It came to pass that the most powerful man in the world sat on a throne in Rome. He was consumed with acquiring and extending his control. The world had never seen anything like it.
- His holdings stretched north to England, south to Africa, and east to Asia and covered more than 3 million square miles, more territory than the mainland United States
- This man literally ruled the known world. He ruled the rulers. He was “king of kings.”
His control was so unchallenged that the world was in midst of pax romana – peace of Rome. Of course, not everyone wanted to be ruled by Rome, but his army was so strong no one could challenge it.
He was very dangerous to his enemies. When that man was sixteen, the Roman orator Cicero said of him, “Octavian is a talented young man who should be praised, honored, and eliminated.”
But one by one, he eliminated all his rivals, until he was named by the senate Caesar Augustus – we still talk about an august person – someone whose status is grand and majestic.
His government built statues of him to venerate. By the end of his life, people were worshiping him. Ever have that happen? Come into work, go to your cubicle, have coworkers bow down: “Not worthy…”
At one point he had a standing army of 500,000 soldiers – that took a lot of money. Caesar was a smart man, and we’re told by an ancient historian that one day Caesar had an idea for how to pay his many soldiers. “And it came to pass in those day, that that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.”
Caesar at this time was around sixty years-old. Perhaps no human being before or after ever held so much control over so much of the world, so tightly for so long.
“There went out a decree…” He just lifted a finger, said a word, and the whole world scrambled to obey.
Yes, Luke the historian says, watch what happens how. Now things start to get interesting. “This man, this king, this absolute monarch lifts his fingers in Rome and 1,500 miles away in an obscure province a poverty-stricken couple undertake a hazardous journey, at the whim of a king.”
Notice the result: a child is born in a little town that – oh, by the way – just happens to be mentioned in an ancient Hebrew prophecy about the coming of the Messiah.
The ancient prophecy said the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. But Joseph and Mary didn’t live in Bethlehem. They never would have gone there. Except – “It came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus…”
Why did it come to pass?
Caesar would have told you that it was because of him. Caesar made a call. Caesar was in control. But Luke raises a question: What king is at work here? Whose will is actually being done?
This account is really the tale of two cities.
- Rome is the site of one kind of kingdom, peace and glory.
- Bethlehem is a kingdom of another kind.
- Money, soldiers, titles are all in Rome.
- Bethlehem was all stables and mangers and donkeys and shepherds.
But the angels weren’t singing in Rome. They were singing in Bethlehem.
Caesar thought his throne in Rome was as secure as a throne could be. But the kingdom was lying in a manger in Bethlehem.
Caesar has one palace left in the world. It’s not in Rome but in Vegas, its glory is its glitter, and it’s funded by control-deluded suckers who have yet to learn the one rule that all odds makers know: in the long run, you can’t beat the house.
The baby in the manger is enthroned in hearts and lives and houses of worship on every continent in the world.
Christmas, with all its pageantry and majesty, the entire scene with the shepherds and angels, the orchestration of an empire and its Caesar, the journey of two poor peasants, the wise men, and yes, you experiencing all this here tonight, is simply the God of eternity stepping into time to tell you, “I love you. You are never alone. Merry Christmas.”