December 15 – The Kingdoms of God and Caesar

by Matthew Morgan

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.  — John 1:9-12

The world did not recognize him – Because he turned all our expectations upside down.  This week, we are looking closely at the characters involved in Jesus’ birth in order to further understand that “the world did not recognize” Christ: in the Nativity Story, God turns every expectation upside down.

Read Luke 2:1-14 and 1 John 2:15-17

There are two Christmas stories being told in America.  One we hear when we go to Target or shop on Amazon.  It’s the story of Black Friday sales and December commercials, of gifts, candy canes, and holiday cheer.  And I will readily admit, I like this story.  In fact, this year I need some new gloves, so Amazon wish list, here I come.   But more than gifts, I like the December atmosphere – the food, the lights, my kids’ excitement.  I even like the tacky Christmas sweaters.  So here’s my confession: I get captivated by an American Christmas.  

But there is the other Christmas story and this one doesn’t fit so nicely with our American mindset or really any worldview that exalts money, power, or control.  This is the Christmas story told by Luke.  Mark begins his gospel with John the Baptist, already an adult, in the wilderness preparing the way for Jesus.  John writes of the word becoming flesh, introducing the incarnation, before also jumping to John the Baptist, already doing ministry.  It’s only Matthew and Luke that write of the baby Jesus.  Matthew begins with the genealogy and focuses on prophecy fulfillment.  But Luke takes a different approach.  Luke’s  birth story is a call to allegiance.

Luke uses several phrases, borrowed from the Roman lexicon, that would have pricked the ears of his Greek readers.  He begins the birth narrative in chapter 2 with the words, In those days Caesar August issued a decree….  Besides being the only gospel writer to reference a specific Caesar, Luke is making an important point.  Jewish readers would detect a connection between Luke’s opening words, and that of 2 Samuel 24, a chapter detailing King David’s decision to take a census and God, in response, angrily punishing all of Israel with the plague.  A census is a way to organize militarily and impose taxation, or in spiritual terms it’s an attempt to “impose human control in defiance of God’s sovereignty” (Will O’Brien).  Luke wastes no time in setting up Caesar as someone seeking to possess that which rightfully belongs to God.  

He goes on to use other politically motivated words.  In vs. 10 he uses the word evangelion, translated “good news.”  In the Roman world “good news” was announced to inform of a military victory or the birth of a new emperor.  In vs. 11, the angels name Jesus as a “Savior,” a title carried by Rome’s Caesar.  And in vs. 14, the angelic host proclaim “peace on earth,” again a political term signifying the promise of the Roman Empire.  A first century reader of Luke’s Gospel would recognize a clear message in Luke’s birth story: Caesar is a fake king.  The real King is a newborn baby in Bethlehem.  The message is that good news is not anchored in military might or economic power but rather in God’s willingness to stoop low, to join us in the world.  The message is that peace will not be bought with violence but sacrifice.  The message is that there is no political figure, no Emperor, no King, no President, that will save us from our problems – that the emperor is merely a man.  But there is a baby, a baby that while fully human is more than that.  A baby that is King.  

We still live in a world in which leaders make promises they cannot keep.  We live in a world where we literally fight for world peace and where advertisers tell us that if we just shop and buy, we will be happy.  And we can either buy into that story or believe the gospel of Luke.  And we believe when we recognize the false gospel of power, money, violence, and control, name it as a lie, and embrace the truth of sacrifice, mercy, and service.  Where have you believed a false gospel?  How can this be a season of embracing the true Savior of the world?

O Come, O Come Emmanuel – Francesca Battistelli

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