The Reality of Christ, Luke 2:1-7 (12-24-11)

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Dec 262011

Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ December 24, 2011 ~ Faith Presbyterian Church

 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered.

4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7, NRSV)

A crowd this size likely includes many technologically savvy individuals.  I have no doubt, in fact, that many of you will spend the better part of tomorrow with your fingertips all over some new-fangled, hi-tech gadget which is, even now, wrapped and waiting for you under the tree.

Not me.  I suspect that the most innovative gadget I’ll unwrap tomorrow is a new set of socket wrenches.  You see, when it comes to the digital revolution, I’ve always been a little slow on the download.

I’m not ashamed to tell you that I’m still holding on to all my old record albums and a working turntable on which to enjoy them.  My car is outfitted with an AM/FM cassette deck.  I do own a cell phone – I broke down a few years ago and bought one – but it’s just that, a phone.  I think it might have a calculator on it.  I have yet to send a single text message.  I still organize my life the old fashioned way, using a pencil to write in appointments in my pocket-sized Day Timer calendar.  Though you should know that I carry it around in a sleek antique vinyl cover highlighted by a handsome personalized brass name plate.  It’s a beauty!

I know I’m a dying breed.  In fact, the last time I called Day Timer to order some more calendar inserts, I half expected the person on the other end of the line tell me, “Listen, Mr. Chapman, we’ve been holding out for you because you have been such a loyal customer, but we’re down to just you and one old guy from Wichita, and so I’m sorry to say we’re going to have to shut it down.”  Thankfully, he didn’t say that and I’m set with calendar inserts for at least one more year.

In the late 70’s, while Steve Jobs and friends where developing the first Apple computers in Cupertino, I was making my way through junior high school just a few miles north of there  Here they were at the cutting edge of a digital revolution which would eventually lead to a five-ounce, pocket-sized computer that can hold 40,000 songs, 250 hours of video, or 25,000 photos.  This digital revolution began while I was lying on our living room couch listening over and over to the same three Led Zeppelin records on my parents’ 90 pound combination stereo cabinet/dinette set.  I still own those records.  We did at least eventually get rid of the stereo cabinet.

Now, I don’t tell you all this to argue for the good old days.  I’ve got nothing against the digital revolution and I understand that I will eventually and inevitably be swept along in it or left behind by it.  I tell you all this, instead, to point out that it is entirely possible for a person to insist on living in one fading reality while, all the while, a whole new reality is emerging all around.  Trust me, it can happen to the best of us.

2000 years ago it happened to a man named Caesar Augustus.  As you may remember from history class, Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar and become the Roman ruler in 27 B.C. He went on to become the first and, arguably, greatest emperor in the greatest empire the world has ever seen.  He turned a small republic into a world-dominating power whose influence is still reverberating today.

Augustus was eventually revered by countless people across his vast kingdom.  Perhaps nobody had a higher estimation of Augustus, however, then Augustus himself.  By his own estimation, he was the one who had brought peace and justice to the whole world.  Since he believed that his dead father was divine, he declared that he was, logically, the “son of God.”  With his encouragement, many people came to call him the savior of the world.  As an emperor, he bore the title “Lord.”[1]  Augustus was, therefore, savior and lord.

A popular saying of the time went like this, “Divine Augustus Caesar, son of a god, absolute ruler of land and sea, the benefactor and savior of the whole world.”[2]  This one man was considered by many to be the very center of the known universe.  The sovereign rule of Caesar Augustus was the dominant reality of the day.

This is exactly why whenever the great savior and lord, Caesar Augustus, issued a decree, things happened.  When Augustus talked, people walked.

So it was that at the beginning of the first century when Augustus issued a decree that every person in the entire empire should return to his or her hometown and be counted for tax purposes, well, every person in the empire packed their bags and went home.  Included in that number was a Jewish peasant named Joseph and his very young, and very pregnant, fiancé.  They both immediately set off from their home inNazarethand walked 80 miles south to thevillageofBethlehem.

