Text: Luke 2:1-20
Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth famously begins with a decree from an emperor. The emperor. There can only be one emperor at a time. There’s only one seat at the top of the pyramid. The Caesar, Octavian, who went by Caesar Augustus, which translates as Caesar, Most Revered.
From Rome, Caesar Augustus makes a declaration. Luke begins: “In those days, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.”
The purpose of such a census was not to see how many families had fallen below the poverty line so the Romans would know how far to extend the social safety net. It was to update the tax rolls. It was a way of extending control over peoples, who were counted, head by head, reminding them who was in charge. You can’t hide from Caesar.
When Caesar Most Revered makes a declaration, it moves its way down the pyramid, each layer of the hierarchy bound to carry out its demands. Governors must oversee registration in their regions. Local authorities must set up and implement the census. Army commanders must see that their soldiers are keeping the peace. And households, however distant they may be from Rome, must rearrange their priorities in order to fulfill their legal obligations.
The emperor declares, and the world bends toward his will.
This is the opening statement of the story. It causes a peasant couple, Joseph and Mary, to leave their residence of Nazareth and go to Bethlehem. To have their heads counted. To get their names on the list of the subjects of the kingdom.
It’s here, in Bethlehem, where Mary gives birth to her firstborn, a son, Jesus, and wraps him up in bands of cloth, and places him in what was likely a feed trough for animals, a manger.
When Mary’s son grows up, he will speak often of a kingdom. He will tell stories about “The kingdom of God,” say that it is already coming into the world. He will present a different way that contrasts with the kingdom of Rome. A different shape of being.
At times he will declare that the pyramid scheme of Caesar ought to be flipped completely on its head. He will say: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; instead, whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be servant of all” (Mark 10:42-44).
At times he will declare that the shape of being looks more like a strong gravitational center, that draws people in. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). “When I am lifted up I will draw all people to me” (John 12:32).
At times he will declare that the shape of what is coming into being has an abundance of centers. He will speak of seeds, extravagantly flung across the landscape, which grow and multiply who-knows how many times – 30, 60, 100 fold. No registration required. He will speak of the coming of the Spirit that will guide the community, a tongue of flame in the mouth of all those who yield to the Spirit.
Mary’s son will declare all these things. But let’s face it, they carry none of the weight of the declaration of an emperor. There’s no enforcement mechanism for laws of love and mercy. There is no compulsion in the declarations Jesus will make. Those who follow them do so with a radical freedom. You simply don’t have to do it. The only power this new kingdom carries is that it appeals to the deepest truth of our humanity, the most beautiful aspects of our being. But it’s easily ignored. The Christ is as vulnerable as a child.
The gospel presents the nearly-impossible-to-believe idea that the scene of the infant among the animals in Bethlehem carries with it more lasting significance, more of the Real, than any scene in the courts of Rome. Who would believe such a thing? It would certainly be difficult for the emperor to believe. It would be hard to believe for 21st century Americans who have achieved feats of power Caesar never even imagined possible.
So the people who get the first birth announcement, who are the first to bear witness to the shape of this possibility, are those who themselves had no stake in maintaining the current arrangement of things, who knew a thing or two about hanging out with animals, sleeping on the ground, unable to fulfill any of their people’s purity laws, perhaps not even noteworthy enough to be counted in a census, insignificant religiously and politically. Off the grid. The angels come to the shepherds and give the heavenly counter decree which will be for all the world: “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 Savior…Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace, goodwill among people.”