The Ghost of 1st Christmas Present: 0 A.D.
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
December 7, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Isaiah 40: 1-11
Luke 2: 1-7
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
2 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 
So last week we took a look at the ancient world. The Ghost of Christmas Past came and whisked us through history, showing us a world that was formed around oppression and control. As the world, we took a look at ourselves in the past, before Christ, seeking to reveal how Christmas Day should change us, how we like Dickens', Ebenezer Scrooge, should find remorse, should find redemption, and should repent from those ways, but much like Scrooge the past is not enough for us. There are three spirits, and so this week we get visited by the Ghost of Christmas Present. He is going to show us what kind of world Jesus was born into. It is very much still a world of oppression for most. It is a world of Empire. It is a world dominated by Romans, at least in the little town of Bethlehem, and the country that surrounds it.
The Biblical account of Jesus' birth, especially that of Luke's Gospel, goes out of its way to make sure we know the exact historical timeframe for Jesus' life. Luke tells us who the emperor was, Augustus, and who the governor of Syria was, Quirinius. The Roman world is very much a character in the Christmas Story, just as it is a character in the Easter story. So it is the time of Augustus, but what was that like? Before we go there let's take a look at a little backstory.
In the Advent Study this past Tuesday, I introduced the group to an idea called by some historians, and first coined by the Philosopher Karl Jaspers' just 60+ years ago. Much like "The Renaissance" or "The Enlightenment" this "Axial Age" is a historian's description of a time period that seemed to fit into a category of idea. . . that there is a series of events and actions at the time that have enough of a common thread to warrant being thought of as a group, with a name. Axial, in this sense is a time where the world makes a pivot, like on an axis. The phenomenon that Jaspers was noticing was that most if not all of the Philosophies and Religions that have shaped the modern world, all found their origins in the same period of time, and that within this trend there are many common threads. If you've heard someone say that all religions are the same, with some minor details, you have an idea of what I'm talking about. Jaspers and others would say, though I don't completely agree that religions are the same, but I do agree, as they would say, that there are certainly many common threads. Jaspers noticed that between around 800 BC and 100 AD if you include Christianity, some date it to 200 B.C. Zoroastrianism in Persia, Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism in India, Taoism and Confucianism in China, The Prophets of The Old Testament, and The Greek Philosophers, like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and others all found their origins. And basically, not to go into too much detail and confuse you, this Axial Age marked a shift from the Conflict/Oppression Polytheistic religious ideas of the Ancient World, like we talked about last week, to a much more Ordered, some may call Monotheistic ideas that would shape our world. The big difference in seeing an Ordered World instead of a world shaped by conflict, is that you can study that world, that reason rather than might become a real method for discerning truth, and that truth is something that is connected to the Created Order of the Universe, rather than just determined by the most powerful. Political systems, Morality, and the natural patterns of the world were all starting to be seen as connected, and seekable through reason and revelation directly from God, rather than filtered. There is a common thread of these factors in all of those Religions and Philosophies, though they differ in some of the details, some large differences and some very small differences. I have been captivated recently by this idea. It is intriguing, especially if you see it as laying the framework for the coming of Christ, and the message that Jesus brings. There is a sense that God's Providence was working, laying that foundation. Could that be why those Wisemen come to seek out Jesus from the East? It's a cool idea.
I bring this up today, though, to show that there was more to the Ancient World, leading up to the Roman Empire than just the darkness we talked about last week. Out of the Political Philosophies of the so called Axial Age, came the Democracy of Athens, and the Roman Republic. The Roman Republic is important for us today because at the time of Jesus' birth it had just recently died, replaced by Imperial Rule. Augustus is the first Roman Emperor. He was the adopted heir of Julius Caesar. His original name was Octavius, and with Mark Antony, and Lepidus ruled Rome as a Triumvirate. Lepdus and Mark Antony were eventually dispatched, leaving Octavius, who renamed himself, Augustus, or the Great, and Caesar. Kings and Emperors alike throughout the future kingdoms of the world would follow his lead and use the term Caesar as a title, think Kaiser or Czar. The month of August is also named for him, as July is named for Julius Caesar, putting them both on par with the gods which make up the other names.
