[This was shared during the second Christmas Eve worship service of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio earlier this evening.]
It’s striking that in his Gospel, Luke takes just seven verses to describe the birth of Jesus! It's so spare that, if we’re not attentive, we may miss the powerful message his narrative conveys.
“In those days,” Luke writes, “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.)”
Caesar Augustus was the first Roman emperor. The adopted son of Julius Caesar, in 31 AD, about three decades before Jesus’ birth, he became the uncontested ruler of Rome after a long civil war. After taking power, he named himself emperor. He labeled his adopted father and himself the “son of god.”
It was claimed that through Augustus’ kingship, he had brought God’s justice and peace to the world. The many poems and songs written in honor of Augustus claimed that he was the savior and lord of the world. And in much of his empire, during and after a long reign, Augustus came to be worshiped as a god. Augustus, a ruthless and bloodthirsty man, did nothing to dissuade people from worshiping him or from making all these claims about him.
Employing the coercive powers by which all governments--whether good or bad--must operate, Caesar Augustus ordered a census of his empire, which included most of the lands around the Mediterranean Basin, north into Europe, and even what we today know as the United Kingdom.
Augustus was a powerful man and when he issued an edict, an entire empire hopped-to. The purpose of the census Augustus ordered was to generate tax money. It takes a lot of money to run an earthly empire.
Affected by this decree were two impoverished young people, betrothed to be married, who lived in the often forgotten Galileean countryside of Palestine.
“And everyone went to his 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 room for them in the inn.”
Today, many scholars believe what Martin Luther preached in his Christmas sermons: That Joseph of Nazareth actually grew up in Bethlehem and moved to Nazareth in Galilee as a young man. Recent archeological finds indicate that there was a large migration of people from the Bethlehem countryside to the Galileean region. It’s possible that both Mary’s and Joseph’s families had migrated from Bethlehem to Nazareth, because both were descendants of David. Going to Bethlehem would have been required of Joseph because he still owned property there.
Augustus’ decree forced Joseph and Mary to go to Bethlehem. But, in fact, neither Augustus nor his empire were in control of events.
Nor were Mary or Joseph.
Decades later, as He stood trial before Pilate, the governor who oversaw Roman interests in Jesus’ homeland, Pilate asked Jesus why Jesus refused to answer Pilate’s questions. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” Pilate asked Jesus. But Jesus answered: “You would have no power over Me if it were not given to you from above...”
Despite outward appearances, Joseph and Mary and the Child in Mary's womb went to Bethlehem not because that’s where Caesar Augustus, who had never heard and never would hear of Joseph or Mary or Jesus, wanted them to go, but because that’s where God wanted them to go.
Those with earthly power may misuse or abuse their power. They may be selfish. They may act unjustly. They may treat other human beings like chess pieces to be manipulated at will. But the Biblical witness is clear that over the long haul, God is in charge. As I've been telling Catechism students for years, "Either God gets His way or God gets His way." There are no other options.
Old Testament prophecies had made it clear that when God’s Anointed King--the Messiah, the Christ-- came into the world, His birth would take place in Bethlehem.
He would be born into a family descended from David. God intended to enter our world and be our Lord at precisely the moment and in precisely the place He chose.
He would do it in order to live the perfect life, become the perfect human sacrifice for sin, then rise from the death promising that all who repent and believe in Him will share His victory over sin and death and meaningless living.
A Caesar might be willing to die to take or keep earthly power. Augustus had killed a thousand times over.
But he never would have died to give forgiveness and eternal life to people who, like us, only deserve condemnation and death for our sin. Jesus is a different King and Lord.
Please pull out a pew Bible and look at Romans 5:6-8 (page 785). It says: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
At the right time, the Savior Who was to die on a cross was born in a barn.
There’s a simple reason why God doesn’t bludgeon us into submission with showy displays that evoke “shock and awe” the way the Caesars of this world do.
A reason why God the Father sends God the Son, Who totally takes on human flesh, a baby who cries and needs His mother, Who suffers and bleeds and dies.
There’s a reason God claims subjects for His kingdom not by brute force, but by love, by the gentle wooing of the Holy Spirit Who empowers ordinary people like you and me to keep telling the story of our crucified and risen Savior.
There’s a reason why by God’s plan, we become His subjects not by establishing residence in a religious institution, not by performing a set of tasks that lead to earning citizenship in the kingdom of God, but solely and simply by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
And the reason is simple: “God is love,” the New Testament teaches.
The Old Testament book of Genesis says that God made we human beings in His image.
God made us to love and to be loved by Him.
God made us for relationship with Him.
Sin has marred that relationship, separating us from God.
Jesus is the bridge back to God.
He is the manifestation of God’s love given on the cross.
The ultimate goal of a Caesar is to elicit obedience so that he can lord it over you.
The ultimate goal of Christ is to elicit faith and obedience so that He can set you free to live in a relationship of self-giving, fulfilling love with God and with others.
Jesus doesn’t want to judge you, though one day He will one day judge the living and the dead.
He wants to save you from your sin.
He wants to make us children of God.
There are lots of things that we do in the name of Christmas. But all that the God we meet in Jesus really wants us to do is repent and believe, turn from sin and trust in Him to guide us into life with God.
It's a life characterized by love, service, and selflessness.
It's a life of confidence that we are loved and approved by the only One Whose love and approval matters.This is the God Who came at Christmas.
The God Who demonstrates His power not by ordering people around as though they were worthless robots, but by becoming One of us so that, by His grace, we might be restored to Him again and forever.
Thank God He loves us and gives us Jesus.
May we take Him as God's great gift to us every day and learn to joyfully, voluntarily, without coercion, be loved by God and to love Him in return.
Merry Christmas! Amen