Octavius was called son of god, the savior and bringer of peace, and after his death, a god. Adopted by his great uncle Julius Caesar, following the famous assassination he took the name Caesar Augustus. After a brief civil war he defeated Marc Antony and became the “first citizen of the Empire” in name, but in reality the sole ruler. He ruled over forty years, dying at age 75 in 14 AD.
His reign began the period known as Pax Romana (which lasted 200 years), the internal peace, saw Rome considerably expand its boundaries, to exert control over most of Europe and parts of Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. When Luke wrote his Gospel toward the end of the first century, subsequent Caesar’s were measured against Augustus’ grand success.
Clearly Luke intended to contrast Jesus and Augustus. The Roman Empire, for all its glory, was a harsh oppressor of the Jewish People. Its affluence and success was built on the backs of the poor of the land; simple people like Mary, Joseph and the shepherds in today’s story. The Empire squeezed such people like a sponge to quench its considerable thirst. The local leaders of Judah, in league with Rome, enjoyed the benefits of this association. In every age, the collaborators eat their own.
The birth of Jesus is an offense to the world’s power brokers. The child is laid in a borrowed feeding trough after all. Unlike the glorious Caesar, he is garbed in torn rags and suffers the indignity of having “no place” not even a guest room for wayfarers. To the human eye, this Jesus is less than nothing.
Yet angels announce His birth and the incongruity is striking. The underclass, shepherds night watchmen protecting flocks, are the unlikely recipients of the message. This is a stunning reminder that Christ has come to seek out and save the least, the last and the lost. Yet their workmen status is also symbolic. God often called Israel His flock, and the Jewish Kings were called shepherds. Moses and David both received their calls while tending their flocks. The Jewish Bible says that God Himself will shepherd the people because the human shepherds had devoured the flock for their own benefit. Jesus will tell a story of a Shepherd who searches out the lost sheep. In John’s Gospel Jesus self identifies as the Model (Good) Shepherd. Shepherding remains the preferred Christian term for church leadership, the medieval term “pastor” means to tend sheep and feed them.
Therein lies the difference. Caesar feeds off the sheep, Jesus feeds them. Caesar provides peace for the land for his own benefit and any problem is dealt with ruthlessly and efficiently--with armies and crucifixions. Jesus has no army and will be crucified. His weapons are a love which heals and reconciles, freeing people from a fallen, sinful world. That is the difference. Human eyes could not discern it at His birth, nor did they when this Gospel was written, but this Jesus, not Augustus, is the true Son of God, the actual Prince of Peace and God Incarnate. This helpless baby, miraculously conceived and born of helpless parents--He is the power that created and sustained the universe--its source and its ultimate end.
The angels announce “Glory” and “peace” to the shepherds, and through them to us. God is speaking to the earth through His messengers. His glory and the Kingdom Shalom (peace) is silently and invisibly being established. The Kingdom Peace of Rome was provided by violence and oppression. The Christian Gospel, especially in Luke, is the promise of a new age, a new reign by a different king. A transformation which flips everything on its head, where the mighty are brought low and the lowly raised up. Jesus is The Lowly One-- a scandal and offense to our own hunger for power and prosperity. If Christmas is sweet and sentimental, its core message is also a sour disappointment. We were hoping for more when Messiah came. Perhaps trusting this child is a bad investment. Perhaps we need to give Caesar a second look? And yet, really, do we not know that the way of Rome, the way of Caesar, is not the way of true life? Are we not drawn to Jesus, even in His weakness?
This Jesus, weak and vulnerable, is the strength of God. A strength of love and creation, a strength of mercy and kindness. A strength to forgive sins by dying, not killing. He who provides for the poor and needy, not draining them of their limited resources. Look at the trough and embrace Him. This evening after the 4:00 children's service I was speaking with the mother of baby Jesus. He had been sick and crying all day and she thought they wouldn't be able to come. Plus the father had thrown out his back again. We all know if Jesus saw a sick baby He would heal the child, so I prayed for healing for the baby. The I prayed for dad's back. A young woman the came and asked me to pray for her too. When I put my hands on her and started praying I felt lots of heat and something passing through my hands. I said, "wow, did you feel that?" and she said "yes" As I continued praying she got hotter and hotter and we felt more power, and she was deeply moved emotionally. Afterwards we were all amazed at what happened. I told her that was your Christmas present from the Holy Spirit. I do not know what all God ministered to her body, soul and spirit. I do know she was powerfully affected. And that is the power of Jesus. And that is why His birth means so much. And that is why we need to fill this church with disciples who would be apostles. Going out in His Name and letting Him flow through us to save the world.