Christmas 2009 – a revolutionary Christmas
Christmas often brings out the very best in us; but of course it can also bring out the very worst. If we are honest, we can probably admit that at times all we want to do is gag at the very mention of it. Sometimes we tell the story of Christmas in a way that is absolutely detached: we talk about all the cute little animals, and eggnog, Santa, snow, reindeer, drummer boys and perfect babies that never cry or soil their nappies.
Luke’s Gospel tells us that “Caesar Augustus issued a decree for a census of the whole world to be taken.” (Luke 2:1)
Julius Caesar was the first person to declare himself emperor or use the title Caesar. He had no son, but when he was assassinated in 43BC, he passed on the rule to his nephew, Octavius. There was a power struggle for a number of years, between Antony and Cleopatra on one side, and Brutus and Octavius on the other. Eventually Octavius won, and became undisputed emperor in 31BC, taking the name Caesar Augustus. He would go on to rule for 45 years. He declared his adopted father to be a ‘god’, so Augustus then declared himself to be the son of God. He saw himself as a divine mediator between God and man, and required people who were part of the Roman Empire to greet one another on the streets with ‘Caesar is Lord.’ One of the popular sayings of the time was ‘there is no other name under heaven by which you can be saved, except for Caesar.’
Essentially the whole known world from England and Europe down through Africa to the Middle East and beyond was part of the Roman Empire. If the Roman Army came to your town you basically had two choices – worship Caesar as Lord, or face either slavery or death – usually by crucifixion. There are stories of people who tried to resist the onslaught of the Empire, and the response of the army was to crucify every person in the town, including one report where 6000 slaves were crucified as a sign to prevent others from rebelling.
Now Caesar couldn’t rule effectively such an immense area without using local overlords and rulers. So he would find people that were loyal to Rome. In Israel, the local ruler – Herod – was half-Jewish and half-Edomite. He is most famous for his incredible building program – including at least 8 massive fortress-like palaces, two new cities (both of which were named after Caesar – Caesarea which featured the largest human-made harbour in the ancient world and Caesarea Philippi) and the completely rebuilt Jerusalem temple. But to accomplish all of this, Herod added to the already heavy burden of taxation imposed by Rome, to the point that taxation rates were between 70-85%. And we think that a tax rate of 15-30% is too high!
This led of course to widespread despair, fatalism and doubt. Traditionally, most Jewish families would work the land and would own small plots of land that had been passed onto to them from generation to generation by their ancestors. (Think of all the parables that Jesus tells about farmers and shepherds.) Now, many had to rent themselves out as day labourers; some were forced off the land and had to sell their land and move into the cities just to meet the taxes. There was also a small elite who did very well under Caesar and Herod – particularly those who lived in Jerusalem and were directly on Herod’s extensive payroll.
The question on the lips of so many was – will Herod continue to oppress? Will this burden of taxation continue? Will Caesar continue to rule? Will those who have get more? Will those who don’t have enough get even less and less? How long will this go on?
DOUBT. If God is so good, why is this traitor and this oppressor Herod on the throne? Remember Herod is one of the richest people who have ever lived in the world – he could easily compare to Bill Gates. Why can Caesar call himself God – and get away with it? People are starving and sick – and nothing is changing. What about cancer?
How long will this go on? Where are you God? Why is life so unfair?
Doubt. Despair. Fatalism. How long O Lord?
Maybe you have your own question for God right now. Maybe you have been struggling with something for so long you have forgotten when it even began? Maybe someone in your family betrayed you? Maybe someone you loved desperately died recently? Maybe you lost your job? Maybe your spouse had an affair? Maybe your parents are divorced? Or your children? Maybe they have stopped going to Church? Maybe you have cancer?
How long O Lord? Where are you?
Taxation. Death. Warfare. Terrorism. Hatred.
Feuds. Betrayal. Violence. Divorce. Adultery.
Refugees. Indigenous. Homosexuality. Church.
Environment. Failure. Destruction. Politicians.
AIDS. Cancer. Strokes. Heart attack. Sickness.
Despair. Doubt. Anxiety. Fear. Failure.
Confusion. Loss. Fatalism. Hopelessness.
How long O Lord? Where are you?
(Musical interlude – Sons of Korah, ‘Shelter’)
Then, out of nowhere, this angel appears to a young Jewish girl – probably only 14 or 15 years old. Do not be afraid Mary. I got news for you – you are going to have a baby! (Luke 1:30-38)
Mary’s done her class in biology. She knows how things work … No, the Spirit of the Lord will do this – and that clears everything up just perfectly!
Mary: Here I am – the servant of the Lord – let’s get on with it!
Mary – Caesar is going down; Herod is nearly at the end. In fact he dies a few months later. Mary knows that God is not some kind of detached, esoteric saviour – floating away over there. God will come into this scene and take care of Herod and Caesar. He will come into the very midst of their trouble and be there with them when they suffer.
God is going to deal with everything that is unjust. Mary: I have seen the most powerful kingdom in human history – the Caesars – and it is nothing compared with what God can do.
Because, in my womb, I’ve got me a baby!
Herod is now just a pile of rocks. We don’t even have a reliable image of him. Caesar is much the same. But we are here tonight celebrating the birth of the baby that she carried.
God knows what we have been through. God has not forgotten us. He still remembers us.
God sent his only son into the world. In the womb of Mary.
Musical conclusion: Lady Mary (Sandra Sears)
Recorded in St Michael’s Hall (9.30am) – apologies for the static buzz – the new sound system obviously needs some work! (16’00”)