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Christmas Eve: The Emperor Has No Clothes

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 4:41 pm on Monday, December 25, 2017

A sermon preached on Christmas Eve, 2017 based upon Luke 2:1-20.

Christmas Eve candle

As I listened again to this oh, so familiar story, I thought of another story that is likely familiar to most of us — a story generally not associated with Christmas – but to ear it seems appropriate to tell.  It is a story that involves nakedness.

Once upon a time there was a rather vain emperor who had a particular fondness for the most beautiful clothes money could buy.  There came to the city where the Emperor lived two con men who knew how to appeal to such vanity. In the city streets they passed themselves off to the Emperor’s subjects as great tailors famed throughout the world for weaving the most beautiful clothes the world had ever seen, made from the finest, most expensive of threads.  Not only was there craftsmanship distinguished by its beauty, but also by the fact that it possessed the remarkable capacity of revealing the true character of those who looked up it.  The clothes they wove, it was said, were invisible to any person who was either unfit to hold their station in life, or simply stupid.

You know how the story progresses:  In short order word reaches the emperor of the extraordinary tailors who have come to town, and his vanity quickly draws him into the con men’s web.  He simply must have a set of their clothes for himself, and he commissions the tailors to begin weaving an outfit suitable for the man who towers over all others.

The con men set up shop in a room in the Emperor’s palace, demanding that the most expensive and colorful thread be brought to them. In the days that follow they pretend to be hard at work on their looms carrying the Emperor’s requests, while at night secretly smuggling the costly threads out of the palace to secretly sell for big hunk of change.

The Emperor is dying to know how the clothes are progressing, and so he sends a trusted aid to check on tailors’ work.  The aid succumbs to the deception.  He can see nothing on their looms of course, but horrified by the notion that the truth be revealed that he is, in fact either unfit to hold his post, or simply stupid,  he pretends to see what is not there.  Prompted by the descriptions provided by the two swindler tailors he appropriately “oohs” and “ahs” over the bright colors and elaborate patterns of the emerging clothes.   Afterwards he departs to make his report to the Emperor, carefully repeating the con men’s detailed descriptions, which in turn strokes the Emperor vain anticipation of how good he will look when he finally gets to put on the extraordinary clothes.

Two days pass and the Emperor sends a second aid to get another update on how the work is proceeding, and since the first aid had previously returned with such convincing descriptions of the clothes, he is even quicker to doubt himself and fall for the charade, and he too brings glowing descriptions of the progress being made by the tailors.

And so when the day finally comes for the Emperor to put on the clothes and process through town in his finery, he is horrified to discover that the clothes are invisible to him, but assuming there are real and visible to others and he alone cannot see them, he goes along with the con men’s charade as he strips naked to put on the non-existent garments.

And so it came to pass that the Emperor paraded through town stark naked, but the crowds of onlookers – having heard of the clothes well publicized capacity to reveal incompetency and stupidity share in the charade.

That is, until finally a child cries out the truth, “The emperor has no clothes.”

Here is how Hans Christian Andersen concludes his little fable:  “The words of the child made a deep impression upon the Emperor, for it seemed that they were right.  But he thought to himself regardless, ‘Now I must bear up to the end.”

Returning now to our Gospel reading, Luke begins with these words:

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.”

Before telling the story of the birth that brings us here tonight, Luke pauses to make passing reference to the most powerful man on the face of the planet, Emperor Augustus — a man who claimed for himself the title of Son of God, requiring that he be worshipped by his subjects.  From the comfort of his luxurious palace he utters a command and, as Luke tells us, to the far ends of his empire the masses fall into line, including a poor peasant couple in a particularly remote corner by the names of Joseph and Mary.  Though young Mary is already eight months pregnant, they set out on the grueling fifty mile trek to Bethlehem.  Shortly after arriving Mary goes into labor and in the very barest of accommodations – a stable surrounded by farm animals – she gives birth to her naked baby boy, wrapping him not in the finest of fabrics but in common swaddling clothes.

A striking contrast is drawn between the seemingly all powerful Emperor in his palace and the poor helpless baby in the manger.

What did the Emperor look like? If you Google image him, you will find statues like this one carved to honor him portraying an impressive figure for sure, a muscular, trim self-confident man at the peak of his powers, adorned with gold plated armor and surely the finest silk fabrics money can buy.

But alas, Emperor Augustus was born all the way back in 63 BC, and so on the night the peasant couple’s baby is born the statues misrepresent him.  Now the Emperor is a man of approximately my age — long past his prime — his hair gray, his hairline and energy receding.

At night alone in his bedroom when the Emperor takes off his gold-plated armor and silk garments to prepare for sleep his wrinkled and sagging body marked by liver spots betray his age.  His enlarged prostrate interrupts his sleep with frequent trips to the bathroom to relieve his bladder.

Within ten years of the poor baby’s birth the Emperor will be dead — his body going the way of all flesh, returning to the dust.

In spite of his claims to the contrary, the Emperor was not the Son of God.  But the baby whose arrival into this world went largely unnoticed – only certain poor shepherds came to celebrate his birth – is, in fact the real “Son of God” – the great mystery of God taking on human flesh – our human flesh.

Another story you likely know well, involving nakedness.  Once upon a time there was another couple that lived in a beautiful garden full of trees with sweet tasting fruits.  They were naked, but their nakedness in no way troubled them, for they were like little children, free of self-consciousness.

And then one day they found themselves growing dissatisfied with life in the beautiful garden and decided they wanted to in the ones in charge of the garden, to be the Emperor of the garden so to speak, and something went terribly wrong and they were filled with a crippling self-consciousness, and lo and behold, they noticed for the first time that they were, in fact naked, and they were ashamed and ran for cover.

And we’ve behind hiding our nakedness ever since.  And we’ve been afraid to own up to the fact that we can’t see the Emperor’s clothes when everybody else seems to see them just fine.  And sometimes we feel like a fraud, but like the Emperor in Hans Christian Andersen’s little fable, we figure, “Now I must bear up to the end.”

But it doesn’t have to be this way said the God who gave us life. And so this God out of the great love this has God has for us came among us as a helpless little baby, embracing the nakedness that reveals just how vulnerable we really are.  You don’t have to pretend to have it all together, or that you’ve never done anything that puts you on the naughty list, or that sometimes you lie awake at night feeling overwhelmed.  You don’t need to be afraid, like the angel said.  You are loved more than you know.  You don’t need to hide anymore.

The little baby in whom God lived grew up to be a man who would reach out in compassion to those people living on the edges, paralyzed by their shame and their need to hide out in the shadows, to declare to them that their sins have been forgiven and they were in fact God’s beloved and cherished children, no matter what those who would condemn them might say.

And on the last night of the life of the man born in a barn, he would accept the humiliation of being stripped naked as the day he was born by soldiers under the command of an old man pretending to be divine, and he gave his body to be broken, his blood to be shed, that we might know the love that penetrates all darkness, every compulsion we feel to hide out in the shadows.

We are loved, and we are set free to love, in all our frailty and vulnerability, for love in the end is all that matters.

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