Two Empires (Luke 2:1-12)
At a church I used to pastor, we had a big sign that said: "Jesus is Lord" at the front of the auditorium. I liked the sign and I agreed with it, but I'm not sure that I ever really gave it much thought.
One day I was part of a community group that met at that church. A board member came upstairs and walked by the sanctuary and stopped dead in her tracks. She read the sign, "Jesus is Lord," and shook her head. She couldn't believe it.
"Lord" means someone having power, authority, or influence, such as a member of the House of Lords in the United Kingdom. It can mean master or ruler, and it brings back memories of the feudal system. It's hierarchical and patriarchal, and when you think about it it's a little offensive. It was the first time that I'd ever realized how offensive it is to say, "Jesus is Lord."
Saying "Jesus is Lord" is dangerous. It's even more dangerous to live like you believe that "Jesus is Lord". When the angels appeared to the shepherds when Jesus was born, this was at the heart of what they said. Luke 2:10-11 reports what the angels said: "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord." What does this mean for us?
Well, it's subversive. Today I want to look beyond the Christmas story to the back story. If we understand what it means to say "Jesus is Lord" for our lives today, we need to understand a bit of history. I invite you to walk with me through a bit of a history lesson and what it means for us. Please open your Bible and look with me at Luke 2.
The Roman World
Luke 2:1 says, "In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world." Now stop there. We usually run ahead to verse 2 and to the story of the shepherds and angels. We could have done this back in Luke's day because everyone knew what Luke was talking about. Let's stop here for a minute, though, and ask: what is Luke saying in this verse? Who is Caesar Augustus? What's the census for? And what does he mean when he says "Roman world?" Luke is the only Gospel writer who relates his narrative to the dates of world history and he mentions Caesar and the Roman world for a reason. What is Luke saying?
The Roman world at that time was unprecedented in its size. It was not just a world power; it was the only world power at the time. It covered virtually all of the known world except for little-known kingdoms of the Far East. The Roman world stretched all the way from Britain to large sections of Europe and the Mediterranean and parts of Africa. Or, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Euphrates, all the way down to the Sahara. It was one huge empire, a virtual dictatorship under the reign of the emperor at the time, Caesar Augustus.
How did Rome get to control the whole world? Two ways: alliances and wars. Both the alliances that Rome made and the wars they won were due to two main reasons: Rome's overwhelming military might and financial power. They didn't just conquer cities; they destroyed them. The Roman Republic was a military machine. Before the emperor that Luke mentioned, enemies were not conquered; they would be slaughtered. The power of the Roman government was uncontested.
Around the time that Jesus was born, Roman rule was still on its upswing. It would reach its peak in another hundred years, so it was not only powerful but it was increasing in its power. The Roman rule was absolute and it was more powerful than anything than we have experienced.
So that's what the world was like at the time. The world had one global power that was uncontested and getting even more powerful. Jesus was born at a time when you couldn't even think of challenging the power of Roman rule.
Luke mentions the emperor at the time: Caesar Augustus. Who was he? Augustus was the first and arguably the greatest Roman emperor. His accession to power marked a new era in world history. The Roman Republic was replaced with an imperial form of government. Caesar Augustus expanded the empire to include the entire Mediterranean world. He established a period of Roman peace called Pax Romana and brought in a golden age of Roman literature and architecture. The vast Roman world, populated by all different races and cultures and religions, for the first time came under the rule of one state and one man.
So how did Augustus become so powerful? Well, his real name was Octavius. He was only 19 when his grand-uncle Julius Caesar was murdered in the Ides of March in 44 BC. You know about this event: "Et tu, Brutus?" Octavius was smart. Like a statesman he ruthlessly steered himself through intrigue and danger and a bloody civil war. Eventually he had no rivals. The last one to be defeated was the famous Mark Anthony, who committed suicide after being defeated in battle. Octavius was the last one standing and he took charge.
At the time, they didn't really know what to name him. They wanted to come up with a name that would describe the position of a new ruler over a new worldwide power. Octavius turned down the title dictator, probably because he remembered what happened when his grand-uncle was dictator. They eventually decided on the name Augustus, which means "exalted one." He became commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the empire.
