The subversive story of the Savior’s birth.
Jesus’s nativity perennially cuts the prideful heart of man down to size.
I know the Christmas holiday is over, according to the calendar. But I would be remiss if I didn’t share with you these words which served as the basis for my sermon Dec. 26, 2021, in which I endeavored to demonstrate the subversive nature of Jesus’s nativity.
I love the moment St. Luke records for us at the close of his account of Jesus’s nativity. After his celebrated chronicling of Christ’s birth, we skip ahead by eight days to the time of the Christ child’s circumcision (Luke 2:21), and then again by another thirty-odd days to the time of the Christ child’s consecration (Luke 2:22–24). In these two scenes, we see Mary and Joseph faithfully following the law of Moses and diligently keeping the rites and ceremonies of the faith that were instituted by their forebears (Lev. 12:1–8). The old Hebrew religion was still alive in the hopes and expectations of this company of faithful remnants. And it just so happens that on this day, the day of Jesus’s “presentation,” that the ministering priest was Simeon (Luke 2:25), who, we are told, was a “righteous and devout” man. He had lived a full life in faithful service to the Lord, exercising his priestly duties with patient, expectant hope in the Messiah, “the consolation of Israel.” Although we are not told what prompted it, the Holy Spirit bestowed upon Simeon the remarkable promise that he would “not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26). Each morning, then, was met with an uncontainable measure of anticipation and excitement that the day might bring with it a glimpse of Israel’s Messiah. And it just so happens that that day has come.
We are told that on this particular morning, Simeon entered the temple “by the Spirit” (Luke 2:27). He goes about his ministry engulfed in the Spirit’s guidance and presence, when in walks a pair of meager peasants. There was nothing specular or noteworthy about them. Indeed, they appear very average. Less than that, actually. The mother cradled a newborn in herms, while the father grasped two turtledoves in his hand. This avian sacrifice would have to suffice for them, an emblem of their pitiful social status (Lev. 12:8). As they neared the altar, the Spirit whispers to Simeon: “There he is. That’s him. That’s the One.” The priests eyes widened, taking in the remarkable sight. His heart was surely filled with reverence, wonder, and awe as the Lord’s Christ was not only in his midst but in his arms.
Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said, Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel. (Luke 2:28–32)
Similar to Mary’s and Zacharias’s songs, Simeon’s anthem of praise articulates the hope, expectation, and longing which suffused the people of God. And now all was fulfilled. The long-awaited Messiah had arrived. He was holding “Israel’s consolation” (Luke 2:25; Isa. 49:13; 51:3, 12). Mary and Joseph were stirred by the scene, with the aged priest continuing to bless them with a prophetic word about their child would soon accomplish (Luke 2:33–35). It is, indeed, a moving scene, especially when you put yourself in Simeon’s shoes. But there is more going on here than meets the eye.
There is within this song a subversive subtext, brought to bear through the choice words Simeon employs. In verse 26, we’re told that his heart treasured the imminent revelation of “the Lord’s Christ,” which is a striking designation given to the Messiah. We might render this, “The Supreme One’s Son.” Likewise, in verse 29, having seen the One whom he so desired, he resigns his life to the will of his Lord. The title “Lord,” here, is significant, as it is suggestive of one who holds absolute rule and authority. It is a word from which our word “despot” is derived, which, to be sure, is an interesting designation to attach to the Messiah. A despot often conveys the image of a tyrant, one who rules his people through fear and controls them by force. And yet, Simeon calls God his “despot.” You see, within Simeon’s proclamation is a seismic declaration of the supreme authority of the Heavenly Father in the birth of his only begotten Son. Notwithstanding the lowliness of his arrival, he is the Lord of all, the Lord’s Christ, the divine despot who had come to deliver his people from death and darkness. This, to be sure, is entirely in keeping with the rest of Luke’s nativity account.
Taking into consideration the way in which St. Luke opens his Gospel, there’s an underlying sense in which he hastens through all the historical hoopla to get to the main attraction (Luke 2:1–7). “Here’s what was going on ‘in those days,’” he seems to say, “but let me tell you about something more important than all of that.” The evangelist barely mentions Caesar before giving all of his attention to Mary’s firstborn son. And while you might thinking, “Okay, and?” this, I assert, is critical to understanding both Luke’s record and the actual facts of Jesus’s birth. We might say that the loudest words are those which don’t appear.
