For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6
In the year 27 B.C. Caesar Augustus achieved what no ruler in the previous two hundred years had accomplished; bringing peace to the Roman Empire. The Pax Romana (Peace of Rome) was considered by many to be a ‘miracle’, for at no point in ancient history had there been such an extended period free from conflict. Caesar Augustus was the hope of the Roman world. Under his rule the Empire flourished politically, socially, and economically.
The Roman Empire may have been free from the horrors of warfare, but that did not mean that his subjects were free from suffering. Peace was only guaranteed as long as the people conformed to the values of the Empire. Augustus may have brought peace, but it was a false peace that came at a great cost. This cost was crippling taxes, poor wages, high rental rates and the brutal Roman justice for any rebel and criminal – crucifixion.
As Caesar, Augustus was the most powerful person on the planet. Luke 2:1-3 records that at the time of Jesus’ birth, Augustus ordered a census of the entire Roman world, and in response every citizen went to their home towns to be registered. The purpose of Augustus’ census was to highlight his power. The results of the census would enable him to tax the people more efficiently, draft them into army service more easily and reinforce his sovereignty more completely.
However, from his throne room in Rome, Augustus would never have imagined that his decree would be the catalyst for the birth of a rival king; a king that could actually bring peace not just to the Roman Empire, but to the entire world. Augustus never would have imagined that 2000 kms from Rome, as a poor insignificant couple expecting a child made the journey to Bethlehem, their son would turn the empire and the world upside down.
The birth of Jesus presents us with two rival kingdoms. One kingdom, found in the halls of Rome where true power was believed to be able to exert influence across the Empire from the edges of the Mediterranean to the wilds of Britain; that true power was able to quash rebellions and punish criminals; that true power was found in wealth and material possessions. Instead, true power is found in the king who was wrapped in swaddling cloth and laid in a manger.
As humans we crave a number of physiological, social, esteem, and security needs. We are seeking for our own Pax Romana, for none of us want to be trapped in a world where danger lurks, where security and safety are not guaranteed. In such situations we seek every available means to find our slice of peace and paradise. The world offers us ‘peace’ but it is ultimately a false peace, for no ruler, no job, no amount of earthly power we possess can bring the peace that all of us long for.
What the Christmas narrative reminds us is that our deepest need for peace is met in a king whose kingdom is not of this world; in a kingdom that is not built upon human strength and might, but weakness and suffering.
We are so overfamiliar with the Christmas narrative that we miss the significance of declaring Jesus as King in the ancient world. It is this designation that makes him the target of Herod’s wrath, it is this designation that resulted in his death and it is this designation that resulted in the suffering and persecution of his followers. For in declaring that Jesus is Lord, both the shepherds and the Magi that worshipped Jesus Christ were committing treason against Caesar who was supposed to be the only king and Lord.
As we reflect on this Christmas season we should use it as an opportunity to take stock of the things that we consider to be king over us. Let us look away from the ‘palace of Rome’, all the items that we use to ensure our personal Pax Romana, commit treason against them and declare that Jesus is Lord. In doing this we are submitting our lives to God’s alternate kingdom, a kingdom that is not characterised by power, might or pride, but by humility and service, and in doing so experience the peace and security we are all seeking.