In Those Days
In Those Days
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. (Luke 2:1)
Those are the familiar words that begin the “Christmas Story” as so many of us have heard it down through the years. But what is the significance of these words that introduce the story of Jesus’ birth? We’ve heard them so many times we might not even give them much thought. We think of them as St. Luke’s way of giving temporal context for the really important part of the story: these events happened during the reign of the Roman emperor Augustus. And yet Luke has already given us the temporal context of the story. When he told us about the angel, Gabriel, visiting Zechariah in the temple, he told us that these events took place in the days of King Herod. But remember that Luke’s statement about Herod is loaded. It sets the time period, but it also sets the background: all this took place during the evil and desperate days of Judah’s oppression by a corrupt foreign king who pretended at being a Jew and during a time when even the religious leaders had sold out to corrupt political leaders. Those words, “in the days of Herod” remind us of the desperation of God’s people and their desire for a deliverer—for the long-promised and long-awaited Messiah.
That Luke now introduces the story of Jesus’ birth with the words that Augustus had decreed that all the world should be registered is loaded in a similar way. It sets the story in the same time period. Augustus was the name given by the Senate to Caesar’s nephew and heir, Octavian. After Caesar was assassinated in 44 bc Octavian ruled the empire in a triumvirate with Mark Antony and Lepidus. In 36 Lepidus made a wrong move and was deposed and exiled by Octavian. Five years later Octavian won his famous naval battle at Actium against Antony. The empire had been in chaos for years. Caesar had tried to bring unity, root out corruption, and bring peace and it had got him murdered. Things only got worse after his death, but Octavian eventually did restore order and peace. For the people of the Roman Empire, Augustus was their saviour. He was the son of Julius Caesar who had been declared divine. In fact, one inscription at Myra describes him as: “Divine Augustus Caesar, son of a god, imperator of land and sea, the benefactor and saviour of the world.” Think of what this meant to the people of Judah—to people who looked at worldly kings and emperors through the lens of Daniel’s prophecy and Nebuchadnezzar’s vision of the great statue of gold, silver, bronze, iron, and clay, blown to smithereens and crushed by the stone not cut with hands, by the stone representing the kingdom of God. Every earthly king was a rival to God and to his kingdom and Augustus certainly embodied all of this, right down to his titles: saviour, imperator of land and sea, and son of god. Luke’s introduction here sets up the contrast between Caesar, the one who pretends at lordship and the true Lord, Jesus.
Luke goes on to tell us that at the command of Caesar Augustus all the world is ordered to be registered.
This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. (Luke 2:2-3)
Augustus did a lot of “house-cleaning” as emperor; he reorganised the administration of the empire, which had become corrupt after centuries under the control of local governors. And as part of that house-cleaning, Augustus implemented the practise of a regular census. For the most part it was used to collect a head tax and to register men for military service. The Jews were exempt from military service, but not from taxes. In this case, the local officials followed Jewish custom and required everyone to return “to his own town”—probably to the ancestral home of his family or maybe to the place where a man owned property. The tax was probably only a denarius. It wasn’t very much, but to the Jews it represented everything that was wrong with the world. It reminded them that even though they were living in their own load, they were still in exile. That denarius, compelled to be given under threat of violence, was tribute given to a foreign and pagan power and even if the census takers didn’t extract an oath of loyalty at the time the tax was paid, that denarius was a sort of loyalty oath itself—a symbol of obedience to Caesar and of compromised loyalty to God. All of this is the setting: the days of King Herod, the days of Caesar Augustus, the days when God’s people waited eagerly for deliverance and the fulfilment of his promises.
And while we’re dealing with the date of the story itself, there’s another date we ought to deal with. Every year we remember and celebrate these events on December 25th and every year critics from without and puritans from within tell us that Christmas is pagan, not Christian. Neither Luke nor Matthew gives us enough information to determine the date of Jesus’ birth. Some of the early Fathers in the Second Century give us evidence that Christians were making all sorts of speculations about the time of year that Jesus was born, but by the late Third or early Fourth Century—about 250-300 years after Jesus was born—the Western Church settled on December 25th and the Eastern on January 6th. But how did the Church settle on these dates? A lot of people today tell us that the Church “borrowed” them from the pagans, converting the feast of the birth of the Sun God or of Mithras into a Christian festival in an attempt to attract pagans. The problem with this is that the Christians of that time period, like St. Ambrose for example, write about this as providential: Christ the true Son has outshone the false gods, even on their own feast days. They don’t give any indication that the calendar was engineered to rival pagan gods—they saw it as providence.
In fact, during the time period when it’s said that Christians borrowed these pagan celebrations, the Church was doing everything possible to distance herself from paganism. This was the time when Christians were standing firm against the pagans, even to the point of being fed to lions in the arena. Centuries later, Christians would start taking over pagan temples and festivals, but that came long after the date of Christmas was established.
