches during the day or sleeping on those benches during the night. Or, when I think of poor people, I think of my childhood trips to Chicago to watch the White Sox play at Comisky Park. My family and I would ride the elevated trains, called els, to the baseball game, and the elevated trains would go right through the heart of the tenement section of downtown Chicago. We saw the ghettos close up, first hand, like you could almost reach out and touch their back porches from the elevated trains. In my mind, I still can see
the laundry hanging from ropes and poor people rocking in their rocking chairs. I was afraid as a child, afraid as we went through the ghettos on the elevated trains.
Or, when I think of poor people, I think of my visits to certain nursing homes, where there seems to be a large number of handicapped people confined to wheel chairs. Those people would buy themselves out of these retirement homes but they can't afford it. Or, when I think of poor people, I think of my conversations with many single moms who can't make ends meet. They tell stories of eating "top raman" for many meals. These women pinch pennies, work hard, and the money is very tight. Or, when I think of poor people, I think of the "working poor" who often use government subsidies to pay for their tuition at our child-care center. Our director knows them well. Or, when I think of poor people, I think of staying overnight with the homeless men who come and live at our church six nights a week for six months. Or, when I think of poor people, I think of the families that have a spouse in prison and these prisoner families receive gifts from our angel tree. Our high school kids deliver these Christmas presents and see poverty up close, often for the first time.
Or, when I think of poor people, I think of our congregational visits to Haiti, the poorest country in our Western hemisphere. I think my visit to Puerto-Prince and of the sewage in the dirt streets of that slum. I think of the back alleys there and how poor the shanties were that we visited. Or, when I think of the poor people, I think of my study of world hunger and starvation, that a majority of the human race does not have an adequate food supply or water supply.
These are some of my images. How about you? What do you see when you hear the phrase, "poor people?" What images come to your mind? What experiences come to your memory? You must have mental images and first hand experiences. What do you think of when you hear the words, "poor people?"
The truly poor will not be seen at worship in our church on Sunday morning. The truly poor in America are not usually part of a congregation. Sociological studies of the churched Americans conclude that the church is essentially a middle class institution. There is truth to that. For example, when our members want to give Christmas presents to the needy, our congregational list of poorer people is very short. From first hand experiences with our congregation, I know that the truly poor do not belong to congregations such as ours.
It is with these images of poor people and poverty that we approach the gospel of Luke today and our gospel lesson. The gospel story for today could be entitled, "The Original Christmas Pageant." In both the first two chapters of Luke and in the rest of the gospel, we hear of God's special concern for the poor. Both in the whole gospel of Luke and in the first two chapters of prelude, there is a preoccupation with those who live in poverty. I would like to suggest to you that the forgotten element of Luke's original Christmas pageant is the theme of poverty and poor people themselves. The poverty of the Christmas story is often the forgotten element.
Dr. Walter Pilgrim's book about the gospel of Luke is entitled, Good News for the Poor. This professor, who is from Pacific Lutheran University and often teaches at our congregation, reminds us that ALL of the characters from Luke's original Christmas pageant were poor people. ALL of them! The story about the three wise men with their gold, frankincense and myrrh is not a story from the gospel of Luke but from the book of Matthew. For Luke, ALL the characters in his Christmas play are poor people.
In today's sermon, I would like to briefly review the four primary characters that are part of Luke's original Christmas pageant. Only poor people are in the original cast.
First is the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Do you remember this story? Zechariah and Elizabeth are the mother and father of John the Baptist. Zechariah was an old priest. One day, the angel Gabriel said to him, "Zech, you and your wife, Liz, are going to have a child, and you are to name him, John." Zechariah laughed and replied, "My lady is an old lady; she is over the hill and cannot have a baby. That is totally impossible." The angel Gabriel said, "Zech, you shouldn't talk that way; in fact, you won't talk at all." The priest's vocal chords were silenced on the spot. The story continues; the old man and lady had sex; a child was conceived; the old priest went into the temple to give thanks to God; the angel touched the old priest's tongue, who came out from the temple and finally spoke again, "The kid shall be named, John."
That is an old Bible story. The part of the story that you may not have learned is that old Zech and his wife, Liz, were poor people. Luke, the author, knew that because all priests of that time were poor. Not the High Priests of course. Not Annas and his family. Those high priests had money; they were rich. But the common and ordinary priests were very poor. The great Biblical scholar, Jeremias, wrote a classic textbook entitled, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. In that book, he tells us and I quote: "All priests lived in great poverty." You and I may romanticize the priests of Jesus' day, and we may conclude that the priests of Jesus' day were probably like the pastors of our day. That is just not true. The priests of Jesus' day were dirt poor.
