Rev. Doug Van Doren, Plymouth UCC, Grand Rapids, MI, January 5, 2014
Matthew 2:7-12, Matthew 21:5-9, Romans 1:1-7
What a sweet story the Christmas Story is. It has all the necessary elements: a cherubic baby, docile animals, two doting parents, a whole host of admiring villagers, foreign dignitaries, and even an angel chorus. It is a thoroughly domestic scene, albeit with some enhancements. And in our oft-chaotic lives and war-torn world, that image can be one in which we take refuge as we sing "Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright... sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace." Church and government have been quite happy to promote this personal and docile understanding of the Christmas story as well.
But if that is our primary view of the Christmas story, more importantly, if it is our internalized sense of what the story is all about, we have missed a core meaning and a key message our spiritual founders sought to convey.
What allowed our forebears to see God in the flesh, in Jesus, fulfilling the promise of salvation (liberation)? It was that they believed the promise. They did not think, even though penned in on all sides, that God had abandoned them or that God had forgotten the covenant. Because they believed, they could see God's character and will in the person, Jesus. So they told stories, and passed along stories, that helped others to see the truth of what God was doing even in the midst of terrible oppression. For those who had eyes to see and ears to hear, they were making it plain that even though they were under the heel of the oppressive Romans, and under the thumb of the religious structures, they knew who was God and who was not! They knew whom to worship and who was not worthy. They helped others in the first century to see the light of a new world beyond the present oppressive darkness. They have helped people see beyond their current darkness ever since. And maybe, they can help us to see as well.
You see, in the New Testament, they were challenging the claims and legitimacy of the world around them because they had a vision of the world God intends.
To understand the world-changing claims of this often-domesticated story of Jesus' birth and life, we need to understand the context of our first-century forebears. They were subjects of Rome (as was much of the world); they were an occupied country. Rome wasn't just a military/political system. It was a system supported and legitimized by Roman Imperial Theology. It was a domination system. That is, it controlled every aspect of the life of its subjects through strict and ruthless administration of its policies. It was a system that legitimated its rule with religion. Though it began earlier, that imperial theology was amplified with the rule of Caesar Augustus whose reign was from 31 BCE to 14 CE. Caesar Augustus' birth name was Octavian. He was 19 years old when Julius Caesar was assassinated. And for the next 13 years, Octavian and his legions fought a bitter civil war against Marc Antony and his legions for the Imperial Throne. The war ended in 31 BCE when Octavian defeated Marc Antony and Cleopatra at Actium, thus becoming Caesar.
As a result, Octavian changed his name to "Augustus." Why did he do that? It is because "Augustus" means, "He who is to be worshiped and revered." Imperial Rome, through imperial theology, was making the claim that Caesar was divine and was, by divine right, to be worshiped and obeyed. The whole system of domination and repression, they were claiming, was ordained by God. Therefore Caesar had all kinds of divine titles. One of his official titles was "Lord," as in "ruler of all things." He was also called "Savior of the World" and "Prince of Peace." He was called Prince of Peace because, in one sense, he had brought peace. He brought "peace" in that he ended the civil war that was tearing the empire apart, and costing the rich a great deal of money! Thus, for the ruling class, peace had come through the end of the civil war which upset the economy and put their fortunes at risk. But, of course, he brought "peace" through military conquest, through repression, and by quashing any resistance to imperial rule and policy. This was peace represented by the absence of opposition to the Roman domination system.
Caesar was also called, "Son of God." That title was so widespread that it appeared on coins and inscriptions throughout the realm.
But perhaps even more striking is that, according to Roman Imperial Theology, Augustus Caesar was the product of divine conception. He was said to have been conceived in the womb of his mother Attia by the God Apollo. That claim of divine fathering began with Augustus, but the same claim was made for all subsequent Caesars. Clearly they believed, or at least sought to impart to their subjects, the message that their rule and domination system was divinely ordained. God had chosen them and their way to rule the world.
That was the world into which Jesus was born, and that world is the context in which all the New Testament books are written. Can you see this incredibly brave and divinely faithful claim our forebears were making? Can you see the truth and vision they were trying to get the world to see, even in the darkness of such ruthless rule? At every turn, they made the counterclaim that it was not Caesar, but the God of Jesus Christ, who ruled. The stories of a divine conception showed that Jesus, not Caesar, had a divine claim. When they called Jesus, "Son of God," it had not only the Jewish meaning-of one intimately connected to God-but also its meaning in imperial theology, making the claim that Jesus, not Caesar, was the true son of the true God.
