Tuesday 24 December 2019
The Gospel of Luke puts the story of Jesus’s birth within the context of empire. At the very beginning of the passage we hear about Caesar Augustus, who rules over and collects taxes from the entire Roman Empire. We hear about Quirinius, who was the Roman governor of Syria. And Luke doesn’t name these men by accident or just as a way of specifying the time of Jesus’s birth. Luke names Augustus and Quirinus for very important symbolic reasons.
The man called Caesar Augustus was born Gaius Octavius. His father was a middling Roman senator, but his mother was the niece of the famous Gaius Julius Caesar. For centuries, Rome had functioned as a Republic, with power shared among all of the aristocrats. They detested the idea of a king. But Julius Caesar sought to change all that and establish himself as perpetual ruler of Rome. Several of his colleagues and friends conspired together to murder him, to keep him from becoming a king. In his will, he named his grand-nephew, Gaius Octavius, as his heir and adoptive son. After a series of civil wars, Octavius achieved what Julius Caesar never could. He became the undisputed ruler of Rome. By the time of Jesus’s birth, his name had been changed to Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus. It means “Victorious General Caesar, Son of God, Almighty.” All across the empire, statues and temples were erected in honor of Emperor Augustus, and the people worshiped him like a god. Whenever he accomplished something great, or whenever a new member of his family was born, news would be sent out by official messengers to every corner of the empire. That news had a special name: Evangelium, Good News, Gospel.
Luke presents us with a competing message of Good News. Luke presents us with a competing Gospel. The child Jesus is born not in a palace, but in a stable. His first bed is not an ornate crib, but a feeing trough. He is the Son of God, not because he was adopted by a victorious general who was deified by the Senate, but because he is son of the one, true God of Israel. He is a king not because he dominates the people under his control, but because he transcends the power of human rulers. He is savior, not because he wields political authority, but because he heals the human heart. He brings peace, not at the point of a sword, but though the power of his words and deeds. He is victorious, not because he leads armies to conquer new peoples, but because through his resurrection, he has conquered death itself. His birth is announced not by royal messengers, but by heavenly beings. The news is announced not to wealthy aristocrats, but to common, ordinary shepherds out in the fields. Jesus is the head of a different kind of kingdom, a different kind of empire. God’s Empire is not led by a man who draws all power to himself and enforces his power with legions of soldiers, but by a child lying in a manger, child who will grow up to heal, to preach good news, to challenge the oppressive authorities, to overturn the tables of moneychangers, and to teach a radical love that breaks down the barriers between people.
The other Roman mentioned in our passage, Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, is famous for two things. One is being mentioned here in the Gospel of Luke. The other is for performing a tax census that led to a Jewish revolt. A man called Judas of Galilee led the insurgency. His followers became known as Zealots, and he was thought of by many as a Messiah. The Gospel of Luke presents us with a different kind of Messiah. He does not encourage his followers to take up arms, but invites them to win their battles with the power of radical love, forgiveness, and generosity.
Jesus is an unlikely savior. One would think that the Son of God could do better. He wasn’t born in the center of power at Rome, but in a sleepy village in a backwater province on the edge of the civilized world. He wasn’t counted as the son of an aristocrat or a warrior or a priest, but as the son of a carpenter. His mother was not a princess or queen, but an unmarried girl from Galilee. And his birth was not attended by the nobility, but by shepherds and barnyard animals, because there was no room for them inside.
It is worth remembering that the one we call Wonderful Counsellor, Almighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace, Christ, Messiah, Savior, Son of God had no wealth or power in his lifetime, and he seems to have had no ambition for them either. He stood in solidarity with the poor and the vulnerable. He healed illnesses and cast out demons. He touched those who were considered untouchable. He spoke and ate with outcasts. He challenged the political authorities and called for justice: justice for the poor, justice for the oppressed, justice for the imprisoned, justice for the immigrant, justice for the weak, justice for the homeless, justice for the foreigner, justice for the excluded, justice for the marginalized. He called us to love our neighbors and to love our enemies, to practice a love that is so powerful it casts out all fear.
In a media environment that is built on fear, anger, and outrage, Jesus offers forgiveness, compassion, and love. In a political environment that is built on division, prejudice, and exclusion, Jesus offers acceptance and inclusion. In an economic environment that is built on acquisition and profit, Jesus offers gratitude and generosity. In a social environment that is built on anxiety and competition, Jesus offers assurance and solidarity. That is the miracle of the unlikely savior.
There was no place for him in the house in Bethlehem, but let us make a place for him now. Make a place for him in your home. Make a place for him in your family. Make a place for him in your work. Make a place for him in your relationships. Make a place for him in your finances. Make a place for him in your life, in your time, each day. Make a place for the unlikely savior and experience his healing, his compassion, his grace, his love. Make a place for Jesus the Christ, born to poor Mary in a stable, yet Son of the Almighty God. Amen.