“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus.”
They would claim that he was divine, a son of God, Savior. His reign ushered in a new age, a new beginning, world peace. Heralds of his rule would travel throughout the known world, proclaiming the good news of the peace and justice that he would bring about.
Caesar Augustus, Emperor.
There is another side to the story. Thirst for power, brutal repression; execution and assassination of his competitors and opponents. Underneath the glittering facades of temples, fora, and other public buildings that he constructed throughout his empire, was brutal tyranny.
It was now, during the reign of this emperor, that the events recorded in Luke’s gospel occurred. It was during the reign of Caesar Augustus, who symbolizes both the glory and the evil of Rome, another story, a different reign, begins to unfold.
It’s as if Luke wants to present us with the two options as clearly and distinctly as possible—on the one hand, all of the Glory that was Rome, Caesar Augustus in all his splendor and power; on the other hand, Bethlehem, the manger, Jesus Christ, in all his poverty and weakness.
It should be easy for us. Rome is reduced to rubble and ruins while Christianity lives on. But let’s be honest. In fact, it’s not that simple. For fifteen hundred years, Christianity has been intertwined with empire and power. For over 200 years, Christianity has been enmeshed with the American Empire. And maybe, that’s the way we want it.
We want the show, the power. We want the bread and circus, the Hollywood entertainment. We want something, anything to numb us from the brutal reality in which we live.
We see a bit of that brutal reality in this story. A ruler’s whim, to count all of those he ruled, so that he could tax them more efficiently, control them easier, meant that in distant lands, people were forced to move from place to place in obedience to his power and might.
We are all too familiar with such movements by people, forced by events outside of their control. The sheer immensity of the refugee crisis throughout the world as people flee their homes because of bloodshed, and terror, and climate change. Human catastrophe on a scale not seen in generations. Just this week ending a 4-year horrific spectacle as the world looked on, forces backing President Assad of Syria seem to have reconquered Aleppo. The rubble, carnage, and human suffering went unabated while we watched, the international community’s efforts to end it ineffective, half-hearted.
Syria. The word evokes for us the immensity and intractability of the problems we face as a world. Suffering humanity, horrifically efficient technologies of war, unspeakable human evil, helplessness, futile diplomacy. Syria—a word, a region that links current events with the events of 2000 years ago.
The suffering has continued for so long. The endless war that began in 2001 shows no sign of coming to an end; the divisions, hatred, and distrust in the region show know sign of ending. We have grown so accustomed to it that we hardly notice, or care anymore. And we can’t imagine a world at peace.
With such enormous, intractable problems, we grasp for solutions and saviors: More and better weapons, more resolute use of power, political strong men, easy answers. If only someone with the political genius and ruthlessness of Caesar Augustus could save us.
Such desires, such hopes are not only on a geopolitical scale. They are also on a personal, intimate scale. Our private concerns and worries, our fears about our own lives, our families, our futures—we pin our hopes on miraculous, magical deliverance; a superhero who will make all things right, fix our problems.
We even treat religion like that. We believe in a God who will intervene and make things right, delivering a miracle when we need it most, or perhaps coming soon, at the end of time, to rescue us and make everything right.
We want easy answers, miracles, fireworks, and spectacles.
Instead of that, we hear this simple, familiar story from Luke, the birth of Jesus Christ in a manger, in a tiny town, on the edges of empire.
Christmas tells a very different story. God came to us, not as a superhero, not as easy answers. God came to us as one of us, in all of our frailness and messiness. God came to us, God came to the world, in the embarrassment of a stable, in the weakness of a newborn baby.
But you know, I don’t think we get that. I don’t think we understand or take to heart what it all really means. Oh, sure, we say the words, we sing the carols, we come to Christmas Eve services, light our candles, say Merry Christmas, but I’m not sure we grasp what it’s all about. Quite frankly, I’m not sure we’re able to grasp what it’s all about.
God came to us became one of us, as a tiny, weak, powerless baby, utterly dependent on others for survival. It was a life that began in poverty, humility, and obscurity. It was a life that ended with an ignominious an excruciatingly painful execution. To all appearances, it was a life lived in futility, without meaning.
Think about lives like that in our day—refugees fleeing the violence of Syria; mothers here in Madison worried whether there will be food to put on the table tomorrow, let alone whether there will be gifts to share with their children; the men sleeping in the homeless shelter across our courtyard this evening. Lives today lived in pain and suffering, loneliness and despair.
This is our world; the world we have made and inhabit, a world in which the glory of God is overshadowed by the lights of commercialism, and the beauty of God’s creation is destroyed by our hubris and greed. This is our world, in which we belittle, despise, destroy other human beings, created like us in the image of God, bearing like us the image of God.
This is our world. The amazing thing is that God loves it still. This is what we have made of our humanity, what we have done with the image of God in us. The amazing thing is that nonetheless, God became one of us.
In this story from Luke, we are presented with alternatives. Here, at Christmas, we see the power and hope of God’s love expressed in a baby, showing in weakness, vulnerability …
When the angels came to the shepherds, they were not coming to the powerful, the connected, the wealthy. When the angels came to the shepherds, they were coming to the marginalized, outsiders.
Jesus was born, God became flesh and dwelt among us, not among the powerful, the wealthy, the connected, but to poor, oppressed peasants in a backwater of empire.
If we only allow ourselves, we can see in this story, in the babe in a manger, the wondrous love of God. What wondrous love it is, that God took our human form, that God emptied Godself, as Paul writes in Philippians, to show us what humanity could be, what we might be.
What wondrous love it is, that angels appeared to shepherds, the Jesus Christ was born among the poor and oppressed.
What wondrous love it is that the Word became flesh and lived among us, to show us the power and possibility of love.
The manger, birth of Christ is a challenge to us. It is a challenge to us to hope and to love in spite of everything. It is a challenge to us to love our neighbor and our enemy. It is a challenge to us to love outsiders and outcasts, the homeless and the hungry, refugees, the marginalized.
The manger, the birth of Christ, is a challenge to us to see the world through new eyes, to see the world with hearts filled with hope and love bursting to share with others.
The manger, the birth of Christ is a challenge to us. It is a challenge to us to receive the love of God in Christ, to be remade fully in God’s image. It is a challenge to us to love like Christ loved, to go to the poor, the homeless, the hungry, the outcast ,to offer them food and shelter, to share with them the love of Christ.
What wondrous love—seen in the birth of Christ, seen in his giving himself on the cross. What wondrous love we’ve received. What wondrous love is ours to share. w