Understand, this was a journey the emperor himself would never make.  Caesar Augustus never traveled toBethlehem.  Caesar Augustus likely never even heard ofBethlehem.  Caesar Augustus never would have crossed paths with anybody fromBethlehem.  That was the reality of the day.  Roman emperors didn’t rub shoulders with Jewish peasants.

For this reason, Augustus simply had no way of knowing that as he relaxed on his couch back in Rome, his little census was being used in a distant, insignificant, dusty corner of his empire to set the stage for a whole new reality.  This sovereign ruler had no idea that he was being made unwittingly to serve the purposes of a much greater Sovereign Ruler.

Luke, writing as a historian, tells us that at the time of Augustus’ census, Joseph went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem, the town of the great king David, because Joseph belonged to the house and line of David.

Now to us, these familiar words sound quaint and sentimental.  We can almost hear Linus, blanket in hand, reciting them on stage as Charlie Brown watches from the wings.  To the ancient Jews who first read them, however, these words sounded like the alarm of a revolution.

You see, every Jew in that time knew that when the long-awaited Messiah finally came to set the long-suffering Jews free, they knew that Messiah would come from the line of David and would be born in the city of David, which is Bethlehem[3].  Luke, you see, is using messianic language here, and he’s not being subtle about it.  He’s telling us that this Roman census was used by God to set the stage for the reality of thekingdom ofGod to break into the world in a startling new way.

It sure must not have seemed that way at the time, however.  A child was born, it’s true.  But the world barely noticed.

My daughter, Isabel, turned 14 this week.  Her birthday, as it always does, made me think back to the day she was born.  I clearly remember how they played a little song over the hospital intercom the moment she popped into the world.  Everyone in the building knew in that instant that a new life had begun.  Soon after, calls went out to all our friends and family, all our church, and all sorts of people celebrated along with us the birth of what was, at that time, the world’s most beautiful baby.  Granted, December 20, 1997 came and went without most people in the world receiving Isabel’s birth announcement.  Still, the celebration was fairly widespread.

By contrast, when Mary’s baby was born that night in Bethlehem, there was no such celebration, at least on earth.  Apart from Joseph and a few flabbergasted shepherds, in fact, it’s likely that not a single other person on planet was even aware that in the corner of some barn in Bethlehem, the very Son of God had quietly slipped into the world and now lay sleeping in a cattle trough, wrapped in strips of cloth.  And yet, this infinitesimal event represented the birth of what was to become an entire new, universal, eternal reality. 

As Messiah, Jesus had come to do what the prophets of old had long promised he would come to do.  Do you know what Jesus came to do in our world?  Jesus came to bring a message from heaven of good news and hope to people who are poor and brokenhearted.  Jesus came to set people free from all the things that enslave us.  Jesus came to restore health to the sick, sight to the blind, strength to the weak, life to the dying.  Jesus came to replace darkness with light, lies with truth, evil with goodness.  Jesus came to proclaim grace and favor to those of us who are guilty and ashamed.[4]

In short, Jesus came to set right everything in our world, to make all that is wrong right again, and right again for all time.  Jesus came to do this.  Jesus is, in fact, still doing this.  And a day will come when Jesus will have done it all.  For you see, Jesus was not just a man.  Jesus really was God.  He is God.  He is the eternal Son of God, the true Lord and Savior of creation, divinity wrapped in human flesh and blood.

If you believe this, if you have faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior, then your entire reality can and will be transformed.  If you don’t believe this, however, then you will continue to believe that the way you imagine things to be is actually the way things are.  Like I said up front, it is entirely possible for a person to insist on living in one fading reality while, all the while, a whole new reality is emerging all around.

