Editor’s Note: this post first appeared on the RLC blog on December 30, 2020.
Throughout the Gospel and the second volume of Acts, the author of Luke sets up a distinct contrast between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world. He specifically sets up this contrast between the kingdom of Rome, the primary political entity in Israel and the greater Mediterranean region, and the kingdom brought about through the coming of the Messiah. The unfolding drama of the Gospel presents this contrast from the outset.
In Luke 2, the familiar story of the birth of the Christ child subtly, but poignantly sets up this contrast. As the story opens, Luke informs us that Caesar Augustus has issued a decree for a census throughout the entire Empire. This seems to place the spotlight on Caesar and the Roman Empire. Luke does this because he desires his readers to think of all that Caesar Augustus the Empire he established represents.
Caesar Augustus was considered one of the greatest leaders of Rome. Tradition states that Augustus’s birth was proclaimed as good news because of the coming of a savior. He was also proclaimed as Lord. His reign brought to end the many civil wars that had plagued the Roman Republic. During his reign the Empire enjoyed an unprecedented time of peace and prosperity. This peace came to be known as the Pax Romana – Peace of Rome. This peace, as with many kingdoms of this world, was upheld through military might. It also was not true peace as there remained squabbles and small rebellions throughout the Empire. People did not experience the true harmony, compassion, and provision that should come with peace. Rather, they experienced oppression, heavy taxation, and limits upon their ability to flourish. The author of Luke secretly highlights this by mentioning the census. These censuses were used for one purpose: to have a count of the subject peoples in order to evaluate taxation. In other words, they served as tools in order to further establish the authority of Rome.
Luke quickly shifts the spotlight from the grand halls of Roman power and enforced peace to a different kingdom in which true peace can be experienced. As the scene at the manger in Bethlehem unfolds and the various characters take their places the peace that God intends for all people emerges. Joseph takes his betrothed Mary for registration in response to the decree of the Roman Empire. While there, Mary gives birth to her firstborn—the labor we celebrated once again last week.
Then a curious scene emerges in the shadows of Bethlehem. Somewhere on the outskirts of town a group of shepherds have gathered. Shepherds were a despised people within Israel due to the fact that shepherds’ work often precluded them from participating in religious activities. Shepherds were among a select group of social reprobates who could not serve as witnesses or judges in a trial. They were generally viewed as vagabonds and thieves. They are a people often rejected and ignored by the world, left to their duties of tending sheep. It is to this group of social outcasts that God chooses to make an announcement of astonishingly good news—good news in which God declares a true peace that subverts the ways of the Empire. By coming first to these shepherds with this message of good news, God declares that this good news, this peace, is for all people, especially those cast out from society.
Luke chooses to announce the good news by deliberately contrasting Christ the Lord with Caesar Augustus. As mentioned, tradition developed that Augustus’ birth was declared as good news. Augustus was also declared as Savior and Lord. The angel that appears to the shepherds uses the same phrasing. Thus, Luke subverts the Empire, declaring the Christ child as the true king. The good news is that Christ is Savior and Lord, not Caesar Augustus and the militaristic, domineering, destructive policies that came through the kingdom over which Augustus ruled.
After the initial message from heaven in which an angel announces the good news that Christ is the Lord and Savior that the world needs, a large group of the heavenly host appears, declaring God’s kingdom action through the advent of the Christ. That kingdom action is to bring peace on earth. This is not Roman peace enforced through violence, but God’s peace given through the gift of the Messiah, who will sacrifice himself for all the earth.
This peace arrives in the form of an innocent child. Through the work, grace, and love of God, this child grows to bring the kingdom of God to fruition. This kingdom is realized through the willing sacrifice of the Christ on the cross. Through this act, the Christ brings about reconciliation between God and humanity. The peace we need is established. This kingdom is also established through the formation of an alternative community, a community that should stand for God’s peace in the midst of a world, of many kingdoms that seek to create a false peace through dominance, self-centeredness, militarism, and destructive choices. Christ the Lord establishes this community, which has come to be known as the church so that this blessed people might bring about the peace sorely needed in this world.
Those of us who claim obedience to Christ the Lord must discover how to live in an alternative manner. Rather than adopting the patterns of the kingdoms of this world—kingdoms like Rome that rule through division, oppression, and militarism—we need to adopt the patterns lived out and declared by Christ our Lord. We need to view the humble self-sacrificial attitude of our Jesus and discover how to live this out in our world.
God came to live among us in order to bring about peace on earth for all people. The kingdoms of this world and loyalty to those kingdoms will never bring about God’s peace. Instead, we must bow to the Christ, like lowly shepherds. Even though we might be cast out from the powers of this world, we can come and worship. Then we, like the shepherds finding the acceptance of God’s grace and peace, can glorify and praise God.
Our acts of worship can then be lived out through sharing the good news of God’s peace, of God’s kingdom with all whom we encounter. Instead of sowing attitudes that bring about division and hatred we sow attitudes that reconcile people, drawing them into healed relationships. Instead of following after leaders who enforce “peace” through their violence and rhetoric, we follow our Lord and Savior who guides us into the peace he establishes.