We can’t be sure exactly how the date was determined. We can be assured that it was not by borrowing from the pagans. What we do know is that the Fathers connected Jesus’ conception with his death. They knew the day he died: March 25th on the Western Calendar and April 6th on the Eastern. They concluded that Jesus was conceived on the same day of the year that he died. The reasoning doesn’t make sense to our way of thinking, but it’s something we see in ancient and mediaeval thought: using a date to make a direct connection between the saving acts of God in history. This line of reasoning actually goes back to ancient Judaism. In the Talmud we see that the rabbis made a connection just like his, believing that the creation of the world, the birth of the patriarchs, and the Passover all took place on the same date. To unite redemptive history the early Christians celebrated the conception and death of Jesus on the same day. (Note that we still celebrate the Annunciation to Mary on March 25th!) And, of course, moving forward nine months on the calendar gives us the dates of December 25th in the West and January 6th in the East. At the end of the day we can’t be certain exactly how the date of Christmas was settled, but this makes much more sense than the modern popular notion that it was borrowed from pagans. There’s simply no evidence for the latter—all the evidence says otherwise.
Now, back to Luke’s Gospel: Augustus—saviour, peacemaker, and son of Divine Caesar—has called all the world to be registered and caught up in his decree are Joseph and Mary. Look at verses 4-7:
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Mighty Caesar himself is caught up in God’s plan of redemption. We’ve already seen that the Messiah was to be of the line of David, but David was also from a town called Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth, but God uses Caesar’s decree to ensure that Jesus is born not only of the line of David, but also in the city of David as Micah had prophesied:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel… (Micah 5:2)
Why does Mary go to Bethlehem too? Luke doesn’t tell us. We’re told that she and Joseph were still only betrothed and not yet married. Her family may have been connected with Bethlehem too. But more likely, Joseph knew she would give birth soon and didn’t want to be far from her. Remember that being pregnant in her situation compromised her reputation. It’s possible that no one else would have anything to do with her at this point. Whatever the case, the two of them travel to the ancestral home of Joseph’s family and while they’re there she gives birth.
And to stress the difference between Caesar and the true Lord, Luke tells us about the humble conditions of his birth. We can already gather that Joseph and Mary were poor. The ESV now tells us that there was no room in “the inn”. The Greek term Luke uses would better refer to a “guest room”—the same sort of place where they met, in the “upper room” at the Last Supper. Bethlehem was small and it’s doubtful that it even had an “inn”. They were most likely staying in the home of relatives—a home crowded because of the census. In those days peasant shared their homes with their livestock, often having a stable next door or on the first floor. Mary and Joseph may have found the stable quieter than the house or Mary may simply have “borrowed” the manger since she had no crib. A long-standing tradition that goes back at leas to 150 years after the event, tells us that the stable was a nearby cave. Whatever the case, there in that humble house or stable, Mary placed her baby in a manger—in a feeding trough—because there was no place else to put him.
And Luke stresses too his “firstborn” status. This emphasises two important points: First, it reminds us of Mary’s virginity. Second, being “firstborn” means that Jesus is Joseph’s heir. Joseph may be a poor man with little to offer Jesus materially, but remember that Joseph is of the line of David. That’s Jesus’ most important birthright. He’s the one for whom David and all his successors had been keeping the throne warm. Jesus is the promised King the people have been waiting for.
In verse 8 Luke changes the scene to a group of shepherds somewhere nearby.
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:8-12)
If by worldly standards the birth of the true King is all wrong, so is the birth announcement. The angel proclaims “good news”. This is the same sort of language that would have been used in the secular world to describe the birth of a new king. Heralds would be sent from the palace to announce the good news, but those heralds would first go to the movers and shakers, to the wealthy and those with status. Only later would they find their way into the poor streets and fields. Here we see the angel proclaim Jesus’ birth, but he doesn’t announce it where we’d expect. Luke says that he went to some shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem. Shepherds were often men who didn’t own enough land to make a living at farming, so they tended sheep to help make ends meet. They were often the poorest of the working poor. And Luke says that the angel of the Lord—probably Gabriel again—came to them and that glory shone around them. This is upside-down from the start. In Jewish thought the glory of the Lord was the visible representation of God in the temple. In the wilderness he had either led the people or rested in the tabernacle as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. When Solomon consecrated the temple, that glory, that shekinah, had come to rest in the holy of holies, on the ark. But that glory had been gone for centuries. And now here it returns with these angels, but it doesn’t appear in the temple or in the holy of holies. No, it appears to a group of poor shepherds out tending their sheep. Presumably Mary and Joseph made the announcement to their own family, but the first announcement made outside the family was not only to a group of strangers, but to a group of poor shepherds. The angel bypasses kings and emperors and even priests and Levites. He goes to these shepherds and foreshadows Jesus’ ministry of preaching good news to the poor.