A few years later, he was given powers as the permanent representative of the people. Under his his 40 plus year reign, he brought order out of chaos. He discharged a large part of the army and ushered in an era of peace. He restored confidence in the government, replenished the territory, ran the public works with efficiency, and promoted peace and prosperity. When the economy tanked, Caesar Augustus would pay for free grain out of his own pocket and feed the empire. He erected public buildings at his own expense. He reformed taxes to make them more fair. It was said that Augustus found Rome brick and left it marble. What he left behind lasted hundreds of years. Caesar Augustus was a huge deal.
Augustus had learned a lot from Julius Caesar, who had been assassinated. He wanted to avoid his predecessor's mistakes. So he mostly discouraged emperor worship, but he did accept the title Pontifex Maximus which means highest priest, or head of all worship. He insisted that people see Julius Caesar as a god and didn't discourage the building of temples dedicated to himself. He wrote his own obituary which recounted the greatness of all of his achievements, and ordered that this obituary to be engraved on two pillars in front of his mausoleum in Rome.
Here's where it gets interesting. Augustus Caesar proclaimed that he had brought peace and justice into the whole world. He declared his dead adoptive father to be divine, and styled himself the "son of god." Poets wrote songs about the new era that had begun; people told stories about Rome's rise to greatness. Augustus, it was said, was "savior" of the world. He was king and lord. It was said that his birth had been announced by a star. His birth had been called good news or gospel. Increasingly, people worshiped him as god.
In later years, subjects were required to confess each year that "Caesar is Lord." If they made that claim, they could practice whatever religion they wanted, as long as they proclaimed that Caesar was the ultimate authority whom they obeyed. If they didn't make that confession, the penalty could be death.
Rome's gospel was all about Caesar Augustus for the world. After his death, Julius Caesar was officially declared to be a god. He was called a savior because he ended bitter civil wars and created the peace of Rome. The gospel of Rome was that Augustus, a "son of [a] god," saved Rome and brought peace to the world.
When Luke goes to write the account of the birth of Jesus, he begins by setting the events in the context of the reign of Caesar Augustus. It's not an accident. Why? What is Luke trying to do? There's a reason why Luke tells us that Jesus' birth occurred during the reign of Caesar Augustus. Luke is contrasting two gospels: the gospel of Caesar and the gospel of Jesus.
Scot McKnight says:
Luke counters and upstages each element in Rome's gospel—Good News, peace, the Son of God, and the Savior. The gospel that angels announced to Mary and the shepherds was the Good News that Jesus, the Son of God, was the Savior who would bring true peace to the world.
Don't forget that as Luke writes this, and the Gospel of Luke is distributed throughout the Roman empire, the Caesars are still reigning. The account of Jesus being born as a Savior, of Jesus as Lord, would have been subversive. This document was dangerous. Luke was risking his life by writing it. You would be risking your life by holding it. It's a dangerous thing to believe in the Gospel of Jesus when it subverts the gospel of this world.
We can never forget the subversive nature of the Gospel announced by the birth of Jesus Christ. It was subversive back then and it is subversive now. Luke took on the false gospels of his day, and the Gospel of Jesus continues to take on the false gospels of our time too.
It's remarkable in many ways how similar our times are to the time in which Jesus was born. We live in an unprecedented period of prosperity. I know that we don't self-identify as rich, but by any objective standard we are loaded. We enjoy a standard of living that kings and queens of yesteryear could only dream of. We are richer than the vast majority of people who have lived throughout history, and here in Canada we are richer than most of the world. We are enjoying a period of prosperity much like that enjoyed in Jesus' time, although we'll see in a couple of weeks that not everyone back then got to enjoy the prosperity.
We also live in a period of common culture and globalization. Back then, Rome took over the world, except for the East. Today, you can go all over the world and order a Starbucks. You can vacation in Mexico and eat at Pizza Hut every night if you want. We trade and do business all over the world, just as happened in the days of Caesar Augustus.
Our world also has a gospel, or actually a number of competing gospels. I was thinking about how to summarize our gospels and I came up with three phrases: freedom, prosperity, and self-improvement.
We believe in freedom. Our foreign policy is built around defending freedom and even spreading freedom to other nations. We talk about defending our freedom. I'm old enough to remember when they passed the law that we had to wear seat belts. Remember the complaint? "They're taking away our freedom."
