From December 24, 2018
By Rev. Shawn Coons
Most people are familiar with “the Christmas story.” The virgin Mary miraculously pregnant, Joseph and Mary going to Bethlehem, staying in a manger to give birth to Jesus, angels, shepherds, wise men.
But there is a second story told alongside the Christmas story in the Bible. And this is not a story of humble beginnings or unimportant people. It is Caesar’s story, and though it often quietly goes unnoticed by Christians at this time of year, for the Jewish people of Israel 2000 years ago the story of Caesar was loud and ever present.
Paul Bellan-Boyer writes about it this way:
“there is this little bitty baby...
If it were up to Caesar, you would never hear his story. Nothing in it is exalted. The poor travelers have no family, connections, or money to give them a place. They carry only a swollen belly of questionable paternity. The newborn’s cradle is gilded with leftover hay and livestock spittle. The witnesses to this glory are the least reputable characters around, shepherds who, filled with angel visions, abandon their flocks.
If it were up to Caesar, you would not dare to: think of responsibilities to any Lord other than Caesar; glorify any Lord other than Caesar; even hint at challenging Caesar’s authority.
If it were up to Caesar, the tables of the powerful would never be overturned. When Caesar hears a story like this, he knows only to crush it, to crucify it. Yet in the starlight of those Palestinian hills and in the candlelight of a midnight Mass, we can glimpse a new reality: where peace comes not from armies, but from justice; where sin withers in the face of truth; where mercy rules the arena of human society; and where love conquers fear.”
Where love conquers fear. The story of Christmas is a story of love. The story of Caesar is a story of fear. All Caesars rule by fear. Fear of danger, fear of people of different races or religions, fear of losing your privilege. But as we heard Mark read a moment ago, love casts out fear. And love came to us powerfully 2000 years ago to cast out fear once and for all.
For this morning’s gospel lesson, we are going to pick up the Christmas story right after the birth of Jesus. When a host of angels visits a ragtag bunch of shepherds. Pay attention to the first words the angels speak to the shepherds.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.
Layton Williams writes:
“Don’t be afraid.” That is always the first thing that comes out of an angel’s mouth. Don’t be afraid. Be ye not afraid. Do not fear. Fear not. However you translate it, angel voices always issue the holy invitation to lean into courage rather than to give into fear.
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God,” the angel Gabriel promised that young, engaged yet unmarried, peasant girl named Mary…In the Gospel of Matthew, the angel delivered that “do not be afraid” message to Joseph, as he dreamt…
The shepherds heard those words as well. There they were, minding their own business, watching their sheep, just doing their jobs when suddenly, brightness broke out all around them and angels appeared.
Don’t be afraid, an angel called. And then the angel told the shepherds of the birth. A birth that was to be good news of great joy for all the people. And the shepherds, like Mary, like Joseph, decided to lean into courage rather than to give into fear. They immediately took off to see what they would find. But again, the first words from holy mouths: Don’t be afraid.
It’s sometimes assumed that the angels are saying “don’t be afraid” because the presence of an angel, a divine and powerful messenger from God, is fear inducing. That may or may not be the case, but I would suggest that Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds all had reason to be fearful before the angels ever came to them.
As Jewish people living in Israel in the first century, Mary, Joseph and the shepherds were all living under Roman occupation. They were living under the rule of Caesar. And Caesar ruled by power and fear. And this Christmas story is set in the shadow of Caesar, from the start, the author of Luke sets up two narratives, with two saviors.
In the first verse of chapter 2 we heard about a census declared by Emperor Augustus, when Quirinius was governor. Caesar Augustus was the winner of the Roman civil war. He was Octavian, the nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar. Octavian formed an alliance with Mark Antony to rise to power.
Octavian and his ally, Mark Antony, had their inevitable falling out, and went to war against each other. Octavian defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra, and ended the Roman Civil War. Octavian--now Caesar Augustus--was given credit for ending thirteen years of chaos. Many called him "the savior of the world."
So when the angel’s came to the shepherds to announce that a savior is born, this is the author of Luke’s way of saying “Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not.” And it is in this moment, when the angels come to the shepherds, that Jesus’ kingdom is being defined in contrast to Caesar’s.
The first people that are told of the birth of Jesus are not the important people mentioned in verse 1. No Emperors, or governors here. Just shepherds. And shepherds are kind of sketchy people in that day and age. One commentator writes:
While shepherds could be romanticized (as was King David), they were usually ranked with ass drivers, tanners, sailors, butchers, camel drivers, and other despised occupations. Being away from home at night they were unable to protect their women, hence considered dishonorable. In addition, they often were considered thieves because they grazed their flocks on other people's property.
But they are the first recipients of the good news that a savior has come. A true savior.
Maybe they were chosen to receive the good news because they would be the most receptive? Maybe it is those who are lowest and most despised who need a savior the most? And maybe they are also the ones who need to hear “Don’t be afraid” the most as well. Living on the margins of society, living in a vulnerable position, one day or loss away from losing it all. That puts a person in a constant state of stress and fear. Never knowing if today is the day that what little you have gets taken from you.
But the shepherds respond in the best way possible. They go with haste and joy to see the newborn Jesus, but notice what they do before they go. The Bible records them discussing what’s taken place with one another. They decide as a group. The first signs of the new kingdom show us that this is not a top-down system ruled by a Caesar, but a kingdom where all voices are heard and valued, and no one should be afraid.
Fear was a reality 2000 years ago, and it’s a reality for us today. So much of what goes on around us seems to be driven by fear. A quick check of today’s headlines gives us plenty to fear. Powerful corporations taking away our choices, nuclear war, refugees and immigrants, other races, other religions, stagnant wages, crime on the streets, politicians run amok, global warming.
Even our own Christian faith is not a stranger to lifting up fear. Leonard Sweet has said that too often religion spreads fear so that it can sell hope. Have you ever seen a Christian street preacher? The ones I have most often seen are the ones yelling loudly about sin, hell, and what happens to you if you don’t believe in Jesus. They sometimes have signs with horrible things written on them in big blocky capital letters. God hates this kind of person, or You will burn in hell.
That’s faith by fear. Believe in God or else. That’s a threat.
But that’s not what the Christmas story is about. Caesar’s story is about fear. Fear is the tool of those that oppose God. Unfortunately, it works too often. It’s much easier to appeal to someone’s worst fears then their best aspirations. But easier is not better. And we believe in a God that chooses the best way and not the easy way.
The Christmas story is about love. The kind of love that casts out fear.
So friends, despite whatever else we hear out there, as followers of Jesus, we are invited, called, challenged to be not afraid. To fear not. For we have seen the face of our God and know the incomprehensible depth of God’s love. May we all go from this time of worship, from this Christmas Eve, deciding to lean into courage rather than to give into fear, trusting that God is still at work in this world and even at work in and through us.
Just imagine what could happen in our lives and in this world if we all decided to heed the angels’ voices and to not be afraid anymore.