December 25, 2017: Sermon by Deacon Benjamin Wetherill
Sing to the Lord with the harp, with the harp and the voice of song.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn shout with joy before the King, the Lord.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart bless you, Oh Lord, my Rock and my redeemer. Amen.
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” The timing of this registration has puzzled historians for years. You see, a census had been completed in B.C.E. 14 and another was not due until 20 years later. Was there really a registration around the birth of Christ and if so, why? Recent archeology has finally revealed evidence of a registration, when it occurred and why it was taken. 2 B.C.E. was the 2nd jubilee of the reign of Augustus. In its honor a requirement was decreed for all the Empire to reaffirm their oath of allegiance. This meant that everyone of royal blood was required to go to his or her birthplace and make an oath of allegiance to Augustus. To celebrate this jubilee the emperor had the whole Roman Empire award him the title Pater Patriae (Father of the Country). We have a record from Augustus that an Empire-wide registration took place in 3 B.C.E.
Augustus actually received his most prestigious title, the Pater Patriae, on February 5, 2 B.C.E. which was the Day of Concord on the Roman religious calendar. But in what legal way did Augustus obtain this title? In the Res Gestae, composed by Augustus himself, he wrote, “While I was administering my thirteenth consulship the senate and the equestrian order and the entire Roman people [italics mine] gave me the title Father of my Country.” At that time within the Empire there were over 4 million Roman citizens. For all of the citizenry to approve the bestowal of the Pater Patriae there must have been an Empire-wide accounting. Since Augustus was officially given the award in early 2 B.C.E., the registering of the citizens would have been decreed and begun to be carried out sometime in 3 B.C.E. In this universal registration of citizen approval regarding the “Fatherhood” of Augustus and the recognition of his Supreme authority, it would have been reasonable that all non-citizens in the Empire also gave some kind of recognition within that time. Since most people in Judaea and the Empire were not Roman citizens, Augustus could well have decreed in 3 B.C.E. that everyone should swear an oath of absolute obedience to him to accompany his majestic award as being “Father of the Country.” This would have been an appropriate gesture from all peoples in acknowledging their obedience to him by the time of his Jubilee Year of supreme power in 2 B.C.E.
God smiled. One of my theology professors also liked to study quantum physics. He theorized based on the writings of a monk, Saint Jerome, and his understanding of quantum physics that God dwells in that place in time where light reaches its full speed. At that point all time exists past, present, and future. My professor noted that if this were true then when we die we would immediately occupy our resurrected bodies and begin to dwell in the new earth and heaven. So imagine God considering the ultimate problem of his creation and the solution looking down on all of time and space. Ignoring that our current calendar miscalculates the birth of Jesus by as much as three years, God chose this time between 3 B.C.E. and 2 B.C.E. to bring His son into the world. Fulfilling prophesy that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, God used the celebration of Rome’s Emperor, Father of His Country, to bring into this world, the King of Kings and Lord of lords. Ever turning upside down human expectations God entered our world as a helpless infant at the same time that Augustus, the emperor of the greatest power on earth, was declaring his ultimate supremacy.
Does it seem that God does not care about what we think is appropriate and reasonable? At every step of the biblical story God turns upside what we think is possible or appropriate. He turns failure into victory, death into life. As H.A. Williams, an Anglican priest and monk, noted God seems to be continually poking fun at what humanity believes about Him saving the best joke of all, the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus for last. At every point of his life here on earth Jesus defied the world order and made fun of the spiritual authorities’ piety. Dead people were brought to life, diseases were healed, people were fed, boundaries were crossed, camels swallowed whole after passing through the eyes of needles, idlers received full pay, and disreputable sons were welcomed home with parties. God’s son, the ruler of the universe, arrived in the farthest corner of the greatest empire on earth, to be born quietly in a stable, at the exact point in time that the emperor was declaring himself supreme ruler of the world.
God stepped from beyond all time and space into history. “And he said to me, “it is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” Have you ever experienced something so horrible or so wonderful that it seemed like a dream and yet, as you took a deep breath, you realized that it was real? It had happened and nothing would ever be the same and it could not be undone. That is the nature of history. Time can make things disappear for a period or hide them in the sand but people lived and died and events happened. Like you and me Jesus was born as a baby and will never come in that way again. Like each of us will eventually, Jesus died once for all time. And like we will, Jesus was raised from the dead. He now sits on His throne in heaven and nothing will ever be the same again.
He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. Like Caesar Augustus, Jesus is a king due obedience and honor. We declare that it is appropriate to give Him our praise and glory. Yet, He is not a king like rulers here on earth. Jesus was born and died on a cross so that we could be reconciled to God the Father and become sons and daughters too. Augustus would not share his glory with anyone but Jesus willingly shares His. “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” Each one of us will receive a crown someday and be given a room in God’s mansion. Like Jesus we will have a place in heaven that is just above the angels. Like Jesus we will live forever and there will be no more tears or suffering.
On a night long ago the ruler of the universe chose to announce himself not in power with an army and pomp and circumstance but through the cry of a baby, a small candle flickering in the dark. If Jesus is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being are we ready to put aside our expectations of what we think power and authority should like and instead learn to be like him? Are we ready to let go of our control and gain everything? On that night something wonderful happened and it is not a dream. It is as real as the softness of a babies skin, the sweetness of a babies smell and as joyful as a babies laugh. May the reality of Jesus’ birth prepare us for his inevitable return. Like that night long ago Jesus will return at that moment that seems least likely but will be most providential. May he find us joyfully sharing his love in a world grown stuffy with its own self-importance and perhaps join in the irresistible laughter, wonder and joy that is God’s kingdom.