Sermon: Don’t Make Me Pull this Car Over!


Sermon: Don’t Make Me Stop this Car!

St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Madison, CT ¹

A watercolor angel by artist Roxanne Steed
A Watercolor angel by artist Roxanne Steed | Photo by Roxanne Steed

Taken from Luke 2:1–20 (NRSV)

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. All went to their own towns to be registered.

Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger."

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.

When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Photo of Vedder and Frank Steed in front of a 1942 DeSoto c1946
My father and grandfather with a 1942 DeSoto | Photo probably by Mildred Steed c1946

Don’t Make Me Pull This Car Over!

I grew up in a household with three boys. God bless our poor parents… we didn’t make it easy for them. When we would go on a car trip, my middle brother and I would get the window seats, and our youngest brother would have to squeeze in between us. After a while, as we got bored, a finger would jab into my very ticklish brother’s ribs and he would cry out. That would get a "sush" from Mom and would quiet us for a bit.

But of course, with more teasings and noise-makings, the threat of judgement would be laid down from Dad; "Don’t make me pull this car over…." That’s when we knew we were right on the line between fun and painful judgement. The threat usually worked; only once did the car actually slow and pull over.
1950 DeSoto owned by my Mother’s Callahan family
1950 DeSoto owned by my mother’s Callahan family | Photo probably by James Callahan

My parents had two simple plans for raising the three of us.
  • Plan A was to lay down some rules; "Follow the rules, finish your chores, do well in school and all will be well with you."
  • Plan B was a reckoning.
So plan A was a ruleset, plan B was a more fear-based approach.

Plan B

For many Christians, God seems to have the very same approach that my parents had. Plan A was to give the people of Israel the law, a ruleset. Plan B was "Don’t make me send my son down there!" So there are some rules and there is some fear to back it up.
Photo of mural at Orvieto, Tuscany of the last judgement
There’s plenty of scriptural material to suggest a Plan A and Plan B approach; but is that what Jesus is about? | Photo by Ron Steed at the cathedral in Orvieto, Tuscany

Now there is plenty, PLENTY of material in the scriptures to support this notion… you do not have to look very hard to find it:
  • The gist of the prophets seems to be "Don’t make God pull this car over!"
  • The story of Noah’s Ark in Genesis seems to be a case where the evil of humankind grieved God to his heart and made him "sorry that I have made them". And so, the story goes, the car pulled over to the side of the road and there was a reckoning for all of humanity; Noah and his family excepted.
  • As I have been preaching throughout Advent, John the Baptist seems to have plan B in mind when he says "the axe is lying at the root of the tree". He seems to be saying "Now you’ve done it, God is sending his son down from corporate headquarters and boy are you people going to get it!"

Jesus as Plan B

For a lot of Christians, God seems to live on a far distant galaxy, except on Christmas and Easter when he comes down to wag his finger at us about human sexuality. But things had gotten so bad that he sent his son to square us away, and now Jesus is threatening to come back a second time to finish the job!
Photo of Tiffany window in St. James Episcopal Church, New London, CT
Angel announces Plan B in a window by Tiffany Studios | Photo by Ron Steed at St. James Episcopal Church, New London, CT

To a lot of Christians, God seems to using Jesus as Plan B, the thing God would have to do if Plan A didn’t work. And the cross! Well that seems like some kind of cosmic Taylor Swift song that God sings "Look what you made me do!" That song even has the right lyrics "Honey, I rose up from the dead!" Art imitates life more than we might like to think….

Jesus as Plan A

Friends, that’s not what is going on here.

Jesus coming to Earth in human form was always Plan A, Jesus IS always Plan A, and Jesus will always BE Plan A; there was no plan B.

God wants nothing more than to be with us, in every way possible way. God POURS itself into creation, so God has ALWAYS been with us from the very start of creation. Creation itself was the FIRST incarnation of God, the first enfleshment of God. God loves creation by BECOMING creation; God loves creation by uniting with creation, not by excluding any part of it.²
Photo of mushrooms in the Merritt Family Forest, Mystic, CT
Part of the First incarnation | Photo by Ron Steed

All of this is true on the cosmic level, and it is true on the level of this baby whose birth 2000 years ago, God’s SECOND incarnation, we are celebrating tonight, and it true now with all of you. God loves us by BECOMING us, God loves us by uniting with us, not by excluding us. God is WITH us, now and forever… not on some far away solar system, but present with us and within us. Just hold on to that idea for a bit.

A Story of Politics

Now, Luke’s Gospel tells the story of Jesus’ birth through the lens of politics. I know; the very LAST thing you want to hear on Christmas Eve is a sermon about politics, but I’m afraid that’s what Luke has handed us this evening! "Luke, look what you made me do!", is what I want to sing!

And you can tell this is a political story because Luke starts off with an imperial decree from Caesar Augustus, a decree that everyone, including Joseph and Mary are not just obligated to follow, but DO follow. They go to Bethlehem in Luke’s story because Caesar told them to go.

Now, historians think Luke’s story is pretty thin on facts. There is no evidence of an actual census that might have taken place around the time of Jesus’ birth, but this story tells a truth that does not rest on whether a census took place or not.

