Expressions of Christmas: Caesar
Luke 2:1-4, Matthew 2:1-6
Rev. Michael F. Bailey
November 29, 2015
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.”
Well, I hope you all had a Happy Thanksgiving and were filled with all of your favorite foods. I know one group of folks who had a Happy Thanksgiving: Carolina Panthers fans! Their being undefeated is simply remarkable.
Last Sunday, we celebrated Thanksgiving in liturgy and song, and this week, we turn to what is the first Sunday in the church calendar—the first Sunday in Advent. Advent has its roots in the Latin word adventis, meaning “coming about.” During Advent, the church celebrates the coming about of the Messiah, God Incarnate, Immanuel, God with us in the birth of Jesus. More, the church also looks to that day when there will be a “new heavens and a new earth”; when the Kingdom that is breaking in now will have fully arrived and “every knee shall bow and tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.” Individually, we make all kinds of preparations for Christmas, don’t we? Many decorate their homes around Thanksgiving, get a tree and do a lot of planning and shopping.
Now, more important than our festival preparations is our spiritual preparation. Advent is a time when Christians are called into a deeper devotional life of prayer and meditating on the Scriptures. It is a time to spiritually prepare ourselves to have the Christ born anew in the manager of our hearts each Christmas. Advent has its traditional themes, which we’ll be following: hope, peace, joy and love. Today, we focus on something we all need—hope.
And while the church turns its thoughts toward Christmas, even so the secular world does so as well. You can hear this in the expressions shared out in the world. All last week we heard, “Happy Thanksgiving.” Now this week we’ll begin to hear, “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays.” Of course there are those who intensely churl, grouse, and shout because store clerks have been given instructions about what to say to care for those of all faiths. I personally think Christians ought to spend their energy on far more important issues. Perhaps when all have a decent place to live, hunger is no more, and wars have ceased, we could make being upset about Starbucks coffee cups an issue—but not until then. I like what I heard Bishop Ken Carder say one time: “Jesus needs followers, not defenders.” After all, Christ is Lord of the universe!
What expressions do you use around Christmas? Do you say “Merry Christmas” or, with the Brits, say, “Happy Christmas?” Perhaps you grew up speaking a different language and will people a “Joyeux Noel.” Turn to a neighbor and share your favorite Christmas expression.
I suspect that the oddest-to-me Christmas expression I ever heard of was in a book by the late physician novelist, Ferrol Sams. The book’s title was the same as the expression his family used: Christmas Gift! It was a family game they played: The first person to shout Christmas gift to another family member was due a small gift from them. I’d asked Louis to check with his grandmother and see if that was something from that area of Georgia or something the Sams family did uniquely. Louis’ grandfather was a colleague and best friend of Dr. Sams. Instead of hearing from Louis I researched it a bit. It turns out shouting “Christmas gift” goes back almost two centuries in parts of our country. It originated with workers seeing their boss on Christmas morning and shouting “Christmas gift!” while holding out their empty palms. It was their way of getting a coin or a bill. It was kind of like the original Christmas bonus in some parts of our nation.
Regardless of your favorite Christmas saying or expression, we begin today an Advent sermon series on the expressions around the first Christmas in Bethlehem—expressions that are in action, words, and even song, when we look at Mary. Today, we look at the expressions of worldly power in the birth narratives in the form of Augustus and Herod.
We’ve read the birth narratives so many times that I think most of us have glossed over and missed the import of the “each went to his own city to be enrolled passage.” It offers keen insight into the worldly expression of power at the first Christmas. Caesar Augustus was harsh and his expression of power deeply affected Mary and Joseph. Augustus was the great-nephew of Julius Caesar. He instituted what has been termed “pax Romana,” a peace throughout the empire that lasted 200 years—but this peace came at great cost. Augustus ruled as a military dictator and with an iron fist. He employed legions of soldiers in marshal law everywhere. He had people like Pilate and Herod working for him as well as traitorous-to-their-own tax collectors. Their primary function was putting down revolts and collecting taxes on everything, taking already impoverished people to even greater depths of poverty.
And in the passage today, which we tend to read over quickly to get to the real story, he did something remarkable. He disrupted the whole Roman world by displacing everyone who had moved from his or her ancestral village. Now think about this a bit: The Roman Empire at this time was estimated to have a population of 85 million, and of that population, millions were suddenly “internally displaced persons” on the move, all so more taxes could be collected. It’s hard for us to imagine what this must have done to people who survived day to day. There must have been streams and streams of people, with little food or finances, trudging dirt paths, sleeping on the ground, headed toward ancestral homes that we know from Joseph and Mary’s experience were ill-prepared to receive them. I wonder how many died from this? At the stroke of Augustus quill pen and under the prodding of the legionnaire’s spears, they had no choice but to be on the move. And among these internally displaced persons were Mary and Joseph, who were already in a risky, dire situation culturally.
