“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10–11)The holiday season has begun here in America. Whether you celebrate the holidays or not, this time of year for many is a time when the story of Jesus (granted, a very domesticated version) is brought down from our attics, dusted off, and placed in our front yards for all to see. What I would like to do over the next four weeks, though, is offer you a very unconventional, non-domesticated, early version of the Jesus story, before the Roman Empire (through Constantine) was able to co-opt it and use it for the Rome’s own agenda and propaganda. (More on this in the upcoming weeks.) You see, before Christianity was turned into a religion, before the Jesus story was diverted from its original purpose and role during the time leading up to the fourth century, the story that many will be celebrating within Western culture actually could not be more countercultural. There are four ways in which the Jesus story cut across the grain of the societal structures of its day. We will be taking a look at each of these and pondering what they may possibly be whispering to us in our culture today. This week, let’s begin with the words in Luke’s version of the Jesus story that were, according to Luke, spoken by “the Angel.”
In order to get the full impact of the words used here, we must entertain, for a brief moment, their historical setting. Luke places these words in the days of “Emperor Augustus” (Luke 2:1). Emperor Augustus (September 63 BC – August 14 AD) is heralded today as the founder of the Roman Empire, and its first emperor. Augustus’ original name was Gaius Octavius. In 44 BC he was adopted posthumously by his maternal great-uncle, Gaius Julius Caesar, following Julius’ assassination. Together with Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus, he defeated the assassins of Caesar. They then divided the Roman Republic (not the Roman Empire) among themselves and ruled as military dictators. After a period of civil war and much political unrest between these three, Augustus gained control in 31 BC. (Lepidus was exiled, and Antony allegedly committed suicide.)
Augustus restored the outward facade of the free Republic. Yet he retained his autocratic power over the Republic as a military dictator. Over the next several years, through strategy and intrigue, Augustus stealthily transformed the Republic into the Empire with himself as the sole ruler. The reign of Augustus initiated an era of relative peace, known as the Pax Romana (Roman Peace). Despite continuous wars and imperial expansion on the Empire’s frontiers, as well as a year-long civil war over the imperial succession, the Roman world was largely free from large-scale conflict for more than two centuries. Augustus dramatically enlarged the Empire. Beyond the frontiers, he secured the Empire with a buffer region of client states, and made peace with the Parthian Empire through diplomacy. He reformed the Roman system of taxation, developed networks of roads with an official courier system, established a standing army, established the Praetorian Guard, created official police and fire-fighting services for Rome, and rebuilt much of the city during his reign. Augustus died in 14 AD at the age of 75. Augustus was celebrated as a hero after the strife of civil war. Augustus was considered the great source of peace for Rome. Four themes that would permeate his reign were freedom, justice, peace, and salvation. Whenever Augustus’ great accomplishments were proclaimed, the proclamation of Augustus’ victories were called the Euangelizo (“good news” or “gospel”). Augustus, “son” of the “divine” Julius Caesar, was celebrated as a great, universal “savior” for all people who were described as previously being in a hopeless state, and who would have remained so had Augustus’ victories not been achieved. The “Lord” Augustus had brought freedom, justice, and peace as a “savior” to all who would welcome his militaristic reign. Scholars today have defined these elements as the Roman Imperial theology that was continually propagated throughout the empire in Luke’s day through poems and inscriptions, coins and images, statues, altars, and structures. Through these cultic means, the Empire would justify its violent dominance, as well as its imposed heavy taxation throughout the conquered territories.
Now, go back and re-read the words Luke places in the mouth of the Angel who appeared that night before the shepherds:
“But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you EUANGELIZO of great joy for ALL PEOPLE: to you is born this day in the city of David a SAVIOR, who is the Messiah, the LORD.’”
No statement could be more revolutionary or politically rebellious. As N.T. Wright has aptly said, “The birth of this little boy is the beginning of a confrontation between the kingdom of God – in all its apparent weakness, insignificance, and vulnerability – and the kingdoms of this world.” (Luke For Everyone)
Next, Luke has an angelic host appear in the night sky for these shepherds, proclaiming, “GLORY to God in the highest heaven, and on earth PEACE among those whom he FAVORS!” No statement could have been more provocative than what these heavenly messengers said. To all who would have been Luke’s original audience, these words would have been heard in stark contrast to the “glory” due only to Rome, and the “peace” Rome promised to those upon whom Rome’s favor rested.
What the Messiah of Luke’s gospel brings is not an evacuation route out of earth to heaven, but a revolution where the reign of God is once again established on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). The birth of this baby, lying in a manger, would end in the proclamation that “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.” (Revelation 11:15)
How would he do it? In a way symbolized by the apparent peacefulness of a baby lying in a manger, born into a life of poverty. This baby, helpless as it seemed, would be the means through which the Roman Empire, as well as all of this world’s empires (including whatever empire you find yourself living in today), would crumble, not by militaristic might, but by a humble servant’s love. This baby would be the undoing of all the unjust social structures of this world, not through the power of justified violence or the power to take life, but through the power found in laying His own life down, to be taken by His enemies, coupled with enemy-embracing, enemy-forgiving love. When one sees how threatening the Jesus story is to whatever the current societal arraignments of the day are, it’s no wonder the Empire worked so tirelessly to reframe the Jesus revolution into a religion that actually supported the Empire in the fourth century. Through this baby, the truth about God, the truth about ourselves, and the truth about everyone else around us would be proclaimed. In John’s version of the Jesus story, John has Jesus, on the day of his death, saying to Pilate, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37, emphasis added). The revelation of the truth this baby’s birth would proclaim to the world would be the means whereby all of Creation might be reconciled once again to each other and back to God (Ephesians 1:10, 2.16; Colossians 1:20).
Over the next few weeks leading up to Christmas, we will be looking at how this baby’s birth (rather than the empires of this world) bring to us the justice we hunger for, the peace we so desperately need, and the freedom to make it all happen. We will begin next week with freedom, for it is through the specific freedom given by this baby, lying in a manger, that the peace and restorative justice of the reign of Christ was realized within the early Jesus revolution. The first thing we need is freedom—freedom from the fear that the empires of this world lord over us, freedom from the fear of death (Hebrews 2:14, 15). It’s a game-changer once it dawns upon your heart. But we’ll pick that up next week.
1.This week, as we enter the holiday season, take a moment to notice the water you’re swimming in. Step back and make the comparisons necessary between the Roman Empire that reigned in the days of Jesus’ birth and whatever governing structure you happen to live under today. Make a list of five similarities between Rome and whatever ruling structure you find yourself living in (for me it would be America).
2.Now look at that list of five similarities. One such example for me is the repeated slogan that democracy is the last great hope of the world. And although I will be quick to add that democracy is preferable to me than any monarchy, aristocracy, or dictatorship, it still is not the last great hope of the world—Jesus is. Now take a look at each of the five comparisons you’ve made and prayerfully meditate on how they may compete with Jesus in our heart’s devotion, and on where we have bowed to our own empires today as idols in which we hope for freedom, justice, and peace, rather than the baby “wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12)
3.Be prepared to share your insights this week with your HeartGroup.
Taking time to contemplate the Advent of Christ and its meaning in its own historical context, as well as ours today, is the most revolutionary thing one can do. It is in the meditation on these themes that the early Jesus revolution was born, and Jesus’ followers were “turning the world upside down,” “acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor,” and saying “that there is another King named Jesus.” (Acts 17:6–7) May that also be said of Jesus-followers in our day.
Happy Holidays to each of you, and may the Truth proclaimed by the events that this season brings to the minds of so many be ever present in your heart.
I love you guys.
See you next week.