We also believe in prosperity. It's ironic. We have unprecedented prosperity. We face the problem of having too much stuff, all of it needing room in our crowded houses. Sometimes we look around at our house and think we can't possibly bring another thing home. We live in a bungalow. But then there's always another trip to Costco. We live in this resource-rich world with too much and limitless opportunities to upgrade not just the kitchen and the bathroom, but also the laundry room and the garage. But we also live lives that are stretched to the limit by this prosperity. We believe that with freedom and money, it will be possible to experience happiness.
Then we also believe in self-improvement. We believe that if we really apply ourselves, we can get ahead. And we do. Put all of this together and you have a lifestyle that promises good news, peace, and salvation. And there really is no alternative to this lifestyle of liberal capitalism and a free-market economy, is there? There are other options out there, but none of them that look any good. This is the only game going, and it looks like it leads to the better life.
So we have an gospel that promises peace and good news and salvation. And the Gospel of Jesus is just as subversive to our gospel as it was to the gospel of Caesar Augustus way back then.
Question: What is Luke doing by setting the story of the birth of Jesus as a story of two empires? What is Luke doing here?
Caesar Augustus was great, perhaps the greatest emperor who ever lived. There has rarely been a person with so much power and so many accomplishments. Yet, Luke seems to be saying, the greatest event of the age of Caesar Augustus was not any of his accomplishments. The greatest event of this age was the birth of Jesus in an obscure village of maybe 200 people a few miles south of Jerusalem. And maybe the most significant news today is not that a spy was poisoned with radiation in Europe or that Stephane Dion won the Liberal leadership. Maybe the most significant news today is that a baby has been born in the town of David, who is a Savior, the Messiah, the Lord.
Maybe Luke is contrasting the way that God works by contrasting these two empires. In the ancient world, if anyone asked if there was a more important person than Caesar, the emperor and ruler of the Roman empire, the answer surely would have been no. His kingdom was undisputed. But in the birth of Jesus, a new kingdom is revealed, a kingdom of seeming insignificance, weakness, and vulnerability. The confrontation between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world began, and it looked like no contest. But within a short time, Caesar's successors in Rome heard about Jesus and took steps to eliminate his followers. Within a few centuries, the Emperor himself became a Christian. N.T. Wright says, "When you see the manger on a card, or in a church, don't stop at the crib. See what it's pointing to. It's pointing to the explosive truth that the baby lying there is already being spoken of as the true king of the world." Jesus, and not Caesar, is Lord.
Maybe Luke is telling us that Caesar can never really offer what people are looking for. Caesar ushered in an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity. His reign was a huge success. But not even Caesar Augustus could be what he had promised: the son of a god, a savior. And maybe the empire today is equally great. There is no doubt that we live in a system that offers us unprecedented prosperity and opportunity. But the world can't offer us what it promises. It can not offer us what we really need. Luke knows this, and he recounts the words of the angel: "I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord" (Luke 2:10-11).
Some of us have been through experiences in which we realize we need more than the empire of this world can offer. You know what it's like to be at the end of your rope, and Caesar has nothing more to offer you. That's when you long for a different empire, a different Savior.
Long after Caesar Augustus has been all but forgotten, long after his buildings lie in ruins, long after he died and he remains dead, Jesus lives. "Of the increase of his government and peace," Isaiah says, "there will be no end."
So what's Luke saying? That there are two empires: the one that we see, that promises everything, and that looks unstoppable; and the one of Jesus, that shows up in small places and looks like nothing, but is the kingdom with the power that will change this whole world. One empire that looks like it's everything but now lies in ruins, and one empire that began in insignificance but is growing and increasing even today.
Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord.
Which empire do you serve? People couldn't imagine that what Caesar Augustus accomplished would one day be merely an article in the encyclopedia and some long-forgotten ruins. Caesar was successful beyond anyone's wildest dreams. You can't compare the accomplishments of anyone today to what Caesar accomplished.
Caesar is dead, but human empires remain, built with human hands. They tell us that they are in control, that they can provide us what we really need, that they are our savior.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:6-7)
Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord.
(inspired by the series "A Revolutionary Christmas" by Rob Bell)