A New King in Town at Christmas. Dealing With the Powers That Threaten Us.

What is the biggest threat to your well being this Christmas? It might be health, family dynamics, addiction, work or a lack of a work. It could be Christmas itself, with all the stress that often comes with it. For many it is the anxiety in the air thanks to events and politics all around the world. What was in air when Mary and Joseph were making their trek to Bethlehem? What was felt to big the biggest threat to everyone’s well being that first Christmas? Luke mentions it when he begins to tell us about the birth of Jesus:

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. Luke 2:1 (NRSV)

The emperor was the big threat of the day. Rome was looming large in the background of the Christmas story. The power of Rome was looming large in the background of everyone’s story. When Luke describes what happened on that first Christmas, he tells us in a way that subtly shows a contrast between the emperor and a new king. There are subtle hints of a movement from the powers that be, to something much greater. As the angels announced to the shepherds; there is a new king in town.

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!” Luke 2:10-14 (NRSV)

Let us consider this move from the emperor, to the true King.

There is movement from the peace of Rome to the peace of God. There is an expression, pax Romana, which refers to a time when there was relative stability and peace between nations and peoples, thanks to the Roman Empire. However, this peace could be defined as an absence of conflict. It did not mean there was perfect harmony. It was the kind of peace that is held when a bigger power threatens to wipe you out if you fight with your neighbour. With this baby king, there would come a different kind of peace, the kind of peace implied by the Hebrew term “shalom.” It goes far beyond absence of conflict, to the presence of perfect harmony. This kind of peace comes when you love your neighbour. This baby king will bring true peace; reconciling us to God, and teaching us to live reconciled lives with others.

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!” (verse 14).

There is a movement, from the privilege of one class of people, to the opportunity for blessing for all people. The Roman empire could give you great freedom and opportunity, if you are free, and not a slave, if you are male, and not a female. Life in the empire was not that great if you were not born in a privileged position. The angel announces good news for everyone: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (verse 10 emphasis added). Because of this new king, Paul could later write:

. . . for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:26-28 (NRSV)

There is a movement, from indifferent and uncaring, to intensely interested and caring. Augustus would have known nothing about Mary and Joseph. Caesar Augustus didn’t know, and likely didn’t care that his census made life difficult for Mary and Joseph. God knew Mary and Joseph. God chose to announce the new king’s birth to shepherds. In doing so, God showed his intense care and concern for the regular folk.

There was a movement from taxes gained to a gift given. The purpose of a census in the ancient world was to predict military strength and tax revenue. While the Jews were exempt from military service, they were not exempt from paying taxes. Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem so that the powers that be could figure out what they would be getting. In the bigger picture, Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem because there was a precious gift that God was giving.

There was a movement from a small world to the universe. “All the world” (verse 1) was not all the world, it was just all the world under Roman jurisdiction. It felt large to the people of that time and place. But it was not, especially compared to all the world, or better, worlds, under God’s care. The angels announce “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!” (verse 14). God’s sovereignty stretches everywhere. This new king was a much bigger deal than Augustus.

There was a movement from a very temporary Augustus to an eternal Lord, God. The Christmas story begins in chapter two, verse one with Augustus, the most powerful man of that time. The angels announce the birth of  “the Lord” in verse eleven. Augustus Caesar is dead and gone by chapter three. By the end of the whole book, Jesus is killed, but not gone. The Lord God is eternal, here long before Caesar, and here here long after.

There was a movement from the fear of Rome, to the love of God. The cross was originally a symbol of fear, the fear of Rome. It was a method of execution and it induced terror. The word “excruciating” comes from crucifixion. The pax Romana, the “Peace of Rome,” existed partly due to the Roman cross. Crucifixions were common and public. You could see people hanging on crosses on your way into town. Step out of line and you could end up on one yourself. However, the cross has now become a symbol of love, of power turned on its head. It is the symbol of God’s reconciling love through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Rome used the cross, and the fear it represented, to keep the peace of Rome. God used the cross, and the love it represents, to bring us peace with Him.

Rome loomed large as a large threat in the days of the first Christmas. Indeed, the Romans did eventually destroy Jerusalem. Augustus, and Rome, had the power to destroy many an individual, and a people. We may feel threatened by the powers looming in our lives. There is a downturn in the economy, or in a company. There is a downward spiral of ill health. There are powers that threaten to undo us, which are indifferent to us. However, there is power which holds us, and rescues us, which is intensely interested in us. Christmas is a signal of a big change; from the power of Rome to the power of God. What is your Rome? What is the power looming in the background of your life? This Christmas, make the move from the fear of Rome, to the love of God. The Christmas story begins with the power of Rome, but ends with the glory of God. Will yours?

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!” Luke 2:13-14 (NRSV)

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