In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered…
It is hard to hear the scriptural story on Christmas, the actual good news recorded in Luke’s gospel. So much threatens to crowd it out. The church’s greatest hymn writers and homilists for thousands of years have focused their attention here. How can we hear Luke in the midst of the collects, hymns, vestments, trees, candles, family, and the food we have collected to celebrate the coming of our king? I remember my first Christmas sermon as a Rector; foolishly, I thought Christmas was too big to focus on a text. I would just talk about what Christmas means. Yet, all those things: the liturgy, the darkness, the vestments, the hymnody are important only so far as they help us encounter the God of bible. It may seem a truism to say this, but the only vestments on that first Christmas were those borne by angels. The only hymns sung by the heavenly choir, the only liturgy that of heaven. No gifts; the magi had yet to arrive. The shepherds came with only homage to offer. So we will break no new ground on this night. No new hymns will be created. We will follow the path trod by Luke. He tells us he researched all these things from the beginning so that we may know the truth. Tonight, then, I would like to speak to you three aspects of Luke’s account: the claim, the call, and the coming of the king.
First the claim. Luke begins with, “in those days a degree with out from Caesar Augustus.” When he penned those words Caesar was some sixty years dead. If the traditional date for Luke’s gospel of around 80 AD is accepted, then the empire had seen Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero as well as the year of the four emperors: Galba, Otha, Vitellius and Vespasian. By 80 AD Titus, the man who had ten years prior destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, sat the throne. If one goes to Rome you can still see the spoils of Jerusalem being carried away, forever carved in stone on the arch of Titus. But all those who followed remembered Caesar Augustus as the greatest of them all. He established the peace of Rome and stabilized a troubled empire. He had Julius Caesar declared a god and named himself son of god. Caesar Augustus son of god, bringer of peace.
Given this one might have expected Luke to word his opening a little differently. He states in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus. He does not say in the days of Caesar Augustus. This is how he described Herod a chapter earlier: In the days of King Herod there was a priest named Zechariah (Luke 1:5). Luke simply says in those days. What are the days of which he speaks? The days of Jesus. Luke’s story is not about the reign of Caesar. The times are not about him or any other king! This is God’s time. His moment. Luke claimed that the important thing to remember about this year was not that it was the thirtieth year of the reign Augustus; it is Jesus. This was not some mystical claim. It was completely and utterly what we might call political. Luke relativized all kings, queens, and governments that promise to bring us peace and prosperity. The hope of the world was not in Rome or Edinburgh or London or Washington DC. It was in a little town of Bethlehem. This calls for an allegiance to Jesus commiserate with the claim. Is this child the hope of history or is he not?
The church properly interpreted the gospel when we attempted – even if we got the date wrong – to change the calendar itself in accord with the coming of our savior. Things are different. This is the claim of our king on Christmas. It is a claim that remains true when outward appearances seem to dispute it. Because according to Caesar, he is still in charge. He is still issuing decrees. But the decrees of Caesar serve the true king of the universe. What is the result of Caesar’s decree? Jesus was born in the city of David as the scriptures told us he would.
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel,whose origin is from of old, from ancient days….And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.(Micah 5:2, 4–5)
This is an example of the creator of the universe bending history, overruling the actions of men, so as to manifest the glory of the son. This is the claim of the king that in the midst of all the machinations, the agendas, the deceit, the disappointment and death God is at work.
God’s act pierces though the propaganda to declare that Jesus is the man of peace. Remember that behind the facade of the pax Romana lay the bodies of all those sacrificed so that it might be. As Tacitus famously recalled, “Rome makes a desolation and calls it peace.” Jesus made a claim for a different type of kingdom. He is the one who has time in his hand. And all the times are his defined by coming. This is claim of the king. Does this claim have your imagination? Your heart? Your time? Your money? Your family?
We said we wanted to talk about the claim, the call, and the coming of the king. Who was there when this claim was made? Who are the first called? Shepherds. Many have tried to discern the reason behind their presence. Was it their poverty? Their lowly status? The factory workers and shop keepers of their day? Do we have a statement about God choosing the outcasts to see his son? So that all, no matter where they come from, might know that God invites us to come and see his son? Yes and Yes again! It may sound trite to some, but to a little boy in Alabama, called names he dare not repeat in polite company, shepherds were my hope and joy. Surely, the basis of our hope is that God does not call us based about some utilitarian criteria. The kingdom of God is not a meritocracy. We are called based upon our value to him. As his creations we are infinitely loved.
This truth may not have come to me in the form of the shepherds from the Christmas story; but, my pastor spoke of a “shepherd calling type of God” who values the cast off things. This is the call of the king, not just to the shepherds of the world, but to all who would heed his call. Christmas is not a story we hear and a moved by. It draws from the fields to come witness the changing of the ages. It is God’s great call to us. It should go without saying that those same shepherds went and told what they had seen and heard. Christmas is a wonder that thrusts us outward beyond our fear and hesitancy to tell others about the child come among us. Christmas is about the claim and call of the king.
The claim of king was sovereignty over the times and actions of men. The call of Jesus was to all who heed him. Finally we get to the coming of the king.
if we have managed to hold back our sentimentality long enough to listen to the scriptures, now our discipline forsakes it. We enter the juxtaposition of opposites that has occupied the theologians and hymnists for ages. Our God has come in the form of a child. The Infinite in the finite. Creator in the midst of his creation. Power in weakness. Our blessing of the cradle called it summer in the midst of winter. Luke, however, is more circumspect:
And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger…(Luke 2:7)
A mother caring for her son, God comes to us a something infinitely knowable. I could tell you that this was no pristine Christmas pageant. But you know that. I could tell you about what births were like in the first century. But you could figure that out too. The creator coming in the form of a child is an act of humility and love that defies description. The stable can only make it more so by degree.
Still, new life even in the most dire of circumstances can still be beautiful. I know because I have seen it. My third child’s birth overwhelmed me. As I held him, I recalled all the difficulties of my childhood, but I hoped. He represented a future unknown to me. What he would become resided in the providence of God. Any mother and child in the moments after birth is a manifestation of hope. It is radical affirmation of life as a gift from God. How much more so the king of the universe? Is not the virgin and child the great sign of hope that reverberates down the ages? Our king has come and we are filled with joy! He is the one who claims our allegiance. He is the one who calls all to join his people. This is the night on which our king has come. Emmanuel is here and we have hope. Alleluia.