But when the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph 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. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And 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.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘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 Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
I want you to think first of some really powerful things that have changed the world by their existence, whether for better or for worse.
(Eg a jet engine).
Did they change the world in a positive or negative way?
Some of us get really drawn to big powerful things. Big old steam locomotives do it for me. I know, I know, it’s a bit of a caricature, being a vicar and all that, but when I stand near a large express steam engine, and there is steam coming out from everywhere, from all these different copper pipes, and this beautifully oiled machine slowly backs on to a whole load of coaches weighing hundreds of tons, and then smoothly and almost effortlessly moves off in a riot of smoke and steam and noise, I find something awe inspiring in that use of power. So we’re drawn to power.
Now have a think about the names of some really powerful leaders who have made a difference, either for good or evil, in the world through the years.
Eg Winston Churchill,
Were they good or evil people? And those who were evil, did they start out with good intentions and just get corrupted?
Each of these people used power to change the world. Personally I find this to be quite the reverse of what I said about being drawn to mechanical power. I think that it’s because, for me, the desire for power is a terrible temptation that I could give in to all too easily. Having power always changes us, and it can corrupt us into wanting more of it, of being able to control or influence the destinies of other people.
I think that some people want power because they want to act for good in the world, and I find myself wondering how many of the evil rulers started out like that, wanting to do good, but becoming corrupted by the power, so that it became a drug they were addicted to, always craving more.
And then we come to Christmas and we find that God’s story is the total opposite of this story. The story of Jesus is the opposite of the story of most great leaders. Let me give you a little background to show you what I mean.
St. Luke is the only Gospel writer to give us a historical background, and actually that background is usually a little lost on us because we don’t understand what he’s trying to say about Emperor Augustus, and that’s because we weren’t there and our history is a little weak. So let me briefly fill you in.
Judea was not an independent country like Israel is today. Instead the Jews were a conquered nation who were now just a minor province in the huge Roman Empire, of which Augustus was emperor. Augustus was actually not his original name, but an honorific that was granted him after he essentially took over the Roman Republic, and through political subterfuge and the use of military power became it’s sole leader and changed the republic into an empire. Augustus, meant “the illustrious one” and it was a title of religious rather than political authority.
But, and this is the key thing that St. Luke is getting at. Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar, and Julius Caesar had posthumously been declared a Roman divinity. And so Augustus, in his slow and sustained journey towards absolute power, claimed for himself the title of , ‘son of god’. Does that sound familiar?
Luke is trying to tell us that in the centre of power was a great man who called himself the son of god. Caesar Augustus was viewed by many as having saved Rome and had ultimate political and religious authority, and all the Roman Empire believed in him, but they were wrong.
Instead, here in the backwater province of Judea, a baby was born, and it was he, not Augustus, who was the saviour, and it was he, not Augustus, who was truly the Son of God. But unlike Augustus, Jesus did everything in reverse. Augustus had started from relative obscurity and went on to take power, bit by bit, until he had absolute authority in both political and religious life.
Jesus, on the other hand, did quite the opposite. He was the Word of God through whom the Father had spoken all things into being. He had absolute power and authority throughout the universes, and he stepped away from it, emptying himself, and being born of Mary. And what’s more, time and time again his Jewish followers tried to give him political power and every time he stepped away from it.
And in doing so he changed everything and pointed us in a new direction, and so he gives us a choice in how we’re going to live our lives. Do we want to live the life of Augustus, of a gradual accumulation of power? No one can deny that Augustus made a radical difference to Roman life, but his was a power amongst the powerful.
Or do we want to be like Jesus who gave up his throne to be born of a peasant woman and her carpenter husband, and whose birth was announced not to kings and rulers but to shepherds, the lowest of the low in social terms, just one step up from convicts. The Roman Empire is gone, but Jesus continues to change the world.
If you feel powerless, unable to change anything or make a difference, remember this: Jesus came in the same way, with no power, and he stands alongside you, and he can make a difference to the world with your hands and lips. And if, on the other hand, you are tempted to try and become more powerful, to have more influence, then remember this: In order to really change things for the better Jesus gave up more power than you can ever imagine having.
The true message of Christmas is this: The humble and meek are the ones who really change the world, and Jesus, the true Son of God, showed us the way. In our ambitions and desires, let us remember that we serve the Servant King, and he shows us the way to live. Amen.