From the Pastor's Study
From the Pastor’s Study
Christmas and Kingdom
Dec 14, 2022
In the book of Revelation, in the last few chapters, we see mention of the city of Babylon. Babylon was once a great and powerful city, but by the time of the New Testament, it was little more than a village. The once great city had fallen into oblivion. The reference in Revelation to Babylon, thus, is rarely understood to literally refer to Babylon. Rather, most scholars agree that the reference is to the Roman Empire which, like Babylon, had conquered many, many nations and had subjugated them for its own purposes and glory. What the visions that John saw as recorded in Revelation tell us is that no oppressive world empire will continue forever. There is only one Kingdom which will endure, and that is the Kingdom of God as it was established in Jesus Christ.
Luke 2, which contains the birth narrative of Jesus invites us to consider the impact of Jesus’ birth on this world. Although he doesn’t mention Rome specifically, a careful reading of the text invites us to consider the plight of earthly empires such as Rome and, for that matter, any earthly kingdom that exists today or will exist in the future.
Luke begins the birth narrative of Jesus by mentioning Caesar Augustus, the most powerful man in the world at that time, and he also mentions Quirinius, another Roman official, the governor of Syria. We might think that Luke is attempting to give us an approximate date of the birth of Jesus, but that is unlikely. We know that it would have been possible for Luke to tell us the day and year of Jesus’ date of birth to the very day, but he doesn’t do that. His mention of Caesar Augustus and his officials along with the taxation edict helps us understand that Joseph and Mary appear to be driven by forces much greater than them. They are under the heavy-handed rule of Rome, and they seem to be helpless in the face of such power. However, the rest of the birth narrative gives us a different perspective.
We do not know when Jesus was born, to the day, but his birthday almost certainly was not December 25. December 25 used to be the date of a European pagan celebration, and Christians took it over and assigned it as a day when we celebrate Jesus’ birth. Although they are guessing, the educated guess of many scholars is that Jesus was born in the spring. (Christmas was celebrated in March for a while in centuries past.) Spring, March 24, to be exact, was Caesar Augustus’ birthday, and we can be sure that the Roman officials in every conquered nation planned celebrations for that day, perhaps even coercing people to join in and celebrate the birthday of their oppressor. People were told that they had little choice but to accept Caesar Augustus as their supreme commander because, according to them, he had been chosen by the gods and therefore his right to rule was divinely given.
In just a few sentences Luke puts an end to such thinking. Telling us the story of the angels who visited the shepherds, he records the message that the shepherds received concerning the baby boy who lay in humble circumstances in the village of Bethlehem. “A Saviour has been born to you,” they were told, “and he is Christ, the Lord.” These were not unfamiliar words at that time, and it was not because they were found in the Bible. Rather, they were Caesar Augustus’ words, for he proclaimed that he was the saviour of the world because he had brought new life to the Roman Empire, he was a christ, an anointed one chosen by the gods to rule, and he was lord over all, for he could do as he pleased with his servants, the people living in the Roman Empire.
Scholars arrived at their conclusion that Jesus was most likely born in the spring by looking at the way Luke describes things, and if it is true that Jesus was born around the time of Caesar Augustus’ birthday, the announcement by the angels was a direct challenge to Caesar Augustus and his oppressive regime. In effect the angels were saying that a new King had been born, sent by God to this world to establish a Kingdom which would never end. All other kings and their kingdoms would fall before him; no kingdom but the Kingdom of Jesus Christ would endure.
Like Revelation, Luke’s gospel speaks of things greater than first appears. As in Revelation which speaks of the fall of Babylon, Luke’s gospel speaks of the eventual end of earthly powers. Both John (the author of Revelation) and Luke tell us that there is no earthly kingdom that will remain and to tie our hope to earthly rulers and authorities is foolishness. There is only one King sent by God and only one Kingdom which will endure. It is best that we find ourselves as citizens of that Kingdom first rather than finding our hope in earthly kingdoms.
If we look back over the millennia since Jesus walked this earth, we have seen the rise and fall of many earthly empires. We also see that the bigger they are, the more oppressive they become. Not one of those empires has been able to hold on to their power. All have fallen.
A few years ago, I attended a seminar in which the speaker indicated that it was his (along with many others) perspective that the most powerful kingdom today is not a political one but, rather, an economic one. Living in Canada, he said, we do not feel its oppression because we, like the Roman officials, are beneficiaries of the kingdom. But, this speaker continued, much of the world is oppressed as those near the centres of economic power gather the resources of the world for themselves. He went on to say that the current economic empire governed by financial centres has many of the same characteristics as Rome or Babylon. If he is right, then we can expect that inevitably, some day, even if it is in the distant future, this empire too will fall and those who have tied themselves to it will fall with it. Even as followers of Jesus Christ we do find ourselves quite involved in that economic empire that has reached every part of the world. Perhaps we are too involved.
Implicitly, what the Lukan birth narrative of Jesus is telling us is this: the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ will last forever while no other kingdom or empire will. Christmas, although it focuses our attention on the birth of Jesus, is really about the coming of a while new world order which will one day be fully realized when Jesus returns. It is then that the full meaning of the angel’s words to the shepherds will be fully comprehended by all.