In the days of Caesar Augustus (how a baby disarmed the powers)
This is a piece I wrote for a publication called The Evangel a few years ago. It has the unique distinction among things I wrote a few years ago as being one I still more or less like. I was reflecting on these same sentiments earlier today (Christmas Eve), the marvel of the unobtrusive birth of a child turning the world on its ear with little fanfare at the time. The way the birth is not only blessing but in a sense judgment on all of our notions of human power. I hope it speaks to you.
The significance of Jesus being born into human history is so overwhelming that when we reflect on the Christmas narrative, the scene in the manger eclipses everything else. It is easy to imagine the whole world standing still for a few hours as God-in-flesh was birthed in a manger—like time stopped and all the earth seemed to revolve around this cataclysmic event.
But the world didn’t stop spinning, it went right on with its business, and in the grand scheme of things it was barely a decent cell group that perceived that anything out of the ordinary was going on. The greatest event in humanity’s history occurred—God’s Son entered the realm of time and space, and this magnificent arrival took place in a real context. Luke frames that for us right at the start: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…” So the story begins–not just a spiritual one–but a cultural story and a political story, a story that deconstructs everything about human notions of power and authority.
The Christmas occurrence is not just about Bethlehem, it is about everything and everybody. It is about “principalities and powers”—New Testament language not only for demons, but for earthly powers. The Son of God was born into a people, an ethnicity, a government, a planet—full of greed, pain, oppression, and constant struggles for “power,” whether religious or bureaucratic or militaristic. The arrival has implications for all of those things, and for all of the people who aspire to them.
For the marginalized and the outcasts, it meant the world had turned upside down in their favor. The birth of Jesus into poverty and stench was a subversive event that called into question everything that was assumed about the way the world had always worked. For thousands of years, it seemed the pendulum of power mostly swung towards the wealthy, the powerful, the elite, the advantaged, the attractive, and the strong. The Christ child born into putrid circumstances signaled the end of all of that, and offered a sneak preview of the proclamation that was to come through Jesus as an adult. That is, that God’s kingdom has arrived, the God movement is here, and all the has-beens, poor, grief-stricken, and otherwise infamous sinners are going to get the breaks now.
They weren’t the only ones the story applied to. The implications were as tangible for Caesar Augustus and Herod as they were for the misfits! But Incarnation had a very different meaning for them. For them it meant, “Your days are numbered, your authority is false, your power is negligible.” For the powers of the age, Jesus’ age, Incarnation was a word of judgment—it said “Time’s almost up” to all want-to-be and would-be authorities.
We will celebrate this event all over again this year, and rightly so. We will focus on the manger, drink some eggnog, and enjoy the serenity of the scene of wise men kneeling meekly at the feet of a burping baby on a Hallmark card. We will sing old songs that will nourish us as gently and contentedly as Mary’s milk was to the tiny baby. But we also will do this in a specific context, and the Incarnation will have as much to say to our culture and to our powers as it did in the original event.
Will the peace and safety of the scene keep us from seeing the world turned on its ear? Will we understand that this event still calls the world, and certainly the powers, into question? We could name our powers, but there isn’t space here. Ask about them, and we always find that they are called legion, for they are many. Consumerism, military might, advertising, media—their power is called into question in light of the Christ child. Preachers and pontiffs, film stars and fundamentalists, republicans and rock stars—line them all up in their fineries, and see the colors drain out of the whole lot of them in comparison to the glorious child. So small, so humble, so helpless—and yet the most powerful life form ever to take a drag of oxygen in our atmosphere. God had arrived, and He changed all the rules of power. Luke two preaches the sermon of the beatitudes before Jesus was able to control his vocal chords. The Word was flesh and blood before speech could be uttered; the illustration came long before the text.
The trouble is, it didn’t look like anything changed to the powers. Augustus kept on Ceaser-ing, and Herod kept on maneuvering. Sure the Christ event wasn’t entirely under Herod’s radar, but by the time he finished slaughtering innocent children it affected him more like a rock skipping across a lake than a tidal wave about to hit the mainland. The world went on about its business, as did the people who inhabit it, as certainly did the people who run it. Nothing changed on the surface—the papers didn’t even mention anything about angels teaching worship choruses to sheep herders.
Yet things had changed, and the word of judgment had been spoken whether the powers accepted it or not. The jury isn’t out anymore, the verdict has been rendered: God is definitively on the side of the powerless, the humble, and the needy. Get on board with Him and you will be alright, oppose the weak ones who bear His affection and you will step in front of a cosmic train.
The signs of this reality are no more conspicuous now than they were then. The Gap will be a big winner this holiday season, not Jesus. But just as surely as Herod, Augustus, Jews and Romans were all stripped of their glory in light of the Christ child, so will all other authorities. Everything and everybody who ever has had or will have any claim on power will face the truth that before Jesus, all powers are brought low and all the low are brought high. Believing the Gospel means I believe that this Jesus and the truths He brought with Him have won the day, whether I see it or not.
The first advent taught us that the pendulum has swung to the humble in Jesus, the second advent will prove it before all. The call of the Christmas story is to accept the rule of the Servant-King before the results are made public, and to receive His reign with gladness and simplicity. For those that do, the scandalous truth of the narrative is that the powers are already disarmed—they just don’t know it yet.