Jesus “gave himself” to “purify for himself a people who are zealous for good deeds.” Congratulations! We’re a bunch of zealous do-gooders! Nowadays, “zealous” is a synonym for “eager.” When Titus was written, Zealot was, well, complicated. There were zealots and then there were Zealots. Zealot could mean a member of a political faction, a paramilitary organization that fought for Judean independence and a theocracy in Jerusalem. Today we would probably call such people terrorists. A zealot could also be someone who adhered to orthodox teachings and was spiritual. These spiritual, orthodox folks likely bristled at the terrorists calling themselves Zealots. Problem is outsiders don’t necessarily bother to learn the difference. And neither the spiritual orthodox nor the terrorists are particularly thrilled with Imperial Rome. Which is a problem. Because that’s where they live.
When Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem they passed inscriptions declaring that Augustus was the Savior of the World. The shepherds who ran to see the baby Jesus passed yard signs declaring that Augustus was the Manifestation of God. For most people in the Empire, Augustus was God and Savior. It had only been 25 years or so since Augustus had defeated Mark Anthony at Actium, ending 20 years of outright Civil War and a 60 year span of social unrest marked by military dictatorships, semi-legal wars, and power struggles between the senate and the populist party. Now, finally, the world was at peace. It was a peace built on slavery, enforced inequality, violent propaganda, and brutal reprisals against dissenters, but it was peace (and, for the lucky, prosperity). To Luke’s readers, and to Jesus’ family and friends, the pressure is on to be happy with Rome. The average resident is not just afraid of Rome’s legions, but is afraid of what would happen without Rome’s legions.
If you’re a Christian, what do you do? You’re “orthodox”: you know that the Emperor is not God. And you’re “spiritual”: you know God wants justice for the oppressed. If you voice your disapproval of Rome too loudly, Romans might lump you in with the terrorists. Do I really want to follow Jesus? I know the Peace that Rome offers isn’t real. It isn’t permanent. It depends on hurting people and exploiting people. But the Zealots sicken me, and my friends think I am one!
Perhaps we see some similarity between Luke’s listeners and us. Most of us gathered here tonight are not afraid of being lumped in with a terrorist organization. Most of us also probably blush if called a “zealous Christian.” For our world is increasingly secularized. The so-called “War on Christmas” always seems to be taking on Santa and pine trees and magic snowmen, and there’s almost no point trying to weigh in “but what about Jesus?” because Jesus seems limited to the baby in the nativity scene, and the dispute seems limited to whether that nativity scene can be on public property. The world pressures us to lose ourselves in a Christmas focused on purchasing and on carefully filtered north European winter solstice imagery. The questions prowl on the edge of every moment. Do my kids have enough stuff? Will they be content with their presents? Will I? Will I be content with my presents? Probably not. Never am. Meanwhile there are Christians who picket soldiers’ funerals claiming this is God’s revenge for gay rights. Christians who claim that basic biological functions of human bodies are shameful. Christians who likely disagree with most of us here on whether women are equal to men, who think science is an opinion, and…I could go on. The pressure is on: give in to a world that depends on wastefulness and consuming things that never make us happy, or be branded one of the crazies. Many of us see that’s a false binary, but the third option seems to be: hide, and try not to talk about it.
God picks this moment to show up. Just as the world is dark and our consumer culture has us at peak anxiety and to get here we have to pass all the signs that Caesar Augustus is God and Savior so don’t rattle any cages, God is born. God who in the Old Testament is “father of orphans and defender of widows.” God who decrees that the holiest act is to love your neighbor. God who has related to people, through people, since Adam and Eve. God who argued with Moses and Abraham (as though they might win!). God who remained faithful to Jacob and David. (You wanna talk about some messed up sinners!) God who created by saying, “Let us create,” because the baby born tonight is the eternal Word, always relating to Father and Spirit. God, who Thomas Aquinas famously said, wants most of all to be your friend.
This is someone who can fight the power. When we read Titus on Christmas Eve and the lector utters that phrase, “the manifestation of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ,” and when we read Luke on Christmas Eve and hear that during the reign of Caesar Augustus (the God and Savior of the world), an angel proclaimed, “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior,” that is God interrupting our consumer culture to say, “Nice try, but I’m God around here.” And God relates to people. The birth of Jesus Christ amidst darkness and anxiety declares to us a relationship that we cannot destroy. Even if we do not call Christ our brother and his Father our Father, Christ does, from all eternity, and Christ our brother always recognizes us as a relative.
The birth of Jesus Christ amidst darkness and anxiety declares to us that we can relate to God and each other. It’s an alternative to the false dilemma of give in to a world that never fills us, be one of the crazies, or just hide and hope it goes away. Relating may not seem like much. Heck, sometimes relating to others might seem like the worst possible idea. (If you believe half of what you hear about holiday dinners in my mother’s family, you’ll swear off family forever.) But it is the most basic part of God with us. God has chosen to relate to us. Because relating is the foundation of God with us, it is the proper foundation of what we do as Christians in the world. We are not called to consume before others can get to it. We are not called to retreat into a holier than thou attitude toward outsiders. We are not called to run and hide and pray that maybe it’ll all go away. We are called to relate to those around us. We are, as Titus says, redeemed from all iniquity, and purified as a people of Christ’s own, who are zealous for good deeds.
The birth of Jesus Christ amidst darkness and anxiety is a promise and a challenge to us. It is the promise that God relates to us, and the challenge to relate to God as God is revealed in others. It is Christmas Eve: what’s going to be under the tree tomorrow is going to be under the tree tomorrow. Jesus is not coming to criticize what’s there. He is interrupting it all, though. He is interrupting us with the call to relate to the world. The call to serve, the call to heal the wounds of a broken world, the call to pray for peace, they are the calls and cries of the baby born tonight, our brother, who teaches us to call his Father our Father.