Gaius Octavius

Luke is telling the story of a powerful Roman man, Gaius Octavius, who regarded himself as the Divine Lord of the World, and another, seemingly powerless man Jesus, born in Palestine who ALSO claimed that title. There are a lot of titles thrown around this narrative; both men claimed them.

One of them got himself crucified as a result, while the other lived a full life to the ripe age of 75. But that wasn’t the end of the story; we worship Jesus and not Gaius Octavius and there are reasons for that.

Now, that phrase Luke uses "Caesar Augustus" is not the Emperor’s first and last name; rather, these are two titles that the Emperor, Gaius Octavius claimed, something similar to "President of the United States" which is a title and not the name of the person holding that office.
Photo of the colosseum  in Arles, France
School children in Arles, France learn a lesson about Roman Power at the ancient colosseum | Photo by Ron Steed

The title "Augustus" however, is a claim to divinity. Certainly, anyone in Luke’s community of educated Greeks reading or hearing Luke’s gospel would have known this right away, even though that idea seems a little remote to us today.

And that phrase the Angel announces to the shepherds "I am bringing you good news of great joy" would be instantly recognized as the opening line of every Roman imperial decree: "Caesar Augustus, the Anointed Son of the Most High, brings good news of great joy to his people, that there will be peace and security throughout the world!" Luke’s story actually mocks Roman imperial decrees!

Committing Treason

Someone reading or hearing this story in Luke’s time might have thought to themselves "Whoa, that’s a risky story! That’s just what the emperor would say! Isn’t it a bit treasonous to proclaim Jesus that way?" Yes, yes it is.
Photo of the Smiling Angel at Reims Cathedral
The Smiling Angel at Reims Cathedral… happy to push some limits I think | Photo by Ron Steed

But that doesn’t keep the angels in Luke from pushing at this risky boundary. Consider that phrase "Son of the Most High", which is what the angel tells Mary about Jesus in Chapter 1. That is exactly what Octavian DID call himself after he declared his father Julius divine. So Octavian ALSO regarded himself as the son of a God.

The angels go on to announce to the shepherds that Jesus is "the savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord". That would have been heard as "the savior, the anointed one of God, and one who must be obeyed". These are all titles that Octavian claimed for himself.

Even when the chorus of angels sing "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those of whom he favors", it is exactly the kind of imperial praise that would be heaped onto Caesar, and it would have been heard that way by anyone who listened to this story read aloud.
Photo of angels at Reims cathedral, France
Angels at Reims Cathedral, France | Photo by Ron Steed

All of this is to suggest that the theme of Luke’s entire birth story is THIS: "Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not".

What Jesus Plan A is All About

Now, this begs a really important question which gets to the very heart of what Jesus’ Plan A is all about. If Jesus was Lord, and Caesar was just a parody of what lordship was about, in what ways was the lordship of Jesus DIFFERENT from the lordship of Caesar or any OTHERS, including all those today who claim authority over humans?

Jesus claimed the same power as Caesar: Son of God, the Anointed One, Lord, Savior, Bringer of Good News, Bringer of Peace. The difference is WHAT Jesus DID with that power.
Photo of bread basket at Chateau Orquevaux, France
Forms of power that stand with us, not over us | Photo by Ron Steed

Unlike humans, Jesus gave his power away; Jesus emptied himself of power. Rather than using his power fearfully as Caesar did, Jesus gifted his power; to heal, to mend, to repair, to soften hard edges, to gather together, to search for the lost, to share meals with rich and poor… with the righteous and the unrighteousness, to warn us where our human ways with power would lead if we kept it up, to mourn our losses with those who suffered and bind their wounds when we didn’t listen to that advice, to show us a better way to live, to have life and to have it abundantly through love and not through rulesets, by embracing one another as God embraces us… everyone… everywhere, unconditionally, without excluding. Humans had the freedom to follow their own minds all along, even cruelly, and Jesus was WITH us, no matter what.

Jesus did these things while living as a human on Earth. The Risen Christ does these things through us NOW, TODAY as Body of Christ on Earth. Christ still gives his power away… still empties his power into us in the same ways. That was Plan A all along; to give it all away as a gift of unconditional love.

The Christmas invitation to us then, is to be like Jesus… like babies in a feeding trough; weak, vulnerable, dependent on others, powerless. And… to be growing, learning, thriving, having life and having it abundantly.

There is so MUCH about God that we do not know and CANNOT know. But what we DO know about God… what God has revealed to humanity all over the world in all times and in all places, and especially through Jesus Christ, we can treasure and ponder in our hearts, just like Mary did and does.

May all of you have a joyous Christmas and a blessed new year. And may God with be you in Jesus Christ, Plan A, always and forever. Amen.
Photo of lights and decorations on a Christmas tree
Photo by Ron Steed

  1. Sermon delivered at St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Madison, CT on Saturday Evening, December 24, 2022; Christmas Eve.
  2. Rohr, R. (2019). Another Name for Everything. In The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe (p. 15). Convergent Books.