The second character in Luke's original Christmas pageant is Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary, as we know, was about thirteen years old, a budding young teenager when engaged. She sang a song about herself in the Bible, "God regarded the low estate of his handmaiden." According to Dr. Walter Pilgrim the words, "low estate," referred to her lower class, her poverty, and her economic condition. In the Bible, Mary also sang a second song called the "Magnificat." In the Magnificat, you hear, "God exalts the poor and those of low degree. God feeds the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty handed. God exalts the poor." The Bible is totally clear; Mary comes from a lower class and caste, from poverty. Also, in this passage, Mary twice calls herself a "handmaiden." In our day and age and vocabulary, we don't use the word, handmaiden. What is a handmaiden? If you read the Greek language, you will discover that the Greek language doesn't say "handmaiden" at all; the Greek language says, "servant." Mary was just a servant girl. Mary was not a High Priest's daughter, a banker's daughter, a professor at the University of Jerusalem's daughter. Mary was nothing but a servant girl, of the low class. When Mary finally had her baby, the baby was not born in a fancy hospital or fancy hotel. The child was born in a barn, with real live cows and live cow manure; with real live lambs and live lamb manure. And let's not romanticize the cows, lambs, barn, manure and hay. These simply mean that Jesus was born into poverty, not into Christmas card poverty but into real poverty.
Let us go to the third set of characters in Luke's original Christmas pageant. We hear about the shepherds. You remember that the shepherds were the first recipients of the good news, the first to hear that "today is born to you in the city of David a savior who is Christ the Lord." Again, let us not romanticize these shepherds and make them into good, clean, moral living, stargazing folk. According to Dr. Pilgrim and his book, the shepherds were of the lowest class. If you wanted to meet someone who was the real scum of the earth, meet a shepherd. Dr. Pilgrim says that shepherds were known for their vulgarity, foul language, and lack of moral integrity. He said that the word, shepherd, was synonymous with the word, thief. A shepherd? A thief! The shepherds were reputed to steal as many sheep as they could during the night, out there in those hills. Shepherds were the lowest strata of Jewish society.
We now come to the last characters in Luke's original Christmas pageant, and this story involves two old people, Simeon and Anna. According to the Bible story, Anna was an old widow, eight-four years old, and that means she was plenty old for that time in history. Again, we want to romanticize Anna to be a nice old grandmother like our own, an elderly single grandmother like ours. In the Bible, both in the Old Testament and New Testament, old widows are always poor, and poor means poor. "Dirt poor," as my mother used to say about my grandpa.
So, when you look at the four primary characters in Luke's original Christmas pageant, all of them come from poverty and are poor people.
Then, we come to Luke 4:18, and Luke 4:18 announces the theme of the whole gospel of Luke. In Luke 4:18, Jesus said, "I bring you good news of great joy to the poor, release to those in prisons, sight for the blind and freedom to the oppressed." What is the theme of the whole gospel? Good news for the poor. And who are the primary benefactors of Jesus' special affection in Luke's gospel? The poor, the blind, the maimed and the lame. Ultimately Luke makes a list of the kind of people his gospel is especially directed for: the poor, maimed, blind and lame. Some scholars think that the author Luke was a physician and he had a special affection for the poor, maimed, blind and lame. In another sermon on Luke 4:18, I personally went to a nursing home with a camera and took pictures of people who fit those four categories: poor, maimed, blind and lame. That is Luke's focus. In modern terms, those are the people Luke would focus his camera on.
So, Luke's original Christmas pageant is a prelude to the whole gospel in which the poor are exalted and the hungry are filled with good food.
I am suggesting to you this morning that this part of Luke's original Christmas pageant is often forgotten. Consequently, we romanticize Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, and Simeon and Anna. We romanticize them and thereby forget that these people lived in actual poverty and were poor people.
You see, Christmas was and is the feast for the poor. Christmas is a festival for the poor, a banquet for the poor. We are reminded that at Christmas time (and all times), the poor are to be exalted, the hungry are to be filled, the handicapped and blind are to be nourished. These values are at the heart of the original Christmas pageant in the gospel of Luke, and these same values are found then in the rest of Luke's gospel as well. The poor are to be exalted, not only at Christmas time, but also throughout the whole year.