The fact that Jesus birth is heralded by angles who bring the Lord’s glory to this field outside Bethlehem is particularly interesting. Ezekiel had given a long prophecy (chapters 40-48)—many of you are familiar with it and have probably found its length and detail tedious. He prophesied the coming of the Messiah by describing the restoration of the temple, and not just its restoration, but its restoration to perfection. And here at the Messiah’s birth the announcement leaves the temple behind. The shekinah appears in a field to ordinary men. Already Luke is pointing us to the fact that Jesus’ kingdom isn’t what people were expecting. This is the king who will destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, but whose rebuilt temple is not made with bricks and mortar, but is his very people to whom he gives his Spirit.
The angel declares the good news with all the messianic language he could squeeze into it. He’s born this day. That’s prophetic language: the last days, the end times that people had been waiting for have come this day. He’s been born in the city of David. The Jewish people were only concerned about one descendant of David and that was the Messiah. And the angel stresses: he is the saviour, he is the Christ—the Greek word for Messiah—and he is the Lord. Again, in the midst of Augustus’ census and as Caesar is on everyone’s mind, the Messiah is born—the true Saviour, the true Lord, and the truebringer of peace. Caesar may pretend at all these things, but this baby is the one who will bring all these things for real and for eternity. And so it’s no wonder that as the shepherds respond in fear, the angel happily shouts to them: “Don’t be afraid; I’ve got news that will turn your fear into joy!”
And then the angel sends the shepherds off to be the Messiah’s first visitors: “Look for the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” The angel says specifically that these things are a “sign”. But a sign for what? This is Old Testament language that points to the future ministry of this baby. “Swaddling cloths” would immediately take any literate Jew to a passage in the Wisdom of Solomon:
I was nursed with care in swaddling cloths. For no king has had a different beginning of existence. (Wisdom 7:4-5)
And the manger points back to Isaiah 1:3:
The ox knows his master,
the donkey his owner’s manger,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand. (NIV)
This baby is the king who would come to lead his people back to a knowledge and understanding of God.
And with that Gabriel is suddenly joined by a host of angels who burst into praise:
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14)
Give glory to God! Why? Because in this child he has brought the means of restoring peace—he has brought shalom: wholeness and well-being. And to whom? He’s brought peace to those “with whom he is pleased” or “those whom he favours”. Again, this is language from Isaiah (52:7) and it points to hope in universal shalom. It refers to God’s gracious election, but it’s an inclusive election that reaches out to the entire human race. Joel Green puts it this way: “In the birth of this child, God’s mercy has fallen on the world.” Kassia, the great Byzantine hymn-writer, wrote in praise: “The people were enrolled by the decree of Caesar; and we, the faithful, were enrolled in the name of the Godhead, when you, our God, were made man.”
Following the announcement, the shepherds set out to find the baby. Bethlehem was a small town and it probably wouldn’t have taken them long to find the little family camped out in a stable.
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:15-20)
In response to the good news proclaimed by the angels the shepherds become the first evangelists. They find the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger and provide confirmation that the angel’s good news is true. And if we can believe the heavenly host as far as the circumstances of his birth, we can certainly believe their announcement that this baby is also the long-awaited Saviour, Messiah, and Lord.
But what does that mean for us? This is more than a sentimental story to tell by the Christmas Tree before we open presents. It’s a story of redemption. It’s a story about the baby in the manger who came to restore us to himself and to his Father. And yet it stands here at the beginning of St. Luke’s account of Jesus’ ministry as a radical story that shows us the kingdom of God in stark contrast to all earthly kings and kingdoms. In that sense there’s nothing “nice” or “cute” or “sentimental” about it. This is the story of the stone not cut with hands crashing into the golden statue and shattering it to pieces. And this is also the story of the one who made the great earthly temple—the place where heaven and earth had always met—this is the story of the one who rendered that temple obsolete, who predicted its destruction, and who sent his Spirit to establish a new temple in the hearts of his people. And, brothers and sisters, that people is us. We are his temple. His glory rests upon us. And as his people we live in a new kingdom with him as our King. The baby in the manger, the Messiah on the Cross, the risen Lord enthroned now in heaven calls us away from every other loyalty and with the first Christians we declare our faith saying: Jesus is Lord.
Those aren’t easy words to say. Many of our brothers and sisters have been and are being martyred for that faith. Even when we aren’t persecuted for it, that faith is always a challenge to live. Jesus conquered sin and death. In our baptism he gives us new life, but we still struggle with sin and with the competing loyalties of the flesh and of worldly caesars. But, brothers and sisters, remember that he gives his very self to strengthen us and to confirm our faith. He humbled himself and became a human so that humanity could be restored to God. Sixteen hundred years ago Cyril of Alexandria noted that the Lord came to us because, by our sin, we had defaced the image of God. Sin had made us like beasts, had given us brutish souls. And so Jesus came the only way he could come to animals: in a manger, in a feeding trough for beasts—that as we feed on him, God’s image might be restored in us, that we might have life again. As Cyril directed his congregation all those years ago, I direct you to the Lord’s Table. This is now the manager in which he comes to us again, but here he comes as the bread of heaven to give us life. Here he comes to strengthen our souls. Here he comes to affirm our faith in him. And so as we come to his Table let us declare: Jesus is Lord.
Let us pray our Collect again: “Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.