Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:1-2, ESV). The Christmas story begins in real history when Caesar Augustus was the Roman Emperor and Quirinius was the governor of Syria. (The Roman province of Judea had no governor because instead Herod the Great, a puppet king put in place by the Romans, oversaw the territory). By overlaying the details of all these reigns, we learn the Biblical timeline: Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords, was born in Bethlehem about 4 B.C.
Caesar Augustus was the first Roman emperor and the nephew of Julius Caesar. His given name was Octavian. Before Brutus and Cassius assassinated Julius Caesar on the Senate floor, he adopted Octavian as his heir. After Octavian emerged victorious from a bloody civil war, the Roman Senate eventually declared him to be Emperor with the throne name of Caesar Augustus. Yet like many monarchs throughout history, Augustus took other titles for himself, including Savior of the World and Son of a God (since he was the adopted son of Julius Caesar, who was posthumously declared to be a god by the Senate).
You may recognize Savior and Son of God as titles the earliest Christians ascribed to Jesus, and you would be right. The kingship of Christ was a direct threat to every earthly authority. For if “Jesus is Lord,” then Caesar is not! He can’t be—at least, not for long. No wonder, then, that through the history of the world, some of the greatest threats to Christianity have come from the rulers of nation states bent on their own unquestioned authority or world domination: Rome, the Turks, the Soviet Union, and North Korea, among others.
Augustus ruled a vast empire that stretched from England (or Britannia!) to Egypt and included all of southern Europe and northern Africa, as well as Asia Minor, which comprised most of modern-day Turkey. Nearly every nation that bordered the Mediterranean Sea, North Sea, and Baltic Sea belonged to his domain.
For this reason, I very much doubt that, on the night of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, any of the rulers mentioned by Luke, especially Caesar, took any notice at all of a little baby crying in a manger. Why should they? What threat did he portend? What doom would he pronounce upon the so-called Pax Romana, or Roman “Peace”?
Kings are born in palaces, not little hovels. Only in America, with our democratic notions of rags to riches and the American dream, do we tell stories of men like Abraham Lincoln, who was born dirt poor in a Kentucky cabin only to rise to the highest office in our land. But in fact, most of our presidents through history have come from money or the military (or, in the case of George Washington, both). Rarely do great men really come from small beginnings.
But God does not do things the way that you’d expect, and when he sent his Son to be our Savior, he didn’t show up in a blaze of power, stunning his subjects into submission. He did not emerge fully grown from his father’s skull and ride victoriously into Jerusalem—or Rome—to destroy his enemies. No, God had already tried the big show on Mt. Sinai and at Elijah’s duel with the prophets of Baal. Those theophanies were impressive but quickly forgotten. This time God came in under the radar in the most unassuming way. And this time, instead of sending a servant, he sent his Son. Shock and awe had not worked, so God finally resorted to flesh and blood, breath and bone. God himself entered into human flesh and came down to live among us as one of us.
The first people to hear of God’s wonderful plan of the Incarnation were not particularly important or impressive. Mary was a pregnant teenager, and her betrothed Joseph was a long-lost descendent of King David who—twenty-eight generations later—plied his trade as a carpenter, not as a prince. When the angel Gabriel told Mary that she was going to conceive and give birth to God’s Son, she wondered, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). Who ever heard of a pregnant virgin before? Certainly not Mary, her parents, her neighbors, or her fiancé Joseph. Everyone thought she was just a common girl who couldn’t control her hormones until God spoke to Joseph in a dream: “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:20-21).
Oh, such a fool! Joseph must have appeared to be a cuckold to his friends and neighbors. How could anyone believe Mary’s tale? But Joseph did believe in the “Grand Miracle” growing and kicking in Mary’s belly.
The next people to hear of Jesus’ birth were shepherds “out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8). They were busy men, rough around the edges with just a hint of redneck about them. They had an important job supplying meat and lambs for sacrifice, but they themselves were not important, unnamed, unknown today after all those centuries since the first Christmas. Yet after Mary gave birth to her baby in a barn (or cave) and placed him in a feeding trough, the angels did not appear to Caesar Augustus or Quirinius or “King” Herod to announce his birth. No, they appeared to mere mortals, average Joes. And this is what they said: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).
Mary’s little boy was born in Bethlehem, the city of David, the city of the King. And God gave him titles equal and superior to those assumed by Augustus: Savior, Christ (or Messiah), and Lord. Unlike Octavian who was, supposedly, “the son of a god,” Jesus Christ was the only-begotten Son of the one and only Living God! And while his heavenly heralds were more magnificent than any Caesar could ever muster, the angels appeared to shepherds (peasants), not kings or princes or mighty warriors or learned sages. (Aside: The “wise men” would come much later—as much as two years later—as indicated by their entrance into a house instead of a stable, but that’s a story for a different day!).
But that is how it is with God, who “chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27). He doesn’t do things the way you’d expect. His methods seem upside-down and inside-out to the power and logic of this world. But Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). His kingdom is for this world, and he comes as the King for you, but his kingdom is not of this world.
Who could have known that more than 2,000 years since Jesus’ birth, the Roman Empire would be dust and ashes but the Church of Christ would thrive on every continent on earth? Who could foresee that the men who tried to stamp out Christianity—Diocletian, Suleiman the Magnificent, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao Zedong—would be dead and gone, but Christ who died on the cross would rise from the dead to rule and reign forever? Surely, big things do come from small beginnings in the kingdom of God.
And the greatest of all, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, King of kings, and Lord of lords, began as a little baby cooing and crying in his mother’s arms. Jesus came first for the “little guy.” But he came for the big, important folks too. Princes and paupers alike he beckons to come into his kingdom. Jesus was born for everyone, including you and me. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). “For to us a child is born; to us a son is given” (Isa. 9:6a). Jesus is the Prince of Peace, the king who came to forgive your sins and give you eternal life. All the kingdoms and powers of this world will crumble and fall. The Roman Empire lies in ruin. The sun finally set on the British Empire. The Nazi Reich that was to last 1,000 years didn’t even make it thirteen years. Not even our beloved republic, the United States of America, will last forever.
“But of the increase of [Jesus’] government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore” (Isa. 9:7). No king can hold his throne forever. But Jesus can because he died and rose again for you. He did what no other king or prince, president or prime minister, could do—or would do—for you. Tonight, on this most holy of nights, we remember that Jesus the King was born to die. He was born to die for you, to take away the sins of the whole world so that we may enjoy his peace forever. The King is born! The King is dead! Long live the King! In the name of the Father and of the Son and of T the Holy Spirit. Amen.