In those dark days when Caesar Augustus was hailed as lord and savior, the One who really is Lord and Savior was born in tiny Bethlehem. In these dark days, it does seem that the likes of Caesar Augustus are still in control. Do we dare hail a different king?
In Those Days
A Sermon on Isaiah 43:14-21 and Luke 2:1-20
Now in those days the emperor Augustus was the most powerful king of the most powerful kingdom the world had yet seen: the Roman empire. Looking at the empire as a whole, it was a time of great stability. Things were more stable than they had been in many years. Some viewed it as a golden age of peace and called it the Pax Romana—the peace of Rome, or the Pax Augustana—the peace of Augustus. It was a good time to be alive—for the wealthy and powerful at any rate. Around the empire Augustus was acclaimed as lord, divine son, bringer of peace, and savior of the world. Yes—those very words, including savior and lord. That’s what people were calling Caesar Augustus!
But what they called peace was enforced by the threat of violence. Keep the subjects afraid. Any hint of unrest was quickly squashed by the mightiest army the world had yet seen. The Romans had an especially feared execution technique, called crucifixion, and they used it regularly. Not everybody stayed in line, but most did, most of the time.
Maintaining the empire and the peace of Rome required lots and lots of revenue. That meant lots and lots of taxes—steep taxes, and the Romans didn’t want to miss any tax payers. Accurate tax rolls were a must.
That’s how Mary and Joseph found themselves caught up in forces they couldn’t control. They found themselves on the road to Bethlehem at the worst possible time: late in Mary’s pregnancy. That didn’t matter. There went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered for the tax, and so all the world went to register, everyone to the towns their families came from. No exceptions.
It had to be a miserable journey for Mary, and then when they reached crowded Bethlehem, space to lay their heads was hard to come by.
The peace of Rome might have looked good on paper, and it might have looked good to the comfortable people who profited from it. But millions of people longed for things to be better. So many were impoverished, and here came the Romans trying to squeeze even more out of them. They longed to get out from under this tyranny.
But how? Well, suppose there was a king even more powerful than Caesar Augustus. And what if this king had—if not more soldiers—then better soldiers. And if not more weapons, then more powerful weapons. This is how many imagined the Messiah. They imagined a Messiah that could kick the emperor’s butt.
From time to time hope caught flame as would-be Messiahs came on the scene. Yet people’s hopes were always disappointed. The Romans always won! Was it even worth it to hope? If you don’t get your hopes up, you won’t get disappointed. And yet, people found themselves hoping for something better in spite of themselves.
Perhaps that’s one reason Christmas movies are so enticing. They are all stories of hope. You can turn away from bad news and watch a good story with a happy ending. The plots are similar. Something is wrong or missing. Often what is missing is a good romantic partner. There is either no partner, or it’s the wrong one. Sometimes one of the characters is sick or bereaved, or family members are estranged from one another. One of the main characters might be in utter despair like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, or turned in on himself like Ebenezer Scrooge.
Christmas somehow makes the difference in these characters’ lives. The person with the wrong boyfriend or girlfriend gets the right one, the widowed person finds a wonderful new spouse and orphaned children find a new parent figure. Family members reconnect with each other. Frozen hearts melt like Scrooge’s, or grow three sizes like the Grinch’s. George Bailey is glad to be alive after all. Things turn out right, and presumably everybody lives happily ever after.
People love a story where things get better. People want to believe that Christmas makes a difference. But once we turn off the Hallmark Channel, the appalling news is still there, and the pain and the violence and the fear are still there. It looks like the same old same old.
In those days it was the same old same old. In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus to all the world: get on the tax registry or else. But it wasn’t the same old same old as far as God was concerned. God proceeded to do something outrageously new. Behold, God was doing a new thing. In fact, by moving people around, Augustus unwittingly took part in what God was doing. In those terrible days, God himself took on frail human flesh and was born helpless like every other human baby and where? Not in the halls of power, and not to the rich and powerful. Not to people with influence who could help him get ahead. Baby Jesus was born in a tiny town on the edge of the empire in very humble circumstances to a family of modest means. And his mother wrapped him in cloths and laid him down in the animals’ feed trough because there wasn’t anywhere else.
The news, this new thing, this NOEL was announced. I picture the glorious light going everywhere. I picture an angel with a booming voice announcing, “Unto you is born this day a Savior, Christ the Lord.” I visualize the whole sky lit up with the heavenly host, and they sound like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, goodwill towards people.”
It sounds like an amazing experience. Who could miss it? But the only ones who actually saw and heard all this were the lowest people on the totem pole, certain poor shepherds who were staying awake through the night to guard their sheep. People with no power. Shepherds, who did not enjoy a good reputation in other people’s eyes. People considered religiously unclean, and who literally weren’t clean. Those shepherds smelled. And it was those shepherds on the fringes of society who heard and saw.
But not Caesar Augustus or Quirinius, or Herod. Not anybody who was anybody in the world’s eyes. They slept the night away in their comfortable beds. Had they awakened and gone to the window, it would have looked just like any other night to them.
In those days of Caesar Augustus, in those dark days, God defied human expectations and did something radically new. God launched a new king and a new kingdom. To the shepherds—and their kinfolk—is born this day the King who really is savior and Lord, son of God and prince of peace. Born this day is the King who really does offer good news to all—not just to the rich and powerful—good news to all. Born this day is the one who brings the healing peace that really is peace. The new king brings not the iron-fisted reign of terror but the open handed reign of love.
And what happened at Bethlehem was just the beginning. This king had a new way of operating. He had no trappings of an earthly king, no army, no money, none of the things the world says give you power. Some kept hoping he would raise an army and out-caesar Caesar. But they were disappointed.
This king, Jesus, didn’t work his way in with the people in power. He did the opposite. The poor, sick, suffering and sinful were his top priority. And that’s where you could find him at work. He approached people with love and mercy, healing and freedom, wellbeing and peace. Jesus didn’t bleed people like the Roman emperors did. Jesus didn’t vanquish the world. He shed his own blood for the world. He didn’t do violence to others, but when violence was done to him, he overcame it. He accepted crucifixion and overcame it, when God did an even more astounding new thing on the third day, when God turned the hated Roman cross into a sign of life, love and hope. Jesus called people to follow him on his way—and some did. And that is how his new kingdom dawned.
If the only news we listen to is the news that comes through the media, it does seem that the likes of Caesar Augustus are still in control. The same old same old of those days seems to be the same old same old of these days, and there are people out there vigorously fanning the flames of fear. Loudly asserting that the only real power is Caesar’s power, the power of money and weapons and violence. These things will save us, they say, even loudly declaring that we need to recycle old ideas and practices that after World War II we said, “Never again.” When we said, “Never again shall people of a particular religion or group or nationality be marked or registered or banned or interned in camps.” And people are cheering these voices on.
In these days of Advent and Christmas, we who love Jesus see another light, and dare to sing a new and different song. We dare to sing of a different king and a different kingdom and of healing peace on earth. Joy to the world, the Lord Jesus is come. Let earth receive her king. Let every heart prepare room, make a place for him. And heaven and nature sing. And heaven and nature sing. All the hopes and fears of all the years truly are met in little Bethlehem, this very night.
Do we dare?