When they called Jesus, "Lord," the most common title for Jesus in the New Testament, it carried with it the Jewish term used for God, but also was a counterclaim to Rome. "Jesus is Lord," says that it is Jesus, not Caesar, to whom we give our loyalty and allegiance.
When they called him "Savior" and "Prince of Peace," they were making the claim that it is Jesus who brings true liberation and true peace, not Caesar. This may be the most important or wide-reaching claim of all. The Gospel writers are clearly holding up a vision of a world very different from the one represented by the domination system where peace is only the repressed absence of war and violence. No, they are holding up a world where true peace-shalom, wellbeing-comes through justice and mercy. This is a world where everyone has enough, as the Prophet Micah put it, "Each shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid." This, in the Gospels, is called the reign of heaven.
These claims and this understanding are seen in all the New Testament. Paul, in those seven verses at the beginning of his letter to the Romans, right there in the lion's den, not only describes Jesus as the only legitimate one to be worshipped and followed, but uses the titles for Jesus that were used for Caesar. Clearly this is a seditious act! (Later, in Rome, Paul was killed for making such claims.)
So the use of these titles is not coincidental; it is a bold claim, that God, through Jesus is the one to be worshiped and obeyed. It is God's world that is legitimate, not Caesar's-not the Caesar of that day or this. And when Luke's birth story talks of a divine conception, whatever else he is doing, he is making a rival claim of Jesus' pedigree as the Sovereign One.
As I said, what is most important is not only that Jesus is a challenge to the worship and rule of Caesar, but rather that the reign of heaven he brings is a challenge to the entire domination system that Rome and all empires assume. So the challenge to Caesar is not only the story of Jesus' birth and the titles used for him, but the whole circumstance of his birth, life, and death make a claim for the world God intends. That is a world envisioned from the beginning in the harmony of the Garden. It is poetically envisioned by Isaiah, where the wolf shall lie down with the lamb... and a little child shall lead them. And it is demonstrated in life and ministry of Jesus Christ.
What clearer counterclaim could there be than the one represented in the Gospels? The Magi are the representatives of the non-Jewish world, the Gentiles, but also of the world of kings. They do not find a worthy king in the palace of Caesar's representative, but go and bow before the infant in a dusty nowhere little town outside the ruling claims of both Rome and Jerusalem. Who are his parents? They are not the wealthy and royal by Greek or Roman lineage, but a peasant couple with a claim to a lineage going back to a king anointed by the priest of God! And what clearer claim to this realm than a baby, a seemingly helpless creature, to whom love is poured out. Who attended the child? Not the high and mighty, but common folks, shepherds chief among them. Shepherds were ritually unclean by the nature of their profession. Who did Jesus associate with in his ministry? It was not the ruling few percent, but the representatives of the rest of society, the outsiders, the poor, the "unclean," - those who produced wealth for the ruling class.
What clearer claim can be made for a whole new system of human society than Jesus entering Jerusalem, not on the conquering war horse of the Caesar, but humbly riding on a donkey, the symbol of one who comes to bring true peace? What clearer statement than Jesus' death: crucifixion, reserved for those who opposed Roman rule, shown to be completely impotent against the God of this new world order.
The people who walked in darkness walked not only in a spiritual darkness, but a social darkness, under domination systems both religious and political. The light of Christ, the Savior, is the light of liberation (and remember, that is what "salvation" means) from all systems so constructed. Look at Jesus' self-definition in Luke 4, "The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me (that is royal language) to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
My friends, the Christmas story is a sweet and beautiful story; may it always remain so. But if that is all it is to us, then it is no wonder systems of domination-social, political and religious-continue to reign.
But we are inheritors of this radical claim! We are inheritors of this radical Grace. Let us proclaim, not just in our hymns and prayers, but in our loyalty and action: "Jesus is Lord" and no other. May it be so. Amen.
(Thanks to Marcus Borg and other Biblical scholars for their research and analysis that contributed to this sermon.)