Christmas Eve Year B
The Roman Emperor Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Roman world. And it would not have mattered one bit to the emperor Augustus had he heard that somewhere, in some obscure outpost of his empire, a little baby had been born and laid in a manger in the outhouse, because there was no room in the main house. And it would have mattered to him not one bit had he heard tales of heavenly choirs of angels appearing to shepherds in the fields. Such matters are of little consequence to emperors with imperial matters on their mind.
He might however have sat up and taken notice if he had been able to listen carefully to Luke’s strange account of what happened. For there is this angel of the Lord who appeared to the shepherds. This angel speaks of ‘good news’, and ‘peace’ and refers to a ‘Savior’. And if Augustus heard that, alarm bells would immediately have begun ringing in his head, for he would recognize these terms. And the reason he would recognize them is because these were all terms that were applied to him.
In Rome, there stood an altar to the ‘peace’ Augustus had brought to the Empire, and cities in parts of the Empire referred to him as ‘Savior’, and his birthday was spoken of as ‘good news’ for the world. In other words what Luke reports this angel of the Lord as saying is deeply subversive. He is using descriptions of the Emperor Augustus and applying them to who? To this little baby in a manger. And so this great company of the heavenly host singing praises to God, ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to all in whom he delights’ - these are not just the first Christmas carol singers trying to feel a bit Christmassy. These are heralds of an alternative king come to rival the Emperor and all earthly rulers for all time.
That explains the manger. Why this stress on the manger? The manger is mentioned three times in this passage and that is because it is a secret sign. The shepherds are being sent off to find this rival ruler, this alternative emperor. How are they going to find him? They can’t go round the bars in Bethlehem asking if anyone has seen the new king, rival to Augustus, who has just been born. Such matters require delicate handling. Such matters require covert signs and signals and codes. God’s rival to the Emperor is slipping in under the empire’s radar, under cover of swaddling clothes and a manger. ‘You’re looking for a stable and a cattle trough. Proceed at once! Report back when you’ve made contact!’
You see, this is what is going on here. Not some neat little religious event that has nothing to do with real life. Here, surreptitiously, an alternative ruler is being born with an alternative empire. The Bible calls it his Kingdom and recognition of this alternative ruler does not just impact what you do on a Christmas eve. To recognize this ruler is to inhabit a different realm where everything changes and life is lived differently. To recognize this ruler is to say, as it did then, that somehow the way that life is lived under human rulers and under human terms and conditions is failing. It’s short-changing us, letting us down and diminishing life. And as we read on in Luke’s Gospel, we discover in greater detail what recognition of this new alternative ruler means, as people are healed and the poor have good news preached to them and outcasts are welcomed.
If only the emperor Augustus had known. Of course sooner or later the empire gets wise to Jesus. Sooner or later they wake up to the threat revealed at his birth. So Jesus winds up on the cross.
But that didn’t stop him. Nothing can. And he comes to us tonight secretly, covertly, this time under cover of bread and wine. And he says, ‘here, join the movement, join the alternative regime. Meet me round the table and sign up.’