The story of Christmas has profound political implications. I compiled this from a sermon last year entitled “A Revolutionary Christmas.” Hope you enjoy and are challenged to see a new world bursting forth.
In 31 AD after the battle of Actium, when Octavius (or…the “Son of God” and the “King of Kings”) ended the ten year civil war of the Roman Republic, Horace wrote: You have put reins on sin and keep the people within the boundaries of right. You have wiped away our sins and revived the ancient virtues which made Rome great, and the fame and majesty of our empire is spread from the sun’s bed in the west to the east.
This was real Roman Propaganda. Caesar, The Son of God and King of Kings has “wiped away our sins.”
Virgil writes in the Aeneid “Augustus Caesar the Son of God the savior of the human race is to be honored as a god with sacrifice and hymns.”
An inscription from the year 9 BCE discussing the province of Asia reads;
The most divine Caesar. The birthday of Caesar has been for the whole world the beginning of the euangelion.
The world euangelion means “good news” and it’s where we get the words “evangelical” and “gospel.”
So the birthday of Augustus…the Son of God….is the beginning of the good news.
So peace has been made by the Son of God, he wipes away our sins.
From England to India, Caesar conquered the whole of it with his army. Bringing about “unity” and “peace.”
In Caesars kingdom there was “peace.”
They would march into town after town with a declaration. “Caesar is Lord.” He’s the good news. He is the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings. He wipes away our sins. Submit or be…destroyed.
If you told them no. They had perfected the art of torturing by tying two steaks together, placing a rebel on it, and planting it upright into the ground.
This device was called a cross.
There are stories of the Roman Empire crucifying 2,000 people at one time.
This is how the Empire was built. Where the Romans made desolation, they called it “peace.”
The coins inscribed to Caesar shared these words:
“Peace is military victory.”
For the Roman Empire the belief was as simple as this: the world is made better through coercive military violence.
And this “salvation” of the world belonged to Caesar. There was propaganda that declared “There is no other name under Heaven by which you can be saved, than that of Caesar.”
In these nations conquered by Rome, there needed to be people appointed locally to uphold the order of the Empire. One King was given rule of Jerusalem. Herod…the King of the Jews. Aside from the numerous murders documented by Josephus, it is also recorded of the great things Herod built. After Herod’s great victory against the Parthians, Herod celebrates by building a mountain.He called it a Herodium. And on top of this mountain he constructed a palace.
If you were standing on the Mount of Olives and you looked toward this mountain that Herod built you would see behind it the Dead Sea. “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them.” (Maybe you can do bigger things than Herod.)
He then hires 10,000 workers to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem in an effort to win the favor of the Jews. He was so ruthless he ruled for 40 years.
It is in this environment and in this brutality, that a story emerges of a baby being born.
The story of the Israelites was rooted in the story of Exodus. A story of God saving His people from an oppressive Empire and how this God brought them out into freedom. The name of this God who saves the oppressed was “Yaweh”
Joseph is told to name this baby “Yeshua”. Name this child “Yahweh saves.”
This story is Political.
“Is Yahweh going to do this again?”
Will there be a new Exodus? Is there going to be a new way to be in the world? A way that ends the boot of an Empire. That ends coercive violence. That ends peace through bloodshed?
Will there be liberation?
Now Mary upon learning of this child, in her magnificat says this praise: “My soul magnifies the Lord,and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.”
The word Mary uses for “Savior” is “soter.” And it’s the same word used in all the military propaganda about Caesar. Caesar was the “soter” of the world.
She then says this: “He has brought down the rulers from their thrones and lifted up the humble.”
This all coming from a teenage Jewish girl under the oppression of Herod and Caesar.
It’s almost as if something rebellious is happening here with Young Mary. It’s as if she is announcing the Caesars and the Herod’s of the world are going down. It’s not just a “yes God, I’ll do it.”
It’s a praise that the system is about to go down.
At the heart of the Christmas story we find the truth that such power is temporary. Oppressive, brutal, wicked power is temporary. It comes and it goes. But there is a power at work in the universe that is greater than the powers of the empires that restrict and enslave. We were once delivered from such power and we will be again.
And this we find a warning.
Herod in fear of this declaration about this baby kills the firstborns to strike fear in a possible uprising.
In a world of terrorism, of Isis, suicide bombings, our response as the Empire of the day is often they bomb us, we bomb them. They kill us, we kill them.
Our solution to the world is peace through military victory.
Perhaps this is why we often miss much of what is at the heart of the Christmas story. We believe that things can be made right through more violence. Eliminate them and then we will have peace.
The story at the heart of the Christian story. The questions that his birth raises, are picked up by his earliest followers. And they declare that Jesus is Lord. Jesus is King of the Jews. Jesus is the Son of God. They take up all the Roman military Propaganda of Caesar and they give it to the Christ.
There is no other name under heaven by which you can be saved than that of Jesus. (Acts 4:12)
The followers of Jesus declare that it is love that covers a multitude of sins. That peace is bought through sacrifice and costly love for one another. The early Christians essentially take all of that Roman Propaganda and they turn it back on Rome and ask the question: “Who is building a better world?”
Is the world made better through coercive military violence or is the world made better through sacrificial love?
Is the world made better through they bomb us, we bomb you? Or is the world made better by loving your enemies, praying for them, and blessing those who persecute you?
Who is making a better world? Jesus or Caesar?
Do you conquer all your enemies, or is there another way to be in the world?
And it is the same question we must ask today.
There’s a better way to make the world.
Martin Luther King.
Jesus of Nazareth
There’s a better way to make the world.
-Adapted from Rob Bell’s “A Revolutionary Christmas”