December 24, 2015
I have what might be a trick question for you: Who am I describing? His birth was celebrated in messianic songs hailing him as “The prince of peace”—the deliverer from war and bloodshed. When he took power, soldiers knew they could expect to put up their swords. All around the world a golden glow spread its fingers over the world—in fact, a sun with radiant beams is the image of his reign. With his arrival, a new age and a new order dawned. In conquest, he was revered as the victor over all his foes. Yes, he even said that a God was his father; he was a son of the divine.
Who is it I am describing? I know it sounds like I am talking about Jesus, but actually I am describing how the people of Rome celebrated the birth and rise to power of Octavian, who became known as Caesar Augustus. Even his name—Augustus—indicates what people thought of him. It means “the revered one.” When he took over Rome, civil war ended. The devastation of 100 years of bloodshed began to be repaired. Rome was weary of death, weary of bloodshed, weary of destruction, weary of corruption. And Octavian–Caesar Augustus—was going to transform everything. He ushered in the Pax Romana! The era of Roman peace. Rome began to be rebuilt, even more gloriously than before: temples, arenas, public baths and forums abounded. Augustus found Rome in brick and left it in marble.
Unfortunately, this peace was built on a system of autocratic dominance—founded on the suffering of many people for the benefit of the few wealthy elite. And Augustus? Yes, Augustus, hailed as the Prince of Peace, became a butcher–brutally and systematically eliminating anyone and everyone who dared to speak against him. For the most part, he distracted the populace by keeping everyone extremely busy. He inaugurated a building program and revived devotion to pagan gods and goddesses and temples. He instituted national games and holidays. If the busy people ever stopped to consider what was going on, they would have to realize that Caesar Augustus was a brutal and tyrannical leader.
In the end, when the Roman Empire fell, Gregory the Great looked back and said: “She died from material prosperity and the withering of the heart.”
“And in those days of Caesar Augustus,” the emperor decided he want to count his citizens, so he required everyone to return to their hometowns to be counted. You know the story: a young carpenter and his pregnant fiancee made their way from Nazareth, an unremarkable village in Galilee, toward Bethlehem, a city of about 300 people at that time. No marble palace awaited them; no parades in the streets celebrated their arrival; no one toasted their safe passage or offered them so much as a sugar cookie. They ended up spending the night in barn because “There was no room for them in the inn.” Unfortunately, this being left out becomes a trend in Jesus’ life.
Later, in Luke’s Gospel, when someone asks Jesus where he lives he says, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” The Messiah is always the stone that the builders rejected. The fact there is no room in the inn is key to the Christmas story. There’s no room in Rome, so go to Israel. There’s no room in Israel, so go to Nazareth. There’s no room in Nazareth, so go to Bethlehem. There’s no room in the inn, so go out to the shed where the animals are. Out, out, out, out…. The Messiah has always been and will always be the one on the outside.
In those days of Caesar Augustus, in a dimly lit stable outside of society, Mary and Joseph delivered her firstborn. He cut the cord; she washed the baby and nursed him; they swaddled him and laid him in a feeding trough. And then, I am guessing, they fell asleep from pure exhaustion. No crowds rushed to temple or synagogue to give thanks for the arrival of the Son of God. No one declared his birthday a new holiday. No carolers went around singing the Good News….
Whoops! That’s not quite true, is it? Someone did sing of this birth, didn’t they? Who proclaimed the message that Jesus Christ was born? Who was it? Angels! Angels gathered, not in Caesar Augustus’s throne room, not in the tents of the high priests, or in the board rooms of the important bankers and business people; not among the generals of the army or anyone else with power and influence. No, a whole bunch of the angels gathered in the dark sky above a group of shepherds, and scared the living daylights out of them!
These shepherds were not used to being visited by dignitaries, so naturally the first thing the angels have to say is “Don’t be afraid.” But my guess is that that advice was lost on the shepherds. I mean, can you imagine? Shepherds were the migrant workers of their time, and they were treated by society with the same respect and dignity that migrant workers tend to be treated in our time—which is to say, not much. They tended to be unwashed and were considered unscrupulous. Shepherds could not give testimony in court because they were considered unreliable witnesses. People locked their doors when shepherds came into town.
But there they are, quietly going about their work, when suddenly the sky above them is filled with angels, singing, “Gloria! A Savior is born! Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, God’s peace for all!” Not the Pax Romana, Caesar’s peace, which was not really peace at all, but God’s peace, unlike anything the world had ever known.
The angels do not promise no conflict on the earth—which is how some people think of peace. Jesus was probably the most peaceful person who ever existed, but he lived a life filled with conflict. In fact, Jesus and his family became refugees before he was two years old because of a violent conflict! We call him the Prince of Peace, but the only encounter he ever has with royalty is when he meets King Herod, who condemns him to death! What the angels promise, the truth that Jesus embodied, is that whatever happens—and wherever it happens—God is right here with us in the middle of it. That’s peace. God’s peace. Even in the days of Caesar Augustus.
So the shepherds went to find the Prince of Peace where the angels said he would be. And there he was, in a feeding trough, a place where the animals came to eat. It’s really kind of perfect that this is where God-with-us first becomes known. Because through most of his life, people got to know Jesus by sharing meals with him. Like everything else in his life, Jesus went about this socializing in a non-traditional way. He ate with all the wrong people, and sometimes didn’t even wash his hands first. Mealtimes with Jesus and the rest of the gathered community, however inappropriate they might be, became holy times. People who wanted to get to know God could do exactly that.
Just before Jesus died, he asked his friends to remember him not on Sundays in church, or before a big test, or as they came up to the batter’s box, but whenever they ate together. The beginning of the Good News happened when the shepherds found Jesus in an eating place, and the disciples from Emmaus will again find Jesus at an eating place at the end of Luke’s gospel, just as he breaks the bread. But you’ll have to come back at Easter to hear that story!
The days of Caesar Augustus have faded. The glory days of Rome have passed away. The temples are in ruins, and the arenas are just shells. It turns out Augustus was not the Savior after all. But don’t be afraid! I have come to bring you good tidings of great joy!
It turns out that Baby Jesus really is the Prince of Peace! He brings a peace no sword knows. He does not replace Caesar. He will not reinforce his leadership with the “tramping boots of warriors or garments rolled in blood.” Instead, he brings good news to the poor, gives sight to the blind, and hope to the hopeless. He comes to bind up the brokenhearted, and to shine the light of love over all the weary world. He really is the child of God, and the Good News of his reign is this: abundant mercy for the miserable, grace for the undeserving, justice for the unrighteous, and liberty for the captives. If you are searching for this Prince of Peace, I suggest looking for him among the outsiders, the refugees, the marginalized—especially at dinner time.
~Pastor Susan Schneider