The Emperor and the Baby

(preached at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, Langley BC on 21 Dec 2008 )

 Luke 2:1-20 

            Have any of you ever been to a house warming party?  The year I turned thirteen years old, my mom and dad built a new house on our farm.  And as was the custom in our community, there was a huge house warming party after the house was complete.  Early that evening, one of my dad’s friends calls me over and he slyly slips me an object hidden in his hand.  He winks at me and he says, “Have some fun with this!”  I look in my hand and there is a counterfeit ice cube.  It is a piece of plastic made to look like an ice cube and encased in the centre of the phony ice cube is a fly.  I am not sure if the fly was counterfeit or real.

            And so what I did for the rest of the night was mosey up beside a table of card players and when they weren’t looking, I would drop the counterfeit ice cube into their drink.  I had a lot of fun with that plastic ice cube.  But eventually the party-goers caught on to me, and my days as a dispenser of counterfeit ice cubes came to an end.

            And maybe it is just as well.  For though one can have some fun with a fake ice cube at a party, when life gets serious, it is essential to know the difference between what is fake and what is real.  Counterfeit goods are a serious problem in the global economy, adding up to $500 billion a year or 7% of all world-wide trade.  As the range of counterfeit products expands beyond money, Rolex watches and high-end running shoes to include products which can produce catastrophic results when they fail such as electronics, pharmaceutical drugs and automotive replacement parts, it would not be overstating the case to say that choosing a counterfeit product over the real one can mean the difference between death and life.

            In our Gospel reading for today, there is mention of two people that compete for the attention, affection and loyalty of the human race.  First, we are introduced to Caesar Augustus.  1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register. (Luke 2:1-3)  In that time, Caesar Augustus was the richest and most powerful man in the world.  He ruled over the Roman Empire for 41 years, from 27 BC to AD 14. He was worshipped as a god in some parts of the Empire, and there would be special proclamations made on Augustus’s birthday which described the many benefits that have come about because of his birth.  One such proclamation reads as follows:  “Providence… has brought into the world Augustus and filled him with a hero’s soul for the benefit of mankind.  A Saviour for us and our descendants, he will make wars to cease and order all things well.  The epiphany of Caesar has brought to fulfillment past hopes and dreams.”   Does this sound familiar to anyone besides me?  Caesar is being described as a Saviour whose birth will result in many blessings for the people, including peace.

            Later on in our reading from Luke, chapter 2, we are introduced to a baby named Jesus. This baby is helpless and poor.  His mother is just a teenager, probably 13 or 14.  She has had to endure being ostracized and gossiped about by former friends and neighbours for becoming pregnant before she was married.  There was speculation about who was the real father of her baby. This baby does not reside in a palace of marble.  He was born in a cave used as an animal shelter.  He is not the commander of legions of soldiers.  He does not have any servants standing by to meet his needs.  And yet there is a proclamation made at his birth. The Bible tells us:   8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

    13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

    14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, 
       and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests
Luke 2:8-14 

 And this tiny helpless baby is also proclaimed to be a Saviour whose birth brings about many blessings for the people, including peace.  So who is the counterfeit Saviour and who is the real Saviour?  Is it the emperor the real Saviour?  Or is it the baby?

There are some words which lose something significant when they are translated and “peace” is one such word.  Years of war had plagued the Roman Empire, but with his victories over his competitors, Augustus brought about a lasting peace.  The Pax Romana, the Roman peace, not only meant an end to war.  It also meant increased safety and security.  It was safe to travel on the roads.  Criminals were punished quickly and severely.  The rule of law was enforced by the power of the Roman sword and its punishments were carried out by the cruelty of the Roman cross.

But the Hebrew world had a much bigger understanding of what peace really was.  The Hebrew word shalom  means “peace” but it is peace in the sense of wholeness.  And this is wholeness applied in four important areas of life:  in one’s relationship with God, in one’s relationships with others; in one’s relation with the natural world; and in one’s relationship with oneself.  This wholeness is a result of living in sync with the will of God.  It means well-being in all aspects of life.  It is opposed to evil of any kind.  And this wholeness is the gift of God.  And we humans beings used to have this peace.  But we lost it.  

But now a Saviour is going to bring shalom peace and wholeness back to us.  A Saviour is going to bridge that gap between us and God.  A Saviour is going to soften our hearts with his love and forgiveness so that we can love and forgive others.  A Saviour is going to help us to see the world around us a wonderful home created for us by God, a home that needs our care and attention so that it can continue to be a healthy home for humans.  A Saviour is going to give us new eyes to see ourselves the way that God sees us:  as a much-loved, forgiven child of God.  The real Saviour is Jesus.  It was Jesus, not Caesar Augustus, who died on the cross for the sins of the whole world.  It is Jesus, not Caesar, who gives us wholeness and healing in all aspects of our lives.  It is Jesus, not Caesar who gives us the peace that surpasses all understanding.  And it was that peace which we cannot fully understand that the angels sang about, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” Luke 2:8-14 

And so, during this Christmas season, I encourage you to keep your focus on the baby in the manger.  Our human minds tell us to go for the biggest and the best.  Look for the most great and glorious and that’s where the Saviour is sure to be.  But God doesn’t work like we work.  God doesn’t think like we think.  In our second reading for today, the Bible tells us, 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him.  (1 Corinthians 1:28-29 TNIV) The Saviour of the world who brings peace to our troubled hearts is not the emperor, it’s the baby. And this Christmas celebration that we all look forward to for 11 and ½ months of the year is not about the presents and the tree and the lights and the decorations and the parties and the food.  All those things are like Caesar Augustus—they look good and they are appealing to our eyes and our hearts—but as soon as we allow them to become the most important thing in our lives, they become counterfeit Saviours who are unable to deliver the true peace that God wants to give us.  The weak, helpless baby in the manger is the true Saviour of the world.  God is in that manger and God worked through the weakness and the helplessness of our humanity to rescue us from all the brokenness in our world, in our neighbourhood, in our homes and in our hearts. 

God works through weakness.  And that brings me great comfort.  Because that means that God can work in and through me.  I am very well acquainted with the areas in my life in which I fall short.  I know the darkness that exists in the corner of my soul because it is never very far away from me.  And yet there is this Jesus.  Even though he was strong, he became weak for my sake.  Even though he was rich, he became poor to help me.  He loves me and he forgives me.  He gives me strength when I am weak. He gives me courage when I am scared.  When I mess up, it is Jesus that assures me that I am forgiven, it is Jesus that encourages me to get up and start all over again and try to make things right in my relationships with the people around me.  Jesus loves me.  And that’s what gives me peace.  And Jesus loves you too, and he wants to give you that peace too!

       So let us embrace what is real.  Let us all follow Jesus and let him be the Lord of our lives.  Let’s trust Jesus with all that we are and all that we have.  And let us be messengers of the shalom peace that only Jesus can give.  He will work through the reality of our weakness and brokenness to share that message of true peace with the whole world.  Amen.

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