Augustus' rule marks a real golden Age in the Roman Empire. Some of the real influential works of the Roman Empire are coming to be. Virgil writes his Aeneid telling the legendary story of the founding of Rome out of the ashes of the Fall of Troy. Ovid writes his Metamorphoses, which is a retelling in Latin and Romanization of many Greek Myths. Though they are certainly very Polytheistic and Conflict oriented, there are some Axial Age influences, but there is much more ease in ruling through fear than through reason. This is something we should always remember. . . one of the points the Three Ghosts are seeking to communicate to us. . . This is the time of Aqueducts and Roads, great architectural and artistic advances. He once said, "I found a Rome of bricks, I left it a Rome of marble."
But possible the biggest irony about Jesus birth coming during the Reign of Augustus Caesar is that it is right in the heart of a period of history called the Pax Romana -- or the Roman Peace. How strange that during a time of supposed peace, there was such a need for a lowly carpenter's son from Nazareth to be born as the Son of God, and Prince of Peace. Augustus' reign, beginning with his defeat of Mark Antony at the Battle of Agrippa in B.C. 31 is known as the official beginning of the Pax Romana. It is amazing that a mere 31 years later Jesus is born. Perhaps the Roman Peace was not all it was cracked up to be, or more likely that peace for the Romans depended on a lack of peace for others. And that leads us to life in the Roman Province of Judea.
At the time of Jesus' birth the Romans had control and use of a puppet named Herod, who had sold out his people to become king. He has been described as "a madman who murdered his own family and a great many rabbis", "the evil genius of the Judean nation", "prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition" and "the greatest builder in Jewish history". He is known for his colossal building projects throughout Judea, including his expansion of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. But the Bible remembers him for his massacre of the Innocents in his attempt to find and put an end to the Birth of a Rival "King of the Jews." So with this kind of king in place, and the always practical Roman occupation you can imagine the oppression that was felt by the Jewish people. Though there were infrastructural improvements in the area, most poor Jews, did not get many of the benefits of them.
There is a great scene in Monty Python's "Life of Brian" movie, depicting some of the issues in Judea at the time of the birth of Christ. The movie shows many of these "Front" resistance groups. There is the Peoples front of Judea, and the Judean Peoples Front, and the popular front. All of them are in competition with each other as they resist the Romans. One of them says, "The only thing we hate worse than the Romans is the Judean Peoples Front. There is a part when Brian wants to join one of them, and the leader says, "If you want to join the PFJ, you have to really hate the Romans." Brian says, "I do," and the leader says, "O Yeah, How much?" "Alot","Okay, good you're in!" But after that they are debating how much they hate the Romans, and they are like, "What have the Romans ever done for us?" and one guy says, "Well there are the roads, and the water, and the schools, and the security." And the other guys is like, "yeah well, other than all those." "Nothing!" Progress is always a difficult thing isn't it?
Much like the PFJ and the JPF, there were many different classes of Jews at the time of Jesus' birth. There were the Sadducees and Pharisees, as we all know. There were also revolutionaries called Zealots, and also many diverse religious almost monastic communities, for instant the Essenes, which have become famous from the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls. All of them were waiting for a Messiah of some kind. And all of them had a different kind of Messiah in mind. You can imagine Jesus may not have fit their agendas so well. It is easy to imagine that many of them were seeking a conflict, powerful, and mighty challenge to the Roman oppression, someone to take the conflict, and let the Jews be on the winning team for once, someone to right the wrongs that the Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, Macedonians, Greeks, and Romans had all taken turns doing to them since the Exile from Jerusalem.
Instead, in the time of Caesar Augustus, to a Virgin betrothed to a Carpenter in Nazareth of all places, a place from where nothing good comes, a child is born, in a stable, in Bethlehem, because they could not even find room at the inn. It is hardly the military might, conquering, Empire shaking kind of Messiah most may have expected. No fanfare, just a star, no army just some shepherds. . . and some kings from the East. Is it possible that this child was bringing a much more Axial Age like era of connected truth to the world, one that was foretold by Isaiah and the other prophets, one that demands our worship, and care, and one that invites us, to open our hearts, to join hands, to come humbly, and to share a table. . . a simple table of Memory, remembrance, Remembrance of Christ, in his time, and forever.
The Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to the house of Bob Cratchit, poor, yet filled with love, having a meal together, and the sight begins to warm his heart. We now gather around the Communion Table, would the love that we have here assembled warm the heart of the world. God Bless us every one. May it be so. Amen.