As you know, she was with child and betrothed. Betrothal in those days was very different from our contemporary engagements; Joseph didn’t go to Jared’s! Betrothal in those days was the beginning of an arranged marriage. It typically began in the village with the mothers of the potential couple having conversation. If they agreed, the next step was for the father’s to get involved to work out the dowry, the “bride price.” If they came to terms the deal would be sealed by the headman of the village approving. Here’s another remarkably different custom: All of this could happen when the woman was a girl, just 12.5. The actual wedding might not take place for years, and the girl stayed with her family of origin until the public wedding, so it seems odd that Mary is with Joseph. The betrothal was sacred. Deuteronomy 22:23-24 teaches that having relations with a betrothed woman is considered adultery, and we all know from Jesus’ ministry what the penalty for that was. Now, Mary was certain of Jesus being of the Holy Spirit. Joseph learned the same in a dream—we’ll look at that next week—but what of all the other people? What must they have gone through in an honor society where everyone knew everyone else’s business? I can’t imagine the whispers, perhaps taunts, the cultural pressure and the sheer pain they must have endured. And in the midst of this, comes Augustus’ cruel decree. As they approached that first Christmas long ago they must have endured much; they must have had some pain.
And truth be told some of us are moving toward Christmas this year with pain and hurt. Some have a heart weighed down by grief over a loss. Other have brokenness in body, mental health, or relationships. Some have deep fear and insecurity about their future. Well, God has an answer, a “Christmas expression,” one that I believe sustained Mary and Joseph and will sustain all that hurt and are burdened today. We’ll get to that answer in a few minutes. Before that, let’s look at our next expression of worldly power in the first Christmas: Herod.
Herod was one half Jewish and one half Edomite; perhaps that’s why he seems so insecure. And while he achieved some great building projects, including the Temple, he was, bottom line, a bloodthirsty tyrant. Consider: He killed his wife, his mother in law, and three of his sons. He wanted to abolish the supreme court of his day, the Sanhedrin, so he murdered all 300 people affiliated with it. As he neared his own death, he ordered all of the leading citizens of Jerusalem to be jailed. He gave his storm troopers another order: As soon as I die, kill them all so there will be weeping and mourning in the entire city.
And of course you know of his worst atrocity. The slaughter of the innocents, it’s usually called. Fearing that even a baby might usurp his throne, he dispatched soldiers to kill all the children aged two and under in Bethlehem and surrounding districts.
In the narrative, Joseph was warned beforehand to flee. And taking their baby, Jesus, Mary and Joseph fled for their lives to a foreign land, Egypt. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were refugees fleeing for safety from a heartless, evil ruler to a foreign land. What is so old seems so new.
What images that brings to mind! What pain it causes us with the events of recent months! Our hearts are pained to think of what we’ve seen in the media: A little boy’s body floating on the coast of Italy with his little tennis shoes still on; a little girl with Dollar Tree–like floatees on her little arms as her floatation device on a leaky, over crowded boat on the Mediterranean; people straining against border guards with all they have on their backs; literally thousands of unaccompanied children. All fleeing from Isis and Assad, drug wars and abject poverty. We turn on the news and hear of little girls being sold to be brides to Mujahedeen; innocent school children machine gunned by Boko Haram and again girls kidnapped for sexual slavery. We see youth in Paris, the beautiful City of Light, now lit by ambulances and police vehicles, slaughtered by bullets and bombs as their night of fun turned toward a nightmare of terror. Our hearts break and so does God’s.
So what are we to cling to? What is God’s Christmas expression that kept Mary and Joseph going through the hardship and pain? What can help us live in a pain-wracked, evil infested world?
Simply these facts and a conclusion: All the kingdoms of the world, all the evil leaders of the first Christmas, not Augustus, Herod or Pilate, could stop the Christ from coming into the world back then! Torture couldn’t stop him, a criminal’s painful death on a cross couldn’t stop him, nor could a tomb hold him, such is the immensity of his love for the world. And when you couple that limitless love to limitless power it makes sense.
And what also makes sense is that nothing can stop the Christ now, from loving you even and especially in your hurts, losses, pain, and even sin. And nothing can stop the Christ from loving you in your tomorrows, your future.
Then, we have this knowledge: His Kingdom is one of today. It is breaking forth wherever and whenever his will is done on earth as it is in heaven. But more, we know his kingdom shall be; it shall fully arrive. No Assad, Boko Haram, Al Qaida, or ISIS can stop his loving, just kingdom. Nor will problems stand up to it in the end: No violence, exploitation, discrimination, poverty, homeless, violence, or refugee crises can stop it. It is a reality that is for you even when you don’t feel it. It is a reality for the world, even when the modern day Caesars and Herods fight against it, for they fight a losing battle.
What this knowledge of his unstoppable love leads to is hope! That is God’s Christmas expression in Jesus, Immanuel! The incarnation was proof of his love and couldn’t be stopped, and Jesus can’t be stopped by any evil or hurt today or tomorrow. That the world will be transformed, that Christ is in us, and that with Christ Kingdom, we know that the best is yet to be. That is hope. O Come, O Come Immanuel!
- Share with your group your favorite Christmas expression.
- Share with your group similarities you notice between the world of Augustus and Herod and our time.
- Share with your group how knowing Mary, Joseph and Jesus were refugees colors your view of the present-day refugee crises.
- Share with your group a time when you experienced social/cultural pain or pressure.
- Share with your group what breaks your heart most in the world today.
- Share with your group how knowing Jesus' love for you and the world gives you hope for today and tomorrow.