This Christmas gospel, this original Christmas pageant, continues in the story about St. Nicholas. You have learned before, in other sermons and classes, that St. Nicholas was a figure from history and was a bishop of Myra in [what is now] Turkey in the year AD 350. St. Nicholas, as you recall, was not some fat bellied, red suited, white bearded old man. St. Nicholas did not have eight reindeer, one with a red nose. St. Nicolas did not have a toy factory located near the North Pole and subsidized by Toys R Us. Nor did St. Nicholas sing his favorite song, "I know when you've been sleeping; I know when you're awake; I know when you've bad or good, so be good for goodness sake. O, you better watch out . . . ." St. Nicolas's vision was not to terrorize all the children into being good children and then if they were good, to give them a present. Not at all. St. Nicholas was a historical figure, the kindly bishop of Myra, who went around giving presents to poor children. Not to children who had sent letters to the North Pole. Not to those who were good. Not to children who were rich. No. St. Nicholas himself was a poor person and he gave presents to poor children. St. Nicholas understood that in the original Christmas pageant. The original Christmas pageant was a pageant for the poor.
The values from this original Christmas pageant are found in some of our Christmas traditions today. For example, in Christmas caroling. Where do most people go caroling at Christmas time? To nursing homes. To the poor, the elderly, the handicapped. In your mind, do you normally see carolers down at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, The Washington Plaza, the Hotel de Ritz? When youth groups go caroling at this time of year, that is not where they go. Normally, these carolers go to nursing homes. The Friend-to-Friend ministry tells us that 60% of these residents had no visitors during the year; most elderly in nursing homes suffer from loneliness. Our carolers go and sing to people who have walkers, wheelchairs, and canes, and most likely, are living with their noses just above the poverty line. That is where the youth go caroling because they know the spirit of the original Christmas pageant. God wants us to exalt the poor, feed the poor, and yes, sing to the poor.
We find this original spirit in another Christmas tradition. At Christmas time, people give generously to the food banks. The Salvation Army bells are ringing and people put money into their kettles. Large offerings, much more than at other times of the year, are given to the Millionaires Ministry, Lutheran Compass Center in downtown Seattle and St. Martin de Porres. Why at this time of year, much more than at other times of year? Because we know that at the heart of the Christmas story is God's pageant for the poor, the feast for the poor, the banquet for the poor. In all of Luke's Christmas stories, we are reminded of God's special affection for poor people. Yes, I know. We are to be generous and loving to the poor at all times of the year, but Christmas is that special church festival that honors the poor, more so than any other church festival.
Luke's original Christmas pageant is not the Roman Saturnalia from ancient Rome. The Roman Saturnalia was a midwinter festival for the family. The Roman Saturnalia was a family festival when families gathered with their own people and no outsiders were allowed into their family circle. The Roman Saturnalia was when family and close friends exchanged presents with each other. But in Luke's original Christmas pageant, people opened their homes to the poor. They brought in Mary and Joseph, Zechariah and Elizabeth, the shepherds, Simeon and Anna to their homes to be part of their banquet. Jesus, in this same gospel, told many stories of inviting the poor, the maimed, the blind and the lame to the feast. That is what Christmas is all about, in Luke's original Christmas pageant. Without this spirit of the original Christmas pageant, a contemporary Christmas degenerates into a Roman Saturnalia and is nothing but self-indulgent family tradition. Luke's opening two Christmas chapters and the whole book has another vision: invite the poor to your feast. Invite people who are poor, handicapped, with walkers, wheel chairs, canes. The original Christmas pageant thinks poor; the Roman Saturnalia thinks family and friends for a self-indulgent time.
Imagine a Christmas Eve service here at Grace and we were doing Luke's original Christmas pageant. That wouldn't mean that we would have angels choirs dressed in white robes, shepherds watching by night in their bathrobes, Mary in blue and Joseph in brown. To do Luke's original Christmas pageant here at Grace would mean that our services were crowded with wheel chairs and walkers and canes, blind people and people from downtown Seattle. The homeless would join us from "their room" in the church. All the original caste would be here: with Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, Anna and Simeon and our worship service would become a feast, a festival for the poor, a pageant for the poor. Wouldn't that be a miracle?
Christmas is the invitation for each one of us to be and do the gospel for the poor. The invitation from Luke's original Christmas pageant is for us not only to open our hearts to the poor but our homes and apartments to the poor. What a vision. What a pageant. What a possibility for your life and mine. Amen.
"Luke's Original Christmas Pageant" by Edward F. Markquart, Sermons from Seattle, Grace Lutheran Church, Des Moines, Washington. Used by permission.
Sermons from Seattle provides sample sermons and more for the three years of the lectionary cycle, to be adapted for local situations and styles of delivery.
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