These events, he tells us, occurred when Caesar Augustus decreed that “all the world should be taxed” (Luke 2:1). Caesar Augustus, you might know, is regarded as the first emperor of Rome, that is, Rome’s first true Imperator. He assumed that role shortly after the assassination of his great-uncle, the infamous Julius Caesar, who had hand-picked Augustus to be his successor and adopted heir. Augustus, though, wasn’t his real name. His birth name was Gaius Octavius (a.k.a. Octavian). Once Octavian was situated in power, he changed his name to Augustus, which in Latin means, “majestic,” “great,” or “venerable.” It is name that is suggestive of one who is preeminent and deserving of reverence and worship. The title Caesar Augustus, then, carried with it a boatload of religio-political overtones. By all accounts, Augustus was considered, and even considered himself, to be a god. In the years following his murder, Julius Caesar was deified by the Roman senate, who ascribed to him the title, “the divine Julius.” As his adopted son and heir, therefore, Augustus was known as, “Commander Caesar, son of the deified one.” Archaeologists have unearthed Roman currency from that era, some of which feature Augustus’s likeness and bear the inscription, “Divine Caesar and Son of God.”
While some historians seek to downplay Augustus’s level of interest in notions that he was a god, or even the son of one, it’s plain to see that he used this empirical renown and reverence to his own advantage. Augustus, of course, is often credited for ushering Rome into what is called, “The Pax Romana,” in which the Roman Empire enjoyed nearly two centuries of peace and prosperity. He is venerated for realizing what is considered the “golden age” of Roman imperialism, which saw sustained expansion of the realm to its furthest territories while also contracting authority to Caesar alone, essentially segueing the Roman Empire from a republic into an autocracy. As a result, Augustus was hailed as Rome’s hero and savior. He, no doubt, relished in these divine titles ascribed to his name. After all, wasn’t it true? He had delivered Rome from an age of bloodshed into an era of peace. Indeed, it’s no stretch of the imagination to conceive of Augustinian propaganda announcing that “peace and good-will toward men” had been achieved under Augustus’s rule.
I pray you can see, then, just how subversive and inflammatory Luke’s inspired record of Jesus’s birth really is. Rather than sing the praises of Rome’s peace-maker and the so-called “son of god,” he chooses to give particular and singular attention to a baby born to two peasants in the puny little village of Bethlehem. This is so precisely because in that backwoods town, in a feeding trough that served as a makeshift crib, lay the true Son of God, the “Savior, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10–11). The Incarnation, you see, is the heavenly invasion of this death-beaten world of darkness, against which no king can stand. Such is the intrinsic subversion of Jesus’s birth, which cuts the perennially prideful heart of man down to size. “Luke knows the meaning of Christmas,” Dale Ralph Davis avers: “Christmas is putting Caesar in his place” (44).
You see, when Augustus makes his notorious decree “that all the world should be taxed” (Luke 2:1), he did so with the conviction that he was the Lord, the Imperator of Rome. He was supreme. He was sovereign. He was the one before whom the world bowed. And yet, how beautiful is the irony of this passage. By issuing this decree to advance his governmental grip over the empire, unbeknownst to him, he was operating as a pawn in the government of the Triune God, who was through this measly census fulfilling his own divine decrees. When Joseph goes up out of Nazareth “unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem,” in accordance with Caesar’s word, it’s actually God’s Word that’s accomplished (Luke 2:4–7). The obedience of Joseph and Mary to Caesar is, therefore, the fulfillment of God’s prophetic Word, where we’re told that in “Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting” (Micah 5:2).
This, in my mind, is the finest example of man thinking and assuming he is asserting his power and might over the world, when, in fact, it is God’s will that is being perfectly executed. This is the ageless witness of history. The Lord of all is always accomplishing his purposes, always realizing his desired ends. “Not one promise has failed” is forever our testimony (Josh. 23:14). That’s how it is and how it always will be. For as much will-power as humanity imagines he has, he is not nearly as in control as he thinks he is. Not by a long shot! Let me give you a more modern example.
On September 6–8 in the year 2000, delegates traveled from every corner of the globe for what was known as, “The Millennium Summit,” a veritable who’s-who gathering of the world’s most influential leaders. Even though this wasn’t the first, this turn-of-the-century-summit heralded itself as the most significant gathering of the foremost geo-political dignitaries in modern history. Heads of State from every continent flew to the United Nations headquarters in New York City, where representatives appealed for world peace and disarmament, among other things. Declaration after declaration was heard in that assembly, with delegate after delegate offering their vision for how to bring an end to worldwide scarcity, disease, and war. By all accounts, the convention was a success, with a wide assortment of global leaders assembling in one hall to champion and co-sign a united cause against the global poverty crisis. Case in point, what is known as the “UN Millennium Declaration” was ratified during the summit, in which was outlined a detailed inventory and infrastructure of goals by which these so-called “united nations” would engage in “the fight for development for all the peoples of the world, the fight against poverty, ignorance and disease; the fight against injustice; the fight against violence, terror and crime; and the fight against the degradation and destruction of our common home,” to use their own words.
