Unless this is your first time experiencing Christmas, I expect you have heard Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus – census, Joseph and Mary travelling to Bethlehem, the birth (no room in the inn), the manger, the angel, the shepherds, the host of angels singing, the go and-see and wow we found him!
We know the story. We’ve seen the Sunday School plays. We’ve sung the carols. And there have been countless words spoken and I’m adding to those. But I wonder how we hear these words from Luke?
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. (Luke 2:1,2 ESV)
This is a date reference as he was the first Emperor of the Roman Empire from around 29BC to 14AD*. Born Gaius Octavius, he was the adopted son of Julius Caesar and he is the person who begins the imperial cult of the Emperor or Emperor worship because while Roman leaders could be elevated in stature to a level of divinity in death , he established the practice that this could apply to the living and so when Julius Caesar was recognised as a god, Gaius Octavius allowed particularly the Greek cities to set up temples and statues to him who now became ‘the son of god’ – and this new cult became recognised as a unifying factor in the Roman world. He even changed his name to Augustus meaning ‘worthy of praise’ and proclaimed the ‘good news’ (the ‘gospel’) of the ‘Pax Romana’ which that there is peace in the Empire. While historians today regard the Pax Romana a a period of relative stability it came at the cost of a strong professional army and the establishment of sort of police force, the vigils, and there was still oppression, violence, inequality for so many of the people.
Yet there was a big effort to maintain the message that Casear Augustus was Rome’s Saviour, there was a suggestion that his birthday should begin each new year. It was said of him … Providence [gave us] Augustus for the benefaction of mankind, sending us … a saviour who put an end to war and established all things; and … when he appeared [Augustus] exceeded the hopes of all who had anticipated good news…; and [his] birthday … marked for the world the beginning of good news through his coming.’ (Ref: Roman Civilisation, 1955, Ed. N Lewis and M Reinhold. Vol 2:64)
Sound familiar? This is the atmosphere, the zeitgeist, the flavour of the empire which will influence and shape how Roman emperors were viewed in the first century.
So here’s a question – when your leader is divine, where does he go from there? Or more to the point, what has to be done to maintain that fiction? … The rise and fall of civilisations give testimonies to the answers that inevitably arise. False gods will always fall.
For now, we’ve been thinking about Caesar Augustus but we don’t know when Luke wrote his first letter to Theophilus. Was it when Nero was Emperor or the year of the 4 emperors (69AD – with murder, suicide, murder, and the one who outlives the year) or the Flavian Dynasty of Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, or Nerva? None of these people could be a posterboys of benevolence! But they all benefited and didn’t end the imperial cult with its trappings of worship, deification, salvation, goodness, and peace. These sons of god had a lot for which to answer!
Last night we heard messengers tell shepherds about a Saviour, about salvation, and about peace, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14 ESV)
Who is telling the truth? Who is telling fake news? The angels? The Roman bureaucracy?
Such questions can be asked of anyone who communicates to us!
We are here today because the message the shepherds heard defies human history with its rises and falls! We are here today because the story of the birth of Jesus is still being told, still being celebrated, because we know what happens to this Jesus – his life, death, resurrection and ascension – for humanity – for you!
And it boils down to ‘Which Saviour, which god, do you believe?’. Compare the Roman Emperors and their deeds and compare Jesus and his deeds – and, yes, both have bureaucracies and those are never perfect – but compare the focal points, the persons themselves, they all claim divinity – under whom, in whose country, under whose government would you prefer to live? We do this sort of thing all the time – compare promises – we’ve just had a general election!
Jesus presents us with a mystery – a historical puzzle – and it isn’t the Virgin Birth or why shepherds (regarded socially and legally at that time as untrustworthy and unreliable) are the first messengers or the scandal of why Middle Eastern hospitality didn’t extend to a woman giving birth (unless you think the manger the best that could be offered)? No, the puzzle that brings us here is the empty tomb! And the light that shines from it makes us see this Jesus and his birth as even more wonderful – that God is incarnate – that the Word made flesh dwells among us challenges us profoundly!
Christmas whispers at us that there is more to this world than we know. There are things that need to be revealed to us. And today it is that the almighty God – infinite – can be in the baby Jesus. It is like fitting the ocean into a little bottle. And if this is true then the real presence of Jesus in bread and wine as he said is a no brainer!
Christmas tells us about a Saviour and peace on earth and about God. And in Jesus – the focus is on Jesus – right now weak and vulnerable – and when a man he was also weak and vulnerable in that he was mortal and mortals can die. So why is there good news about this God?
Because he has come to serve! That’s the greatest mystery of all – God’s grace – God’s service of creation, of us, so that we might live with him. The world screams ‘Fake news!’ and proclaims its news … There are no gods. You are alone. Life is meaningless and random and just do what you can to survive.
And the story of Jesus challenges such news as few things do!
This good news of Jesus changes everything because life is never the same afterwards. Sure the struggles continue and yes, we have lost ultimate control over our living. We’re still responsible for our behaviour but we can accept that other people and circumstances can impact us – hurt us – make us suffer – and that doesn’t diminish the truth that Jesus is with us, helping and supporting, serving us with forgiveness, hope, love and even joy – through the world.
Jesus is not Fake News! He is Good News – in fact the best news ever! And like shepherds, let’s go and see, and go and tell – as we live each day with the peace that God gives.
This God serves you – always!
How loved are you?!!
* The idea of using Caesar Augustus came from Pastor Dan Muller (LCA) and a Facebook post Charlotte sent me.
- Luke 2:1 - 14