Texts: Isa 9.2-7; Titus 2.11-14; Lk 2.1-20
Listen to this sermon here.
We would prefer to have our candle-light service with the same, familiar Christmas story that we have known since our childhoods, worn smooth over the years that we have carried it with us in our hearts, taking it out once or twice a year to admire before tucking it safely back into its pocket.
About 50 years earlier, Julius Caesar had been elected by the Roman Senate to be the consul, head of the Republic. Julius, however, had greater ambitions. During a period of political and military insecurity, he declared himself dictator for a year to give the country some much-needed stability. But then, one year became two and two became three, until eventually he declared himself dictator-for-life. His term was cut short by assassins’ daggers, but once the dust settled the Republic was dead and Rome had its first emperor: Augustus Caesar, Julius’ nephew; his adopted son and heir.
When the Roman legions spread the gospel—the official announcement of his victory—to the corners of the empire, he was hailed by all as the “savior of the world” and the “bringer of peace” for ending the years of civil war that followed Julius’ death. Some years later, when the Senate (now the emperor’s legislative arm) elevated the assassinated Julius to godhood, Augustus was hailed as the “son of a god,” a divine emperor who ruled over Rome with heaven’s blessing.
Upon this scene enters Jesus. In a tiny village of a backwater Roman province, a child is born to peasants, swaddled and laid in a feed trough because his family has been uprooted and forced to travel cross-country to comply with the orders of the emperor and his governors. This divine emperor, this son of a god, this savior who brought the Peace of Rome to all humankind believed he had the authority to count and control the whole world; but even he was just a part of God’s bigger plan.
The child born that night was no ordinary child. He was a descendant of David, the first king of Israel, and born in David’s own hometown, but he was no ordinary king, either. Luke intentionally sets up a tension between Jesus and Augustus by calling this child “savior” and “Son of God,” titles used before this only for the Emperor of Rome. Augustus may have been the heir of Julius Caesar, the consul-turned-dictator, but Jesus was the heir of David, God’s anointed king. At his birth another gospel went out, carried by another army, but instead of bearing this message to foreign dignitaries or vassal kings who would come bearing gifts of wealth and treasure, this message went out to the lowest of the low: shepherds who were out guarding their flocks from—well, frankly, from one another. Shepherds, far from the gentle herdsman we picture, were known as a rough and dangerous bunch; they might steal one another’s sheep or mug passers-by on the road. They were hardly the kind of people you might want to visit your newborn, but it was these men who received the gospel of Jesus’ birth. Just as Mary sang, “you have lifted up the lowly…”
Luke paints us this picture to say one thing very clearly: Augustus, the emperor who had the power to count and tax and conscript and conquer and rule the whole world, is nothing--nothing—compared to this child. He is a parody of true power. This child, this baby named Jesus has more power snoozing in his borrowed bed than Augustus does issuing decrees from his throne. That’s what God does: God lifts up the lowly and brings down the powerful.
As Christians, Luke tells us that our king is not the human with the biggest stick or the tallest throne or the largest reach, but the tiny, insignificant God who is lying swaddled in a manger. The power we obey is not the power of empire—Roman or otherwise—power that coerces with force or manipulates with fear; the power of God is manifest through patient, persevering love even in the face of outright rejection. To the Empire, this power is seditious; it is treasonous, it is dangerous. God’s power to bring the gifts of peace on earth and goodwill among those whom God favors is always opposed to the mighty on their thrones who think those things are theirs to give.
Augustus may be long dead and the country of Rome all but forgotten, but if we do not see the echoes of Augustus’ empire all around us, we are blind to the world in which we now live. Even now, the power of Empire is calling for another kind of registration. Even now, the power of Empire promises to strengthen and expand its arsenal, believing this is what will make the world will come to its senses. Even now, the power of Empire boasts in its victory and seeks to silence all who oppose it.
We need to hear this truth of Christmas because the familiar, tame, sentimentalized story was never the whole story. From the very beginning, Luke uses these explicitly political titles and words—son of god, savior, gospel, army [host]—because he wants us to know that the miracle of Christmas was never intended to be just a cute story to be shared in worship; Christmas is God’s answer to Empire.
Christmas is a sign for us that the power of Empire in all its glory and might is a sick and anemic imitation of the power of God. Christmas is a defiant proclamation that true power of God incarnate in the manger is greater than the power of Empire decreed from the throne. This true power is quiet and patient, but it is tenacious and unstoppable. Augustus with all his armies and decrees could not stop this child from being born.
Empires fall and fade away, emperors are assassinated by their rivals or die of old age, but the kingdom of God is forever. The story of Christmas invites and implores us to see that the kingdom of God is not a spiritual soporific to calm people’s souls while their lives and bodies are claimed and used by the likes of Augustus and Quirinius. The story of Christmas is the story of God offering salvation not just of souls but also of lives for all the powerless—the shepherds, the weary traveler, the homeless and the refugee, the unwed pregnant girl.