So today we wrap up our series entitled advent(ure) looking at the principal characters within the traditional Christmas stories within Matthew and Luke. Looking at the adventure(s) that God took each principal character on all those years ago, and what those adventures might say to us 2,000 years later on our own adventures in following the Christ child born in Bethlehem.
We’ve covered the adventures of the Shepherds, the Wise Men, and Mary & Joseph. Today we cover the main character not only in the Christmas narratives found in Matthew and Luke, but the main character in all of Scripture and also in all of history. Jesus Christ, the baby born in the manger that all of history hinges on.
Today we are going to move beyond the Hallmark portraits and the sentimentality that has crept into this story. Because unfortunately this radical, upside-down, empire confronting, Kingdom of God crashing into earth moment, when the God of the universe takes on flesh and blood, and moves into our neighborhood has become a symbol of status quo. A safe, sanitized, 21st century savior and a great bedtime story complete with a sanitized birth with no blood and yelling, a baby that doesn’t cry (ala Away in the Manger…one of the worst Christmas carols in my opinion which attacks the idea of incarnation), and no smell or animal dung. Today we are going to look at just how subversive and radical this story truly is and how this story sets the stage for the entire narrative of Jesus, and ultimately his death on the cross. We will see that right from the start, in this birth narrative, that the Kingdom of God is in direct contrast to the Kingdom of the world. That the Kingdom of Jesu s subverts and overthrows the Kingdom of Rome.
To look at this radical, subversive birth narrative, let’s turn to Luke 2:1-7, a narrative that will sound so familiar to us. But a narrative that when seen through different lens, will open up a whole new understanding not only of Jesus, but his mission in the world, why he was executed at the end of his life, and how much the Kingdom of God is in direct opposition to the Kingdom of the world.
Luke 2:1-7 says, “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.”
So the first thing we see in Luke 2 is a detail that I believe we far to often overlook as just a historical detail that isn’t really important or just a way for Luke to time stamp the event, if you will. But Luke is not only giving us a historical detail or time stamping the event, when he mentions Caesar Augustus he is introducing us to the inevitable clash between Kingdoms. To truly understand this let’s take a look at just who Caesar Augustus was.
Caesar Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar. Augustus turned the Roman republic into an empire. He proclaimed that he brought justice, peace, freedom, and salvation to the whole world. He also declared that his adoptive father Julius Caesar was actually divine which therefore meant that he was the “son of god.” He also was in power, and put into place the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome. A time of what was considered a long time of relative peace in the Roman empire (but peace derived from a threat of violence and pain if you got out of line.) And so Augustus, people said was the ‘savior” of the world, that he was King, and Lord. And increasingly, in the eastern part of the empire, people worshipped him. He also had a gospel, the good news of his empire. This gospel went something like this, “Divine Augustus, Caesar, son of god, imperator of land and sea, the benefactor and Savior of the whole world has brought you peace.”
And so with this background we begin to see just how political, subversive, and upside down this story that is being told in Luke. In fact, Luke’s birth narrative is perhaps the text that is most blatantly related to the Roman empire.
And so Augustus, the “son of god” calls for a census to be taken. The purpose of this census was so that the empire could tax people with greater accuracy. And it seems like Israel was one of the most taxed places in the empire, which caused widespread poverty, into which Jesus is born. And so the emperor of the Roman empire, decides to take a census of his whole domain and this census brings Jesus to be born in the town which was linked to King David, and fulfills the prophecy that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem. But you see this census was more than just an irritation. It was an assault on ancestral right, the holy land, and in keeping the poor poor and the rich in power and in the money. The fact that Jesus birth was linked to the census perhaps is what also contributed to the view that he might be the expected Messiah, that in Israel’s darkest hour, in the midst of a “savior” that wasn’t saving them, that God would send the true “savior” and deliverer.
And so in the midst of this census where Mary and Joseph went back to their ancestral hometown, the time came for Jesus to be born. And so he was born and laid in a manger because their was no room for them in a guest room. It is at this point that we need to look back at a statement made in Luke 1:35 to give us context of what I am about to say next. Luke 1:35 says this, “The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” What Augustus says of himself, or what others call him (son of God) is turned upside down by a baby born into a system of oppression created by Rome. What was supposed to be true of Caesar, it turns out is actually true of Jesus. Caesar claims that he was the one to bring freedom, peace, justice and salvation, but Jesus is the one that brings true freedom, true peace, true justice, and true salvation. And these 4 themes show up in the birth narrative that we are dialoguing around today. It is a total status reversal, which is a central aspect of the Kingdom of God.
Augustus brought the Pax Romana (peace of Rome) through force, violence, oppression and shedding the blood of others. Jesus would bring the Pax Christi by love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, and then through the shedding of, not his enemies blood, but by the shedding of his own blood. In Jesus, the good news of the Kingdom of God, which is set over against the Kingdom of the world, and in this case the Kingdom/Empire of Rome, is finally here. The shalom (peace) of God has finally come into the world. The peace, freedom, justice and salvation comes into the world in the form of a helpless baby boy born to poor parents, in an out of the way village, in a manger, and in an oppressed land. In this, the incarnation of Jesus, we have God entering human life, and it shows us who God is and how God works.
There are 2 points that I would like us to think about and talk about in our unpacking together. First of all the life and mission of the Messiah was not what anyone in Israel had expected. Rather than coming in power, riches, honor and glory, Jesus arrived in obscurity, poverty and humility. And secondly, the Kingdom of the Messiah (The Kingdom of God) is and will be exactly opposite of the Kingdom of this world and all it’s various empires (including Rome, the United States, etc..)
This baby born 2,000 years ago in the midst of the Roman Empire and an emperor who called himself Lord, Savior, King, and son of God, was and is the true Lord, Savior, King of the World and Son of God.
So let’s unpack together the Scripture, the message, and some of the points that I made and let’s flesh out what this upside down, subversive, radical Christmas story might say to us living in the midst of our own empire and our own Kingdoms that we establish with ourselves on the throne.
1. What thoughts, comments, insights, questions, push back, etc.. do you have regarding the Scripture text and/or the message?
2. Share a story or a time when Jesus showed up in your life in a way that was totally unexpected. Share a story or a time when Jesus showed up and you missed it because it was different that you expectations. What might this say about our discipleship?
3. How does knowing all this information about Augustus, and the birth of Jesus impact the way we live out lives out in our world everyday? How should the incarnation of Jesus affect the way we incarnate the good news of Jesus in the world today?
4. What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it? What is God saying to us and what should we do about it?