Augustus himself, the self-proclaimed lord and savior of the world, never heard the name of Jesus.  He did not receive a birth announcement.  Reports of his miracles and teaching never reached his throne inRome.  He never read his obituary.  He never heard the rumors about his resurrection.  The reality of the breaking of God’s kingdom into the world all took place without interrupting, even for a moment, Augustus’ own fading view of reality.

Less then 100 years later, however, his successors inRomewere working like crazy to stamp out an ever-expanding legion of Christians who were willing to give their lives for their new King.  300 years later the Roman emperor himself became a Christian.  In his lifetime, Augustus was the center ofRome.  If you go toRometoday, however, while you can still uncover a few memorials to Augustus scattered here and there, you can’t walk one city block without passing countless memorials to the child born on his watch inBethlehem.

One week from tonight we will celebrate the New Year.  If Augustus were lord and savior we would be celebrating the year 2074.  That’s how many years it’s been since he was born.  If Buddah were lord and savior we’d be celebrating 2574.  If Muhammad were lord and savior we’d be celebrating 1442.  If Moses were lord and savior we’d be celebrating 3403.  If the whole reality of human history had shifted on the life of Thomas Jefferson, or Sigmund Freud, or Isaac Newton, or Elvis Presley, or Tim Tebow, our calendars this January 1st would be marked with a whole other number.

They are not.  Whether we acknowledge it or not, all of us count the days of our existence by measuring how long it has been since that sacred, silent night in Bethlehem when Mary gave birth to her firstborn and named him Jesus, which means “The Lord Saves.”  The birth, the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ are the fulcrum around which all of human history and existence swing.  This is the emerging and eternal reality.  It always has been, actually.

Which leads me to ask you, is this the reality around which your life centers?  I’ll say it one more time.  It is entirely possible for a person to insist on living in one fading reality while, all the while, a whole new reality is emerging all around.  It truly can happen to the best of us.

When the baby Jesus grew up and, as a man, began teaching, he talked constantly about these two realities in which people live.  He taught, for instance, that lots of people are on a wide, easy road that leads to destruction.  A few others, he said, are on a hard, narrow road that leads to life.[5]  On the one hand there are people Jesus called goats because they go through life ignoring the poor.  On the other hand there are others he called sheep because they show the poor compassion.[6]

Some people, Jesus taught, build their lives on a foundation of sand.  When the storms come, their lives eventually crash to the ground.  Others, however, build their lives on foundations of solid rock which never give way.[7]  Some people are like younger brothers who, though they are in no-way deserving, humble themselves and come home to a waiting father.  But other people, Jesus said, are like older brothers who want nothing to do with that same waiting father.[8]

You can’t read Jesus’ teaching without hearing him force this question.  Over and over he forces the question.   Around which reality does your life center?  It’s the question that I put before you tonight.  Around which reality does your life center?  There is no more important question you can ask yourself.

The great crisis of humanity is that while the reality of theKingdomofHeavenis breaking into the world all around us, so many people, even many people sitting in churches on Christmas Eve, cling to an old reality that is fading away.

Christ is extending to us that which is permanent and eternal.  Let us not be distracted by, or infatuated with, that which is wasting away.

Christ is extending to us the deeper reality of grace and mercy.  There is no longer any reason to hang on to a fading reality of guilt and shame.

Christ came to offer us treasure that can never be taken away from us.  Why would we cling to treasure that cannot last?

Christ came to carry our burdens.  We don’t have to insist on continuing to carry them ourselves.

Christ came to show us truth.  Why would we keep believing lies?

Christ came offer us life.  Never again do we have to settle for the reality of death.

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree.  He had no idea.


[1] N.T. Wright was helpful here.  Luke for Everyone, (Louisville:Westminster John Knox, c. 2001), p. 22-23.

[2] Cited by Joel B. Green, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Luke, (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, c. 1997), p. 125.

[3] See Micah 5:2.

[4] See Isaiah 61:1-2.

[5] Matthew 7:13-14.

[6] Matthew 25:31-46.

[7] Matthew 7:24-27.

[8] Luke 15:11-32.