The Christmas story must not be relegated to the status of a cute bedtime story for children… Though Luke’s account records an inauspicious story in the regions beyond the seats or world power either then or now, Luke’s narrative is the proclamation that God Himself is sending the Messiah of Israel. When the Messiah of Israel – Jesus Christ – comes, He will conquer every King who does not submit himself to YHWH’s anointed one (Psalm 2). Call it the subversive message of Christmas if you will.
The words of the Christmas Story are so familiar to us we forget their context in history. We treat Jesus’ birth more like a fairy tale unconnected to reality instead of the turning point of human history. Our familiarity with the story causes us to forget that the Christmas story is God’s critique of the Kingdom of Adam and all about what God is doing even now to bring peace on earth, good will to men through the Messiah’s kingdom that will never end. While Octavian who has taken the name Caesar Augustus will begin what history knows as the “Pax Romana” or “Roman Peace”, Luke is concerned with what Jesus will inaugurate, the “Pax Christiana” or the ever growing reign of Christ, of whom Isaiah records “Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.” Isaiah 9: 2 – 7. While the reign of Caesar is extended through the human technology of the Roman war machine, the reign of Christ is extended through the supernatural agency of Word, Spirit, and Sacrament. The former is welcomed mostly with grudging submission, the latter with worship and thanksgiving.
Luke 2 begins this comparison and contrast with the simple observation that while the Emperor of all the Roman World seeks to aggrandize himself and bolster the pretensions of his divinity by conducting a census, this self-proclaimed “August one” merely advances the purposes of the God of Heaven. As Joseph and his betrothed journey to Bethlehem in response to the Emperor’s will, they are,in fact, fulfilling an ancient prophecy (Micah 5: 2 -4). Instead of Joseph and Mary being pawns of the Emperor, the Emperor decree and the consequences that follow come at the will of Divine Providence to meet God’s ends. The August one’s attempts at self-glorification only end in the advancement of God’s kingdom after all.
While the Early Christians will face the prospect of saying “Caesar is Lord” or dying, Luke exalts in the possibility that humankind will be blessed by the prospect of saying “Jesus is Lord” and finding eternal life. Romans 10: 9 – 13. An inscription found at Priene celebrating Augustus’ birth calls Augustus the “Savior” and claims that “the birth date of our God has signaled the beginning of the good news for the whole world.”
In opposition to this Emperor worship, Luke describes the heavenly worship at the coming of the Truly Divine One at Bethlehem. Augustus’ worship and glory would fade as his earthly form was consumed in death. In contrast to Augustus’ fading earthly glory, the Birth of Christ is heralded not only by angels by the Divine Glory too. The Divine Glory illuminated the dark field signaling not only the angel’s presence but God the Father’s presence as well. As it had throughout Israel’s history, God’s glorious presence in the fields surrounding Bethlehem demonstrated a new turning point in history and the coming of His kingdom (Exodus 24: 16 – 17).
The Divine One’s coming is heralded not to the high and mighty but to often despised shepherds and, through them, the people at Bethlehem because “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5b NIV). The real “Good News” is not the Imperial Proclamation from Rome that Augustus reigns and imparts his favor on his subjects, but the heavenly proclamation that the Savior is born in Bethlehem. This fulfills many promises from YHWH… Isaiah 52:7 and 61:1 concerning the Good News promised to Israel. The Promised One, in fact, will receive the worship of the nations that Caesar Augustus has received falsely. Unlike Caesar Augustus who will die in AD 14, Luke proclaims One who has died and risen again and whose eternal dominion will never pass away (Daniel 7: 13,14). The Apostles confirm Luke’s understanding in many places, but perhaps most clearly in Paul’s understanding of Jesus Christ as the New Adam. I Corinthians 15: 22 – 26 (NIV): “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
Augustus as Caesar extended his reign through the force of his Legions which had brought him to power. His enemies Cleopatra and Marc Antony committed suicide after their defeat at his hand rather than face Caesar’s “tender mercies”. Indeed Augustus might well say “Peace on earth to those on whom the Imperial favor rests”. It is only in the merciful humility of the Incarnation (Philippians 2: 5 – 11) that the Angel’s message “Peace of earth, to men on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2: 14) comes to humanity built upon the sure foundation of the covenant mercies of God which are faithful day by day and new every morning (Lamentations 3:22,23) instead of being dependent upon a despot’s fickle will.
That night, the humble in the land received the Good News of the coming kingdom of Christ went away glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen. Everything was just as it had been told to them because the Divine Promise is always fulfilled as God’s promise to David – so long awaited – had been fulfilled that night. It should go without saying that the promises of earthly kings are rarely realized so joyously.
Israel as a group would not join the shepherds in their unqualified praise and the One born in Bethlehem would have his blood poured out as the offering of the New Covenant (Luke 22:20). Nevertheless the One who came to put an end to the the reign of sin, death, and Satan would die as the King of the Jews (Luke 23:38). In Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the Kingship of Jesus is proclaimed from Jerusalem to all the nations. His kingship calls all other would-be kings to submit to the True King – ourselves included.
Because the message of Christmas calls into question the legitimacy of all who would live their lives in rebellion against the Lordship of Jesus Christ, it is a subversive message that threatens the self-assured. Herod’s violent reaction to Christ’s birth epitomizes our own rebellion against His Lordship (Matthew 2: 1 – 18). Herod simply acted out the hatred towards God’s reign we only exercise by murmuring and hypocrisy.
The subversive message of Christmas threatens all despots – us included – when we set our personal kingdoms against the revealed will of God. God the Son, Jesus the Messiah, comes at Christmas to overthrown the false Kingdoms of the world until the end of time. Then finally the kingdom of sin, death, and satan are cast down. The Christmas message to us is that we are as foolish as Augustus who died if we do not bow before the newborn King of Bethlehem who lives. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer which says, in part, “Thy kingdom come Thy will be done” we truly do so only if we welcome the newborn King for who He is – the unique Savior, Messiah and Lord.