First Mennonite Church
December 24, 2017
The Birth of Jesus: A Message of Hope and Peace
Text: Luke 2: 1-20
Luke, unlike fairy tale writers, did not begin his account with the worn out phrase, “Once upon a time.” Once-upon-a-time tales tell stories of which their location cannot be pinned down on any map. Such stories have characters that can only exist in the minds of the writer and entertain the imagination of the readers. Luke, a reliable historian although a medical doctor by profession, was specific about time and location of his account. Luke was fully aware about the social, economic and political circumstances of his account. In fact, Luke, like the other Gospel writers, did not only give us a clear picture of the political world into which Jesus was born, but the language of the gospel is politically proper. Words such as Lord, Savior, Messiah, kingdom of God, Son of man, and all the accounts Luke attributed to Jesus bear the marks, language and confrontation of the political world of his times. Luke was mindful about the implications Jesus’ birth was to bring to his family and to the world into which Jesus was born. Caesar Augustus lived from 63 BCE to 14 CE. During his reign the Roman Empire went through major expansion, stability, and prosperity. He restored peace after 100 years of civil war; maintained an honest government and a sound currency system; extended the highway system connecting Rome with its far-flung empire; developed an efficient postal service; fostered free trade among the provinces; and built many bridges, aqueducts and buildings adorned with beautiful works of art created in the classical style. Literature flourished.
During Caesar Augustus’ life, he was considered the bringer of peace and he was considered lord. After his death, Augustus was worshipped as god.
As for Quirinius, although he was a Jew, Caesar Augustus had appointed him to be his representative in the province of Syria, which also included Judea. Quirinius was the soon-to-be-governor at the time of Jesus’ birth. It was during Quirinius’ governorship that Augustus ordered a census. And censuses in the Roman Empire only had two purposes: to draft men for military service and to collect taxes. But because the Jews were not allowed to serve in the Roman army, the purpose of the census of the Jews was purely for taxation purposes.
Luke’s account not only tells us what the political world looked like, but also the socio-economic condition of Joseph and Mary. When the “great Caesar” speaks, the world reshuffles. When Augustus gives a decree, the world is forced to dance according to his tune. And so Joseph and Mary had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral home. Joseph’s and Mary’s going to Bethlehem was not only to be counted but to actually pay their taxes. And Mary was pregnant and about to give birth. It is rather interesting that Joseph went to his ancestral home, yet whether it was because “Uncle Zechariah” had arrived earlier and taken the guestroom or because there were no living relatives in town anymore, Joseph and Mary had to make do in the animal pen. There was no place for them in the “kataluma” – the inn. Inns were guestrooms built above the animal pen, which was usually attached to a family home. During the night the animals were gathered in the pen. In the morning it was cleaned for other uses. Therefore, having nowhere to stay, Joseph and Mary had to stay in some backyard pen used for animals. The time for the birth came and the baby was wrapped with swaddling clothes and laid in a feeding trough. The term Luke uses to describe the baby garments suggests the extreme poverty of Joseph and Mary. Swaddling clothes are simply long bands of plain cloth that can be wrapped around the baby. Obvious in Luke’s account about the clothes worn by the baby and the place where the baby rested is indicative of Joseph’s and Mary’s economic condition. This condition is touched upon again at the time when Jesus’ parents give their temple offering of two pigeons (Luke 2:24).
Then, like today, when a baby is born to the famous and powerful or when the famous and powerful get married, the news gets first to those of their likes—the famous and powerful. Caesar was god-like to his citizens. Caesar Augustus called himself the savior and lord—in fact Caesar means lord. But the birth of the Savior of the world was announced first to the lowly shepherds. The announcement came not with the blare of the trumpet but with the voices and singing of an angelic choir. And the glory of the Lord shone around the humble shepherds and they were terrified.
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
The announcement of Jesus’ birth was clearly a message of great spiritual importance for the life of Israel. Even after almost four hundred years God had not given any direct message to his people. Although people had claimed angelic appearances, the messages they brought were more personal than for the whole people. But suddenly the apparent silence of God was shattered by the singing of the angelic choir. But more importantly, the message they gave was the world-shattering news that the long expected Messiah had been born, that God’s Savior had come, and that his birth was news of great joy for ALL the people. The Messiah, Savior, Lord, and heir to the throne of David—the new King did not suddenly appear out of nowhere. He is a baby that has just been born, not in Jerusalem but in the backwoods town of Bethlehem. The baby should be found, not in the fancy palace, but in an animal pen behind some unknown private home. The clothes the baby is wearing are not fine linens or scarlet gowns, the baby is wrapped in bands of plain cloth. The announcement of Jesus’ birth was indeed a message of great spiritual importance for Israel.
But there is also a clear subversive element in the announcement of the birth of Jesus. The birth of Jesus, the Messiah, Lord, Savior, and King is the denunciation that Caesar Augustus is not the bringer of peace, the lord of the world, nor savior. Caesar imposed peace by suppressing his adversaries, as the world powers of today do. The Messiah is the Prince of peace and his birth brings peace on earth and good will to everyone he bestows favor upon. The message of his birth is a message of great joy, not what causes people to cringe out of fear. Jesus, not the Caesar, is the real Savior of the world.
I truly believe that the announcement of Jesus’ birth is a message the world desperately needs to hear today. Our world is stricken with fear. There is fear everywhere. Caesars of today continue to make bold claims of lordship and continue with their attempts of having the world dance to their tunes. And speaking of taxes. That’s a word that is all over the news these days. The Caesars of today are promising release from the burden of taxes, even when all the experts say otherwise. The message of the birth of Jesus is not contained in the greetings of “Merry Christmas.” The message of the birth of Jesus as Messiah, Lord, and Savior is a call to look up to God. It is a call to give glory to God in highest heavens. The birth of Jesus is a message of peace on earth and good will unto all men, women and children. Yes, the message of the Noel is a message of hope, peace, and great joy despite the roaring claims of the Caesars of today.
Allow me here to say something about the taxes issue. The same Messiah, Lord and Savior said this, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” Jesus complied with his rule when he paid his temple taxes, too (Matthew 17:24). There is too an irony in giving to Caesar what is due to him and the proclamation of peace in the Christmas message. The tax dollars I pay to Caesar are also used to pay homage to the god of war, which boosts the power of Caesar. But I want to let God take care of that.
As for the message of the birth of Jesus, I want to rejoice in the great news that he is Savior, Lord, and Messiah. Jesus gives strength to hope despite the darkest realities we can face. Jesus is the light that can guide us to walk in faithfulness, righteousness, and holiness. Jesus is our Savior, who died to save us from our sins and to empower us to persevere following his footsteps every day. Jesus was born to show us how much God loves us so that we too can show others his love.
This Christmas, let us remember that the Lord of lords, the King of kings, and the Prince of peace had a very humble beginning. He was born to humble parents and in a place lacking all human decency. But at his name, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that he, only he, is Lord to the glory of God. Amen!