Our Gospel today begins like this: “In those days, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Caesar Augustus was the Emperor. He was probably the most powerful man the world had ever know. The era was known as the “Pax Romana,” the “Roman Peace.” It was a nice name, but in fact the Roman peace was known for its acts of violence, oppression and slavery.
Caesar had to kill a lot of people to achieve the “Pax Romana.” And kill a lot more in order to maintain it. Caesar Augustus was so powerful that people came to call him the “Savior of the World,” and temples were built where he was worshipped.
Into that world of power and authority, Jesus was born. Into that world, God didn’t come with power and might, but rather with a 14-year-old, unwed peasant girl. And God didn’t choose a man of wealth and influence to be the father who cared for Jesus; but rather a simple carpenter.
And when Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem, Joseph forgets to line up the Airbnb and the Son of God is born in a barn. And lowly shepherds are his first visitors.
In our Gospel reading tonight, Luke places Caesar Augustus, and Jesus Christ, side-by-side.
- Caesar’s world is intent on crushing and controlling people. Jesus’ world, on loving them.
- Caesar’s world is built on oppressing people. Jesus’ world on setting the prisoner free.
- Caesar is concerned with building massive temples and structures, made of beautiful Italian marble. Jesus is concerned with building a community based on love and generosity, and peace.
Now all of the soldiers, swords and chariots are in Rome. In Bethlehem, all you’d find are mangers, and shepherds and a baby; a tiny, little baby.
And Luke, the Gospel writer, has the audacity to claim that the little baby in this story, is the one with all the power.
For the Angels are not singing in Rome. They are not singing for Caesar. The Angels are singing for Jesus…in Bethlehem.
In John 14:27, Jesus said “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” Jesus said that: “I do not give to you as the world gives.” No kidding.
God’s ways are very different from the world’s ways.
How does the world give? Well, the world gives to you when you earn it. The world is transactional. It is conditional; it’s fragile; it’s temporary.
- “I will do this for you, if you do that for me.”
- I will give you this car if you give me that money.
- I will love you, if you love me.
- I will cheer for your purple football team, and even build you a 1.2-billion-dollar stadium if you promise to not break my heart. (We have a deal…we’re so close!)
The world gives conditionally. “If you do this, then I will do that.”
But God does not give as the world gives. God’s love is unconditional…unconditional.
During the Second World War soldiers serving in France wanted to bury a friend and fellow soldier who had died in combat. Being in a foreign country they wanted to ensure their fallen comrade had a proper burial. They found a a picturesque little Catholic church with a beautiful view of the valley below. It had a well-kept cemetery with a low stone wall around it. This was just the place to bury their friend. But when they approached the priest he answered that unless their friend was a baptized Catholic, he could not be buried in the cemetery. He wasn’t.
Sensing the soldier’s disappointment, the priest showed them a spot outside the walls where they could bury their friend. Reluctantly they did so.
The next day, before their unit moved on, the soldiers returned to pay their final respects to their fallen friend but could not find the grave. “Where is he? It was right here!” they said. Confused, they approached the priest who took them to a spot inside the cemetery walls. “Last night I couldn’t sleep” said the priest. “I was troubled that your friend had to be buried outside the cemetery walls, so I got up and moved the fence.”
Now that is exactly what God has done for us. When we could not abide by God’s hopes…when we didn’t live up to God’s laws and commandments, through Jesus, God moved the fence. Surrounding us now, on all sides, is God’s perfect love, assuring us that we can never fall from God’s favor.
No matter how badly we falter or fail, we can never move ourselves outside of the reach of God’s love and grace.
Now the world wants to believe that its leaders, like President Trump, or Theresa May, or Vladimir Putin, have the real power. Or maybe Warren Buffet, who just says a word and whole financial markets change. Or Oprah…Oprah who makes careers and puts books on best seller lists just by mentioning their titles. Or Prince Harry…who just by asking the simple question, “Will you marry me?” can turn a young woman from Los Angeles into a Princess.
They have money and power and influence and fame.
The little baby Jesus had none of those things. God enters into human history in a little bundle, wrapped in obscurity and poverty and humility. And in Him, the real power lies.
So that when you’re really broken; when all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, can’t put you back together again, God can. Jesus can.
I read recently, a blog post, written by a father, to his young daughter. I see a lot of Dads out there, like myself, who could have written these things about their own children. This father wrote:
“I love you. I love the way your hair rolls and falls into your eyes. I love the way you read yourself books, even though you can’t yet read. I love the way you dance, and twirl around the kitchen. I love the way you scream “Dad!” in the middle of the night. I love the way you say “Do it again!” when we do something fun. I even love the permanent marker custom design you put on my new Mac.
But as much as I love you, Jesus loves you more. I sacrifice a lot because of you, but Jesus sacrificed everything because he loves you. So, if somewhere along the way, you fail a test, or love a boy who doesn’t love you back, or have a mastectomy, or develop Alzheimer’s, or gain some weight, or lose a job, you will still hold infinite value because Jesus loves you. No matter what, you are loved exactly as you are. Always.”
Now, Jesus gives differently than the world. Jesus gives freely with no expectation of return. Only the hope that transformed by this love, we might pass on his mercy, service, grace, forgiveness and love. Unconditionally giving others the gifts that we have received.
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, God was making a promise to us. A promise that you are loved, deeply, truly and forever. That no matter what you’ve done, you can’t fall from his love and grace. A promise that you are a child of God. You are a child of God. This is a promise that I need to hear tonight. I’m guessing that you might too.
Caesar was the most powerful man on earth. Caesar had the money, the clout, the power. The world had never seen such a king.
Jesus was a baby in a manger. But how did it all turn out?
2000 years ago, everyone knew the birthday of Caesar Augustus. September 23rd, by the way. But in September, I don’t think you’ll find many cards in the Hallmark store celebrating Caesar’s birthday.
But here we are: along with 2 billion people around the world, celebrating Jesus’ birth this night.
Caesar Augustus is dead. And this is the Christian proclamation: Jesus lives!
- Caesar doesn’t have the last word
- Worldly power doesn’t have the last word
- Cancer doesn’t have the last word
- Divorce doesn’t have the last word
- Even death doesn’t have the last word
God has the last Word.
And if along the way, you fail a test, or love a boy, or a girl, who doesn’t love you back; or have a mastectomy, or prostrate surgery, or develop Alzheimer’s, or gain some weight, or lose a job; you will still hold infinite value because Jesus loves you.
No matter what. You are loved, exactly as you are. Always.
Thanks be to God!