It isn’t complicated to ascertain what this summit was after. Despite all the amicable jargon, this bigwig convention was, for all intents and purposes, generally well-meaning, with global leaders seeking to realize and uphold the welfare of humanity. World peace and the struggles against global injustice are, in their own right, noble endgames. But what remains just as uncomplicated are the ways in which this summit failed. Nearly a year to the day, the worst international act of terror in American history would take place on American soil with the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. The same city that hosted world leaders at a summit to convene and pontificate about world peace also witnessed one of the cruelest terrorist attacks this world, let alone the United States, has ever seen. Pardon my cynicism, but there’s some terribly tragic irony in there, I do believe. For a summit of delegates who were so sure of themselves, leave it to hands far mightier than any in that UN meeting-room to sign-off on an event to starkly demonstrate just how insubordinate the world really is.
In the two decades since, evidence abounds that we are nowhere closer to ending the world hunger crisis or stopping the global outbreak of war or realizing world peace, all of which suggests that for all of mankind’s pomp and circumstance, he’s not as in control as he thinks he is. He is lord over nothing. Presidents and dignitaries can endorse as many treaties to establish peace as they want and ratify as many missions to end global poverty as they so desire, but, even still, this present darkness can’t be snuffed out by anything man himself sanctions. The oppressions of this world cannot be legislated out of existence, especially when those in legislative power are the ones doing the oppressing (Eccl. 4:1–3). Oppression and injustice “under the sun” is, according to the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, an inconsolable reality. It is not systemic, it is endemic, through sin’s reign in us. We, in and of ourselves, are powerless against it. That is an assignment far and away beyond our ken.
And I don’t mean to be the peddler of bad news. Indeed, I’ll be getting to the good part momentarily. Neither should you conceive this as some concession to the enemy. Indeed, rather, this is precisely the void that Christ came to fill. Prior to any reception of good news is the recognition that one’s present condition is, well, bad. For news to be considered “good,” it must penetrate circumstances that are dreadful, deplorable, and well-nigh hopeless. Otherwise, it’s just information. Such is what make’s the angel’s declaration in Luke 2 so earth-shattering. He says that he is the bearer of “good tidings of great joy.” And what, or Who, is the subject of these good tidings? None other than a “babe wrapped in swaddling clothes,” cradled in a feeding trough “in the city of David” (Luke 2:10–12). The angelic proclamation of “glory in the highest” was, indeed, a heavenly incendiary of glad albeit offensive tidings, presupposing not only that a Savior was necessary but that that Savior isn’t us. Ever since that night when a rag-tag bunch of shepherds became the world’s first evangelists, the gospel of God has carried with it an element of offense. Yes, indeed, they announce the arrival of the Savior, the One whom the angel says will “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). But, likewise, they denounce any ability of man to accomplish that end.
The tragedy of humanity is his stubborn insistence that such news isn’t true. That he doesn’t need a savior, he can save himself. That he doesn’t require a heaven-sent peace-maker, he can accomplish that through his own volition. And all of this despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary. An untold number of words have been written and dollars spent to advance manufactured declarations of peace. But despite what the bigwigs in Washington or Brussels or Amsterdam or Beijing would have you believe, there is a gloriously subversive work of God afoot. Just as it was in the days of Caesar Augustus. He, the ruler of Rome at that time, the one who reigned over one of the most powerful empires in the history of civilization, was but an afterthought in the workings of the Lord. The contrast couldn’t be more clear. The hope couldn’t be more apparent. The goings-on in capitols around this globe may, perhaps, effect change for countless individuals. But, regardless, there’s a work of God that, though unnoticed, sustains the sovereign redemption of all things.
God’s fingerprints, however, don’t make noise, so you’ll often find evidence of His presence at some later point as you look back and see the subtle traces of His work. It often seems so “natural” — like a decree for a census. But nothing should surprise you, if He’ll even stoop to using an emperor to carry out His plan of redemption. (45)
Such is what we celebrate every December. Christmas is a time of holy remembrance, in which we hear the familiar story of Baby Jesus lying in a manger, of Infinite God becoming Incarnate Man. We rejoice as we remember how the eternal Word of God “was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). How the One who is “before all things” and by whom “all things consist” took on skin and bone for us (Col. 1:17). We sit with friends and family to hear, once again, how our “Alpha and Omega” entered a world stricken with disease, disaster, and death in order to bring an end to such things. It is “the Lord’s Christ” who alone is the answer to all the evils “under the sun.” In him, disaster finds its remedy. In him, disease finds its cure. In him, death is put to death. He is not only “Israel’s consolation,” he is the world’s Comforter (Isa. 9:6–7) Whereas hope, salvation, and peace are realities which remain forever outside the bounds of anything man can legislate or countersign, the Lord of all can (and does) speak them into existence. “God himself,” writes Scottish Dissenter Horatius Bonar, “is both the speaker and the maker of peace” (7). In the language of Christmastide, hope, salvation, and peace are birthed into being with the arrival of the Lord’s Christ.
Horatius Bonar, Family Sermons (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1954).
Dale Ralph Davis, Luke 1–13: The Year of the Lord’s Favor (Ross-shire, England: Christian Focus, 2021).